Digital IR Photography

Whether you prefer film or digital, IR photography has the capacity to create images that have been described by many as dream-like or ethereal, serene, often bordering on the surreal and having a magical beauty of their own.

Infra-red photography can be equally successful with wedding or landscape photography, street photography or portraits and it is not as complicated as you might think. Before you start, you need to decide which is better for you, film or digital IR photography, and this article will help you choose.

Zacarias da Mata

The two photographs shown below have the same view but the first one was recorded in the visible spectrum and the second one in the near-infrared range. Don't worry, I will explain!

Visible Spectrum Photography of a Tree on Mount Victoria, Devonport, New Zealand: Canon PowerShot G3, 1/1,250 sec, f/4, 10.1875 mm: Photo by Daniel Schwen
Infra Red Photograph of a Tree on Mount Victoria, Devonport, New Zealand: Canon PowerShot G3, 3.2 secs, f/7.1, 10.1875 mm: Photo by Daniel Schwen

The visible spectrum of light is made up of electromagnetic wavelengths in the 400-700 nm range (nanometers are millionths of a metre) - this is the range your eye can see. At the extreme ends of this spectrum, visible light tails off into the infrared and ultraviolet ranges.

The shorter the wavelength, the more towards the blue end of the range or spectrum. The longer the wavelength, the further towards the red end of the spectrum. Normal daylight is a mixture of all the different wavelengths and includes all the colours of the rainbow.

Near Infrared

The light that is recorded in film and digital IR photography is called near-infrared (700-1200nm). The human eye is unable to see or feel near-infrared so photographs which have recorded this range of wavelengths make you feel as if you are venturing into a land of extra-sensory perception! Far-infrared (beyond 1200 nm) produces heat and is not detectable by the kind of cameras that professional photographers use.

The sun, tungsten light and candles all produce visible light as well as infrared radiation but it is reflected light that the camera picks up and the strength of this depends on many factors including time of day, season and temperature. Fluorescent lights and neon may or may not contain radiation from the infrared part of the spectrum.

Infra-red Photograph: Sony Cybershot, 1/60 sec, f/2, ISO 100, 9.7 mm: Photo by Nevit Dilmen

Professional digital cameras have a built-in filter in front of the sensor to block out wavelengths shorter than 400nm and longer than 700nm. 700nm upwards is the near-infrared range so if your existing digital camera has a built-in filter then you need to have it modified by replacing the filter with a clear glass filter. Note though that you won't be able to take pictures in anything other than the near-infrared range after it has been modified.

Infra-red Photo of a Nikau Palm: Fuji 6900 with IR-blocking filter replaced by a Visually Opaque IR filter - Photo by Justin Bell

Konica, Maco and Kodak all make infrared film. All infra red photography films use dyes to extend the range of light that they can record. Konica 750 is sensitive up to around 750 nm, Kodak infrared film up to about 900 nm, and Maco IR 820c up to around 820 nm. Agfa and Ilford also make infrared film but they are not as good. Kodak infrared film will give your shots that magical infrared quality more than the others. This is because Kodak film doesn't have an anti-halation layer which gives an other-world glow to the image.

Infra Red Photograph Showing Halation around the Street Lights: Photo by Nevit Dilmen

Halation: That Mysterious Glow

This glow, or halation, is much sought-after by many photographers who want to create dream-like scenarios. Neither Maco nor Konica film have an anti-halation layer. Digital IR photography will also produce halation as digital cameras do not have a filter. The above photograph shows an example of localised halation around the lights.

Cost is another consideration. Infrared film is quite expensive, and don't forget you will want to bracket your shots which reduces the number of photographs per roll of film. Fewer shots per roll means you will also have to change rolls more frequently. Digital IR photography on the other hand is non-stop provided you have sufficient memory available on the card.

Another point is that you have to send your films to a commercial lab that is capable of processing infrared film or purchase the tanks, chemicals etc yourself. Digital is so much cheaper and you can print out just those photographs which you really want after viewing them on your computer.

Volkswagen Beetle 1303S 1973: Canon PowerShot G6, 1/4 sec, f/2.0, 7.2 mm: Photo by Mehmet Ergun

Film can be manipulated in Photoshop if you scan it first, converting it into a digitized format but obviously an image from a digital camera is set and ready to edit immediately. Digital IR photography produces images without the grainy look of Kodak film but it can be added in Photoshop afterwards to achieve a look that is very similar to film grain. Or you may want to add digital noise to your image to reduce the effect of pixelization, something that doesn't occur with film.

Finally... film and fogging

Note also that the seals on older 35 mm cameras can dry out and leak light so it is worth checking before setting out on an assignment. Also some 35mm cameras such as the Canon EOS range have an internal infrared light to count the film sprocket holes which can potentially be another source of fogging.


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