Seeing Red

No, I’m not pissed off. It’s a more literal thing.

And even to say I’ve literally been seeing red of late is only a half truth; the red I’m focused on is a red you can’t even see. But I’ll show it to you anyway.

Still confused?

It’s infrared.

As we wander through our daily lives, we see the world in what seems a vast array of light and colors, thinking little beyond what we see with our naked eyes. But that world is limited to the visible spectrum, a tiny fragment (less than one 1 tenth of 1%) of the total electromagnetic spectrum. What lies beyond?

Remember ROYGBIV, that acronym from high school science for the visible spectrum? Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet. Just across the border from red lives near infrared (IR). It hides there, in clear sight – if you have eyes for it. For years, cameras have been able to see it, using special methods. For most photographers it’s an afterthought, an oddity only good for weird results. The era of color infrared film likely contributed to this idea with the strange colors it rendered, suitable for funky posters and Acid Rock album covers – but not much else.

But I was curious. I’d seen more recent infrared shots that while still unusual, were not the garish red mess I first encountered years ago.

I have an old digital camera, a Nikon D5000 that was current about 10 years ago. I’ve upgraded a couple times since then, and the D5000 has spent the last 4-5 years doing little but collecting dust and losing value. When considering whether it was worth trying to sell, an alternative notion came to mind. Why not convert it to infrared? After doing my usual excessive research (old systems analysts die hard) I opted to bite the bullet. Although the cost of conversion was more than the old camera was worth, it was still less than the cost of a new lens.

You may think infrared = thermal imaging, blobs of multicolored heat bearing shapes moving through a blurry background. While that’s true, it’s not the style of infrared that you can capture with your garden variety digital camera. Digital camera sensors capture light from around 300nm (nanometers) to 1000nm – a bit into ultraviolet and a bit into infrared. Thermal imaging occurs well beyond that. So, while we’re opening our “eyes” wider, we’re only seeing a little more – and a lot less.

Here’s the deal. Although camera sensors can “see” from near ultraviolet into near infrared, camera manufacturers don’t want the UV and IR light data affecting the visible light data, it skews the colors. So, they put a filter over the sensor to block the UV and IR light from coming through. (Mostly.) This helps the camera see the world the same way you do.

But if we just want to see the part of the world that reflects infrared light, we need to block out the UV and visible light portion. This is how I can show you what you can’t see – because I can show you what the camera sees that you can’t.


Ok, I lied.

Sort of. When they pull off the standard filter, there are options for the replacement filter that control what part of the spectrum gets passed through. I picked a filter that passes light from 590nm on, i.e. from darker orange through red and into near infrared. (See the diagram above.) Colors below that are blocked. Letting some visible light through along with the near infrared gives more flexibility when editing colors. So while I will show some of what you can’t normally see, it’ll include some things you can.

Turned on its head, of course. I mean, let’s get real. How do I show you the unshowable, buried in a sea of red, and make it look good? How do I get from something like this…

… to something like this?

Aggressive photo editing, of course. (aka, magic.)


But what does infrared light look like?

It doesn’t really “look” like anything – it’s outside the realm of normal sight and color. At best, it’s luminance only the camera can see; black and white, an eerie representation from an unseen world. Foliage can’t use it, it kicks it back like riffraff at the country club door. Cumulous clouds light up like a kid on her first date. Water drinks it in and gives nothing back. Skies, near the sun are light, pointing away are dark. Dramatically dark, given a little encouragement. Buildings, tree bark, and inanimate objects seem to reflect IR much the same as visible light. Bright days work well; when that class of landscape photographer who shoots only in soft morning and evening light hang up their cameras during the harsh midday light, IR photographers load up for bear.

Of course, this is somewhat hearsay. I haven’t been doing this very long and have limited direct experience.

Color, in color infrared, is as false as a QAnon newscast.

Consider that first shot, bathed in red. That is what a picture from the 590nm filter looks like, uncorrected for white balance, using normal daylight settings.

Even with a custom white balance set in camera, the results look similar to a standard color film negative.

It occurs to me that some of you may have no idea what “white balance” means. Remember back in the film days when you’d take a picture indoors in the evening, no flash, with the only light coming from incandescent light bulbs? They came out looking kind of orange. Digital cameras can recognize hues like that, or what might come from florescent lights, or deep shade, and automatically correct for them by shifting the “white balance.” This is also why your digital camera may not show the brilliant oranges you thought you saw in a sunset. It doesn’t know it’s a sunset and it shifted the colors. (Pro tip: for sunsets, set the white balance on your camera to daylight to keep the oranges.)

Cameras were never built to make big enough white balance shifts to correct for a 590nm IR filter. Even a certain famous photo editing tool can’t hack it without help. I use ON1 Photo RAW and it can hack it, used correctly.

Still looks like a negative? Let’s turn it on its head. We’ll swap reds to look like blues, and blues to look like reds.

And from here, we just give the hues a little shove one way or the other until we find something that looks more pleasing, like that azure sky version further above. It’s all fake, of course, not unlike certain other topics shifted around to please the gullible…

But to tell the truth, my primary interest in getting into IR wasn’t the colors. It was for black and white.

In black and white IR, things that reflect IR light most strongly show up as white, giving an almost snowy look. Typically, this is the parts of plants that use photosynthesis (leaves, grass, etc) – they love to absorb visible light (except green, they bounce that back at ‘cha), but IR light is photona non grata. Skies and water come up dark. The contrasts can be dramatic. With deeper infrared filters that effect can be even more pronounced, as no visible light or color contributes and contrast is stronger. Different camera sensors react differently as well, your mileage may vary.

It’s not strictly necessary to have a camera converted to do infrared photography. You can buy IR filters and mount them externally on your lens. But because the in camera anti-infrared filter is still in place, you’ll need to depend on what little IR light leaks past it and that can make for long exposures – you’ll need a tripod and trial and error.


Enough babbling. I doubt you came here for a primer on infrared photography – you’re probably more interested in the pictures. So here are more samples from around the neighborhood.

Normally, the leaves are green and the flower is red. In IR there is little difference for this plant (Camilia).
For other flowers, the difference can be more pronounced. But it seems like that’s more the exception than the rule. (The exceptions are more interesting.)

With my setup, after I’ve shifted white balance, swapped blue and red, and tweaked hues a bit, foliage often comes out a sort of peach/salmon color. Depending on what I want to do I may emphasise that, desaturate it towards white, or shove it towards yellow or red. I may try them all. We’re in mad doctor territory here…

Rhododendron

This is what you might typically think of for color infrared. Not really my thing.

So, what do you think? Is infrared just too weird for your tastes? Do you think it’s cool? Would you like to see more?

I’m not quitting visible light photography. All my best gear swings that way, and for travel photography I’m not likely to bring the extra camera unless I have a really good reason for it. Just the same, IR has given new life to an old camera, and provides a new direction to take for what would normally be boring old images.

35 thoughts on “Seeing Red

  1. I vote cool. The shot of daisies, for example, is a real standout, the flowers really jump out at the viewer. Which is unusual behavior for daisies, usually pretty docile and tame. And the final shots with a black background, have a great surreal look, but the beauty of the trees is what comes through, rather than just weirdness.
    I assume you’re wearing a white lab coat and mess up your hair, when you go around taking these shots, to help get into the mad scientist vibe. Very cool experiments.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe those daisies were seeing red too. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      I don’t have a white lab coat, but I’m good at messed up hair. Very fine; every time a light breeze comes along, any notion of a part goes sideways.

      I’ll be curious to see where I go with this. I’m not sure how excited I am about carrying two cameras around, I’ve already got “camera nerd” stapled to my shoulder with one.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is cool. I like it and you explained this subject very well with pictures to illustrate. You also give a new life to old cameras that may be collecting dust. They have more of sentimental values than monetary value to sell them off. Cool!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If it wasn’t for that old camera gathering dust I doubt I’d have gone down this path either. But it’ll be interesting to see where it leads.

      Besides, I have a quota. To have too many interests you need to keep adding to them when old ones drop off. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  3. No, I didn’t come to this site for a primer on photography. I come because you always have something interesting to say or show Dave.
    Both text and photos were interesting. Now let’s see if I can remember the tip on sunsets to a time when I can actually use it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Another option for sunsets is to use the Shade white balance setting. Shade is bluish, so the correction pushes the colors towards yellow to compensate. That adds even more warmth to the picture. (Maybe too much?) Experiment with it up front, so when the time comes you’ll be ready for it.

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  4. The first time I read anything about IR, it was in an article about the ‘invisible’ markers flowers use to attract pollinators: little ‘highways’ that invite them into the flower. What we can’t see, the bees, flies, and such can; it’s a neat, natural trick.

    I usually prefer color over black and white, but in this instance I prefer the black and white over the color. It’s all interesting (especially the tip about the sunsets), and I hope the experimentation provides a lot of pleasure. Me? I’m still trying to figure out how to improve hand-held photography with a basic camera!

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    1. I’ve read about that bug thing too. It might be even more pronounced on the UV side.

      Another white balance setting to try on sunsets would be shade or cloudy; those actually add more yellow to what you already see.

      I think you do very well with the hand-held, basic camera. But we all should keep trying to improve. I, for example, need to spend more time in the field instead of just reading about things.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love all the different versions of the original photo! And thank you for the white-balance-at-sunset tip. I struggle so much to capture the magnificent colors in a sunset that I’ve basically given up trying and turn to my trusty Pixel camera instead…which does a far better job.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s interesting how cell phones have better automated post-processing software than fancy dedicated cameras. On the one hand they have to, in order to make up for the smaller sensors and less savvy typical user. On the other, I expect the dedicated camera makers to up their game there, as they’re losing a lot of business to the cell phone makers. (Hey editor type, I just noticed three variations of “there” in a sentence. Did I do it right? ๐Ÿ™‚ )

      For what it’s worth, you could also try cloudy or shade white balance on your sunrise/set pics – that’ll add even more yellows. Just remember to reset it when you’re done.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry about the techie stuff. Old techies die as hard as old systems analysts. I was kind of concerned about leading with it in this “TLDR: too long, didn’t read” age. Thanks for sticking around for the more interesting pictures.

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    1. I never really got into filters in the film days, except maybe polarizers. That’s one nice thing about the digital age – it’s much easier, faster, and less expensive to experiment. It’s almost manditory. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Iโ€™ve done IR the lazy way- photo filters that you can tweak, like Alien Skin. Not sure if that exists anymore. The other IR filters Iโ€™ve tried just havenโ€™t been that interesting. Your work is gorgeous. So otherworldly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I Googled Alien Skin. Looks like the software still exists. I took a look at a short review, and most of the filters were not IR, and one that claimed to emulate IR clearly didn’t.

      The software I use started life as a filter effects kit, but has grown into something more capable. But even it can’t quite replicate what a good quality physical filter does up front to cut out visible light. (For grins, I bought some cheap IR filters higher up on the spectrum. They turned out to be about as worthless as their price suggests.) In any case, IR is another way to look at the world. I’ll be curious to see how this develops.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. You did so much work on this post and you explained infrared ins such an interesting way, I’m only sorry that I don’t have the patience to go along at a slow enough pace to truly get the science. But I did know that people convert old cameras into infrared ones and I did know that it’s primarily to make beautiful black and white photos. And I’ve fiddled around with various infrared post=processing applications enough to know I love some of the effects you can get. I think these photos are all interesting – some are more appealing than others, of course, but I for one hope you keep going with it. I think my favs are the Camelia and the 3 or 4 photos above that one. Congrats on putting your time and energy to great use!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The science isn’t that bad, really. The post processing is probably the more elaborate part, and once I worked that out I saved it all in one big preset I can tweak as needed for future photo variations. That speeds things up considerably. And I didn’t have to go far for these shots – everything’s within a 15 minute walk. Now I just need to expand my range…

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  8. Fascinating! I’m really glad your systems-analyst self got started on this very cool way of seeing the world differently. And I thank you, Dave, for this cool and psychedelic way of looking at life on earth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you liked it. I’m not sure it’s everyone’s cup of tea. I’ve just posted another set, but that may be it for a while. With Spring colors I suspect it’s time to get back to visible light again.

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  9. Pingback: IR Photos – Take Two – Plying Through Life

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