Infrared photography: setting up and taking infrared photos

21st December 2015

Welcome to the second of three posts on infrared photography

In this spotlight post we'll look at how to set up, compose and take your first infrared photos.

If you haven't read it already, I highly recommend you start with the previous spotlight post, where we looked at the principles of infrared photography, how it differs from visible light photography, and what equipment you'll need.

Picking your subject

As photographers, we usually start by looking around us and finding subjects or views that represent a story we want to tell. As we explored in the previous post, things look very different in infrared light. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to see what the world looks like under infrared light until you actually take a picture. This poses quite a challenge: how do we pick our subject matter when we can't even see it? 

With most photography, the advice is simple: experiment. Since the advent of digital cameras, there is nothing stopping you taking a thousand photos to find that perfect shot (aside from time, perhaps). I'm all for learning through experimentation, but when you're just getting started with a technically demanding medium, it can seem daunting. Where do you start? 

Luckily there are a couple of tips you can use to help you narrow down your subjects and guide your composition to let you hit the ground running.

Landscapes look great in infrared

Leaves, foliage and grass reflect lots of IR light and turn a lovely snowy-white colour. The sky and water all absorb IR, so they turn an inky black. This can produce some beautiful, eerie shots. Trees and plants don't tend to move much  - handy given the long exposures you'll be using!

Shoot rivers, lakes and waterfalls

Water absorbs IR, giving it a dark contrast to the white leaves of surrounding plants. Due to the long exposures, water will come out smooth and silky. Try shooting rivers, waterfalls or other areas with static objects surrounded by moving water.

Bring out the hidden detail in plants

Pictures which look really boring in visible light can look beautiful in infrared. Take the photo to the right of a tree stump surrounded by a few trees. Pretty uninspiring in visible light. But when you capture the infrared, the branches of the tree become black veins amongst a sea of soft white leaves.

If it moves, think twice!

This may seem a strange rule, but unless you've got a specially modified camera, you'll be using quite long exposures to take your IR photos. That means anything that moves - animals, people, sports - aren't usually great subjects. You'll end up with strange artefacts, ghostly images and out of focus subjects. In the example photo to the right, on a short exposure of 10 seconds, the reeds in the foreground and the swan ended up a blurry mess. 

Shoot outside, on a sunny day

A bright, sunny day with a few clouds in the sky is the ideal condition for IR photography. Remember, you're working with light that's pretty dim at the best of times. If you try to shoot IR in the evenings, on overcast days, or inside, you'll run into problems capturing enough light.

Setting up - the 17 steps of Infrared!

You've learnt the theory, tested your camera, got your triod, and headed out on a sunny day. Time to set up for your first IR photos. Unfortunately you can't just pitch up and get shooting on auto mode - there's a bit of setup required.

The following camera set up tips will help you get great photos right off the bat, and avoid some of the common mistakes I made when I first started out. Remember that your camera & lens combination will affect how sensitive to IR light your camera is, so you will have to experiment a little to get the best results for you.

All of the below works well for me on my setup of a Canon 70D with Canon 50mm f1.8 prime lens.

1. Use your tripod

You're going to be using long exposures, so a tripod is a necessity. If you don't have one, set your camera down on a hard surface or find a way to stabilise it - hand held isn't going to work here.

2. Shoot in RAW mode

For many situations, shooting in either JPEG or RAW doesn't make a vast difference. RAW gives you more ability to do post-processing in software such as Lightroom, but it's not totally essential. 

For IR photography, shooting in RAW is essential. We're going to do some serious editing to fix the white balance, and for this RAW is the only way to go. Pretty much all dSLRs support RAW these days, so it shouldn't be an issue.

3. Put your camera in full manual (M) mode*

None of the preset modes have been designed for IR, and you'll end up fighting your camera if you don't take full control.

*If your camera has a dedicated 'bulb' option for longer exposures, pick that instead of manual.

4. Set your ISO low (100-200)

To reduce noise from the long exposures, use a low ISO, preferably as low as your camera will go.

5. Set a narrow aperture (f11-18)

Somewhere around f11-18 should do the job. Due to the different focal length of IR light, you won't be able to accurately find a focus point when setting up the shot. Picking a narrow aperture gives you a larger depth of field and will help avoid everything being blurry. This also means macro shots aren't a great choice for IR.

6. Set a custom white balance

Your camera's white balance is going to be totally off for IR. To help your post-processing in Lightroom, you should set a custom white balance. Take a photo of something green, making it fill the whole frame (e.g. a field of grass). You'll then need to set your camera to use that image as the baseline for white balance. How do to this depends on your exact camera, but for my Canon 70D you do the following:

1. In the third menu set, pick 'White balance'

2. Select 'Custom'

3. Back on the menu, select the 'Custom White Balance' option

4. Pick the green photo you just took

7. Switch shutter speed to bulb

Most cameras don't support exposures longer than a few seconds on their default modes, so you'll need to switch to "bulb" mode. In bulb mode, the shutter will stay open until you press the button/remote again. How to set this varies by camera. On some there is the bulb option on the far left of shutter speed options if you keep scrolling. On my Canon 70D, there is a specific 'b' option in the mode selector.

8. Set your lens to manual focus

Your camera's autofocus won't be able to see a thing through your IR filter, so you'll have to do this the hard way.

9. Turn off image stabilisation

If you're using a tripod, image stabilisation won't help. In fact, if it's turned on and there isn't any shake to counteract, it will introduce noise and artefacts into your picture - not what you want. 

10. Use a remote or set a shutter release delay

Removing any source of shake is crucial for sharp pictures at long exposures, so using a remote or a shutter delay setting means the vibrations from you pressing the button on your camera won't affect your picture.

11. Activate Mirror Lockup

If your camera supports it, set your mirror to lock up prior to shooting. This means the mirror won't pivot when you press the shutter, and will remove another source of vibration in your photo.

12. Turn off image noise reduction

Lightroom will do a better job than your camera, and we want to avoid any strange artefacts caused by these extremely long exposures. 

13. If you've got it, use Live View

If your camera has it, live view is great for IR. Put the IR filter onto your lens first, then activate Live View. The camera will compensate for the IR filter and often allow you to actually see enough to compose and focus your image. This avoids you knocking your lens as you put the IR filter on after focussing.

If you don't have live view, you'll have to focus first, then attach the IR filter, as per the steps below.

14. Focus

Set the focus as sharp as you can make it on your chosen subject. Remember, the IR image will have a slightly different focal point, so you'll often end up with your first photo a bit out of focus. As you take more photos, you'll learn how much you need to adjust for sharp IR photos (often making your visible light image slightly out of focus).

15. Attach your IR filter*

Very carefully screw the IR filter into place on your lens, taking care not to nudge the focus ring!

*If you're using live view, you can skip this as you can attach the filter prior to focus, in step 12. 

16. Be patient!

The exact timing for your setup will vary, but be prepared to try anything between 10 seconds and 180 seconds per shot, depending on ambient light and your lens/camera. 

17. Experiment, and note down your setup

Your first photos will almost certainly be over or under exposed or blurry. Be prepared to experiment with exposure, aperture and focal points until you get a setup that works for you. Once you do, make a note of it so you don't have to re-learn it every time you take IR photos.

Your first photos - why is everything red?

After patiently waiting for your first shot, you jump back to your camera to see what it looks like. It'll probably be something like the photo on the right - red, pink and lacking in contrast. Trees and leaves will be sort-of-white, and the sky will have a lovely orange/red glow. Not quite like the white and blue images you've seen on this site.

Don't panic! This is the result of your camera applying the wrong white balance and image processing to your picture. To get the black & white images you see on the site, you'll need to fix the white balance in Lightroom or Photoshop and make some image corrections.

We'll cover all of this in third and final Spotlight post on Infrared photography. Coming sooner than this one, I promise!

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