Revealing The Invisible

Infrared photography opens the door to a new way of seeing
Infrared image of the entrance to Angkor Thom.

Entrance to Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia, 2020. 590nm infrared. Canon EOS R, Canon RF 24-105mm F4 L IS USM at 47mm. Exposure: 1/1600 sec., ƒ/7.1, ISO 400.

I fell in love with photography in 1974—or, more to the point, I became infatuated with working in the darkroom. My images were not anywhere near special, but I spent hours in a cloud of toxic fumes and vapors, watching the alchemy of images emerge from blank pieces of paper. I felt like a magician. Anyone who has worked in a darkroom knows that feeling well. But I abandoned my darkroom in the mid 1980s for color transparency film, the choice for a working magazine professional at that time. Now, like most of us, I use digital cameras and work in the “grayroom” (yes, my studio walls are painted 18 percent gray). I still feel as if I’m creating magic, only now it’s on a computer screen. “A little bit of saturation here, some burning and dodging there, a bit more contrast overall.”

From the start, I led a peripatetic life, working as a mountain and river-rafting guide in the U.S., which progressed to guiding treks and private expeditions to places like Nepal, Bhutan, China, central Asia—you name it. From there, I was propelled into the life of a full-time photographer. Travel and photography became my passion, one intertwined with the other. I have always chosen places that make me a bit uneasy, places that challenge me. I have the same philosophy for my photography—to grow as an artist, I can’t rely on a previous moment of inspiration. I want to work at the edge of my comfort level, at the moment between competence and risk.

Inherently, photography is much more difficult than it appears at first. As one delves further into the depths of creating new and evocative images, it is clear that what seemed deceptively simple to photograph was maddingly difficult to render in an image. With the advent of high-resolution digital cameras and sophisticated processing, there is not an “Everest” in creative photography. But it sure is fun climbing this photographic mountain.

Infrared image of a camel herder in Mongolia.

Camel herder, Gobi Desert, Mongolia, 2019. 590nm infrared with blue/red channel swap. Canon EOS R, Canon RF 24-105mm F4 L IS USM at 105mm. Exposure: 1/800 sec., ƒ/7.,1 ISO 640.

I have been at home (like most of us) since last March, when my nomadic feet came to an abrupt halt. I uncovered my printer, brushed up on my Photoshop skills, and returned to my first artistic love: printing. More specifically, to make prints from my ongoing creative passion of experimenting with infrared light. I feel the same magic today as I did watching my images emerge in the darkroom trays, although now they come from a printer. For the past 15 years, I have received the creative challenge I crave from photographing the world in infrared light, and sometimes I get results that resonate deep within me.

Stepping Into Invisible Light

In my darkroom days, I wasn’t yet acquainted with black-and-white infrared negative film. My first infrared experience was in 1997 with Kodak Ektachrome Infrared (EIR) 200 transparency film. It had wacky colors and deep contrast and was uber sensitive to light. If I opened its canister without proper precautions, the film was ruined. But I used it through 2003 before going 100 percent digital in 2004. While I loved it, I could not find a commercial use for it. Travel magazines were just not interested in the kooky look of EIR in those years.

The iridescent world of the infrared spectrum has a longer wavelength than visible light and is just beyond the range that we humans can detect with our eyesight. A typical human eye responds to, or “sees,” wavelengths from about 380 nanometers (violet) to 740 nanometers (red). However, digital camera sensors have a wider frequency range and thus are sensitive to infrared light. Therefore, it is necessary to place a filter in front of the sensor, preventing intrusive infrared light from interfering with our color photographs.

Infrared image of a camel trader in India.

Camel trader, Puskar Fair, Rajasthan, India, 2010. 720nm infrared. Canon EOS 5D, Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM at 24mm. Exposure: 1/60 sec., ƒ/7.1, ISO 800.

In 2007, I learned that it was possible to remove that filter and replace it with one that allowed only near-infrared light. There are numerous companies that can do this kind of conversion. I sent my old, big heavy clunker of a camera, a Canon EOS-1Ds, to LifePixel (lifepixel.com) with the instruction, “Make it so!”

I began photographing light I could not see falling on a subject that was readily visible—quick-decision photography with an unseen twist.

It wasn’t easy. First, I had to choose what infrared wavelength I wanted to cozy up to my sensor. The infrared spectrum is vast. For photographic purposes, it ranges from “Super Color” 590nm (the closest to visible light, so the most infiltrated with red) to black-and-white 830-900nm. For over a decade, I photographed mainly with a 720nm infrared filter over my sensor—not too much false color and not too close to traditional black-and-white. The result was a surreal image with a bit of color, usually shades of blues with occasional magenta, and tan-amber skies. Then I dabbled, first with a 665nm conversion that gave me more false color and now primarily with 590nm infrared light that incorporates even more vivid colors.

Infrared In Practice

Photographing infrared light demands different decisions from photographing with visible light. The sun is the primary source of near-infrared light; thus, the best infrared photographs tend to be created in direct sunlight or in bright, open shade.

Infrared photo of a horse in Chile.

Moai & horse, Ahu Tahai, Easter Island, Chile, 2018. 590nm infrared. Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, Olympus M.Zuiko ED 12-40mm f2.8 PRO at 40mm (80mm equivalent). Exposure: 1/100 sec., ƒ/7.1 ISO 320.

Often people mistakenly think, “I can photograph all times of the day!” No, the same dynamic range issues with digital color exist with digital infrared. Plus, the subtlest shadows are enhanced and give up more detail. It’s also difficult to predict the colors that emerge from infrared photography, as colors are determined by the reflection and absorption of light, as well as by the difference in the temperature of an object and its environment. Skin tones are usually pale and unblemished. Eye color changes. Foliage appears white and lustrous. Sometimes you can see revealing details under certain fabrics, details that otherwise would go unseen in ordinary visible light.

Most photographers use infrared for images of landscapes, mainly because trees look so darn wonderful in glowing white. There isn’t a palm tree alive—or even almost dead—that doesn’t look spectacular in an infrared image. I, however, primarily photograph people, sometimes portraits but mostly serendipitous, found images. I crop, but ever so sparingly, and sometimes not at all, and I never change any content, not even an unwanted wire. None.

It is possible to avoid having a camera converted and to use a filter instead to block the visible light from your sensor (usually a Hoya R72 or Wratten 89B), but the filter is dark, losing approximately eight stops of light, so it becomes necessary to use a tripod for exposures that can last up to 30 seconds. I don’t often use a tripod, and my subjects are usually people and action. It is also very difficult to focus with these filters because the viewfinder becomes virtually opaque.

Photo taken in Namibia's iconic Deadvlei.

Trees and dunes, Deadvlei, Sossusvlei, Namibia, 2018. 590nm infrared. Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, Olympus M.Zuiko ED 40-150mm f2.8 PRO at 62mm (124mm equivalent). Exposure: 1/100 sec., ƒ/10, ISO 200.

Focusing Infrared

Infrared light has a longer wavelength, coming into focus at a different point than visible light. Therefore, it is difficult to predict exactly where the focal point will be in an image using a DSLR camera since they are calibrated to focus on visible light. It’s possible to focus accurately in Live View using your camera’s LCD, but that is difficult to do in fast-moving situations. You can send in your lens with the camera and have it calibrated to one of the focal lengths. In other words, you can send in a 24-70mm lens and have it calibrated at 35mm; the rest of the focal lengths will be close (but not exact). I used to set my aperture to ƒ/8 and leave it there, sometimes bracketing the focus but mostly hoping and praying for the correct focus.

With mirrorless cameras, I am able to accurately set the focus at all apertures since they focus directly on the sensor. That also means I can see the infrared result through the viewfinder (which is not possible with a DSLR), and I can use the camera’s histogram. These are huge pluses for working with infrared light.

I have converted many cameras over the past 15 years. I rapidly moved through a series of Canon cameras, starting with the EOS-1Ds in 2007 to finally the EOS 5D Mark III. Most all were Standard 720nm conversions, but I did convert a 5D camera to Color Enhanced 665nm. In 2014, I began using the smaller, mirrorless Olympus OM-D cameras in both a 720nm and also 665nm. I briefly tried a Sony a7R II in 2016 with 720nm. It’s a great camera, but the lenses they had at that time had terrible hot spots with infrared light (not an issue now). So, the next year, I returned to Olympus, converting an OM-D EM-1 Mark II to a Super Color 590nm conversion.

Infrared image of Moai statues.

Moai statues, Ahu Tahai, Easter Island, Chile, 2020. 590nm infrared. Canon EOS R, Canon RF 24-105mm F4 L IS USM at 24mm. Exposure: 1/500 sec., ƒ/7.1, ISO 200.

Since I am printing large-sized images, I decided that I wanted a larger sensor with more resolution, so as of 2019, I am now back to Canon cameras for infrared. I converted a Canon EOS R mirrorless to Full Spectrum, primarily using a 590nm filter. Full Spectrum conversions allow the camera sensor to see the entire range of wavelengths to which it is naturally sensitive; it is therefore necessary to put a filter on your lens to block out all the wavelengths you do not wish to record. It is convenient because I can work with many different nanometers, but it does require using filters on your lens, which is OK for mirrorless but not a DSLR, as you come back to the problem of having to view your subject through an opaque filter as I described above.

Lenses, Coatings & Color Balance

In addition to understanding how different cameras and sensors manage infrared light, the quality of your image also depends on the characteristics of the lens. Lens coatings are not designed for infrared light, so almost any lens will exhibit more flare and ghosting at infrared wavelengths compared to when they are used to capture visible light. Unique to IR photography is the phenomena of “hot spots” that can be mild or create a big white hole in your image, a result of internal reflections within the lens produced by the lens’ coatings.

Some types of coating are not transparent to infrared wavelengths, so it’s necessary to make a custom white balance for your converted IR camera. I usually use a white sheet of paper in direct sunlight. Some people like to use green foliage or a gray card. I say try all three. Unfortunately, most editing programs, Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, in particular, cannot read a custom profile for a RAW infrared image, as the temperature range is beyond these programs. Since the image on the back of your camera actually displays a JPEG of your RAW image with the custom white balance, it looks ideal there, but as soon as you bring it into Lightroom or another program, it pops to a wild magenta, orange or brown. I’ve found that a lot of people get flustered at this point and elect to solve the magenta problem by turning their IR images into black-and-white images. They then miss out on the subtle colors inherent in an infrared image.

Image of rhinos in India.

Great one-horned rhinoceroses, Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India, 2010. 720nm infrared with blue/red channel swap. Canon EOS 5D, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM at 235mm. Exposure: 1/800 sec., ƒ/8, ISO 1250.

It is possible to extend the temperature range beyond 2000 Kelvin by using Adobe DNG Profile Editor, a free program that creates a profile for your infrared camera usable in Lightroom or Photoshop. (The profile is installed in the software’s Profile Browser.) Black-and-White 850nm or Standard 720nm infrared images look very closely like what you see on the back of your camera or through a mirrorless camera’s EVF. However, the profiles become more problematic with the color-saturated conversions, such as Enhanced 665nm and Super Color 590nm. For these images, I often will use the proprietary RAW processing programs offered by the camera’s manufacturer, such as Canon’s Digital Photo Professional or the Olympus Workspace, as they can read the custom white balance correctly.

Knowing what might or might not work with IR and understanding your camera and lens are only part of the calculation. Processing and printing an infrared image require a deft understanding of your processing programs, particularly with the fiercer 590nm conversion. Making an image in infrared light is one-third knowing what and how to photograph within the frame and two-thirds having the processing expertise that comes only with practice. Sometimes an image is not truly revealed until post-processing.

Embracing The Unpredictable

There is a lot to learn starting out with infrared photography, but the fun factor more than makes up for the effort. I carry two cameras when I travel, one for visible light and the other for infrared photography. Yes, I’ve upped the ante and the challenge for myself. Sometimes in fast-moving situations, I have to choose which camera I’ll use quickly. So, that is the fun of IR: I still am not completely sure if it is going to work powerfully—or flop. I definitely have many more “misses” with my IR camera. It’s one of the reasons I love infrared; it is not 100 percent predictable.

  • Infrared is full of unknowns and surprises. Prepare to be disappointed with most of your images. Sad, yet true.
  • Try to use the best camera you can for Infrared; otherwise, the results might truly discourage you.
  • If your converted camera is a DSLR, you may not be able to use some of your favorite lenses.
  • Plan on discovering soft images, inaccurate focusing, flare issues and hotspots.
  • Expect to pay more attention to exposure than you normally do with RAW images.
  • Schedule spending more time at the computer. Infrared images demand more post-processing.
  • Prepare to be inspired by the unknown and unexpected.
Image of prayer flags in Suru Valley, India.

Suru Valley prayer flags, Ladakh, India, 2016. 665nm infrared. Sony a7R II,
Sony Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70 mm F4 ZA OSS at 24mm. Exposure: 1/25 sec., ƒ/18, ISO 100, with flash.

Whether you choose to photograph in black-and-white infrared, the more intense and colorful 590nm or one of the many other options, the world of infrared opens up a portal into a new way of seeing. The resulting photographs are truly images in a different light. What is invisible becomes art, revealed. 


Learn more on the subject by taking one of Nevada Wier’s Introduction to Infrared seminars. For information, visit nevadawier.com.