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.
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…
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.
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…
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.