In the near future, I'm leading a meetup group where we'll be exploring infrared photography, so I thought it would be helpful to put together some pointers for beginners. While I've done IR work with film, that merits its own discussion and won't be covered here. Likewise, I'm not going to talk about converting existing images into faux IR photos, which has been covered in-depth elsewhere. As with most topics I write about, I claim no special expertise in this area, so I'm open to suggestions on more efficient methods than the approach offered here.
This post will exclusively discuss using your existing (unmodified) digital camera in conjunction with an infrared lens filter to capture IR images. You can use any camera that accepts threaded filters, including some "bridge" and point-and-shoot cameras. Since infrared is not a mainstay in my photography, I just use a cheap Neewer IR760 filter, which is available in a range of sizes. They sell singly for around $12-15 at the time of this writing, and work well for me.
MONEY-SAVING GEAR TIP: It's best to buy filters in the largest thread size of the lenses you own. In my case, that's 67mm. You can find the thread size listed on the end of the lens. The thread size is not the same as lens focal length. This strategy will save you from re-purchasing the same filter in smaller sizes, as you can buy inexpensive step-up ring adapters to attach the bigger filter to smaller threaded lenses. If you're using a UV filter to protect your lens, you don't need to remove it first. Simply screw on the IR filter to the UV filter's thread.
Once you have your filter in hand, the only additional equipment you'll need besides your camera is a tripod. The reason for carrying a tripod when doing IR photography is that typical exposures take at least a few seconds in sunny conditions, so there's no practical way to take these photos handheld. IR filters are almost fully opaque, as they block most visible light on the spectrum, allowing only infrared light to pass through to your camera's sensor.
Infrared photography can be done either in color or as black & white (monochrome), depending on your tastes. For maximum flexibility, I recommend shooting in RAW + JPEG mode on your camera, which allows you to see a preview of whatever mode you prefer, while retaining the ability to change to another mode in post-processing. If you choose to shoot JPEG only, I suggest monochrome mode for the best results.
Black & white has a cleaner look, in my opinion, and features more dramatic contrast. Color can also make for fascinating IR photos, with a reddish, glowy cast, although the precise coloration will depend on the color profile you select in-camera or in post, in addition to any additional edits you may make. You'll probably find some scenes look better with different treatment. A program like Adobe Photoshop Lightroom will let you cycle through different camera profiles and pick what you like best. Regardless of which mode you choose, you'll almost certainly want to tweak the images in your image editor after shooting them.
Here's the process I've used to shoot infrared photos on my Fujifilm X-E2 digital camera:
- Find a well-lit scene you'd like to photograph. Ideally, choose scenes that are lit in the foreground (with the sun to your back). For best results, seek out mostly clear skies, punctuated by puffy clouds. If you're including green vegetation (which looks amazing in IR), you may want to shoot when the air is relatively still to avoid blurred movement. Once you've chosen the angle and composition you want, place your camera on the tripod.
- Picking your exposure settings is really a matter of experimentation. I usually begin by setting my aperture to something like f/8 (on Nikon or Canon DSLRs, you'll need to set your camera to "A" or "Av" priority on the dial). I set my camera to Auto ISO, with a maximum of ISO 800. You may go higher if you want to reduce your exposure time. If you pick a low ISO, your exposures will be really long. I let the camera choose the shutter speed. If this doesn't work for you, you may need to switch to fully manual ("M") mode and experiment a bit.
- If you have auto-focus enabled on your lens, go ahead and let the camera focus on your subject. Once focus is locked on, you'll need to disable auto-focus so that the focus point doesn't change. You may now carefully attach the IR filter by screwing it on the end of your lens. This requires a gentle touch, as any pressure on the lens barrel may knock the camera out of focus. You don't need to screw on the filter tightly - just enough to make sure it's securely attached and won't fall on the ground. (Note: You may be able to focus with the IR filter attached. I found it was hit or miss on my camera. So if yours is able to focus accurately with the filter in place, that will save you this step.)
- If there's a switch on your lens or camera body for VR (Vibration Reduction) or IS (Image Stabilization) or similar, turn it to the OFF position. Otherwise, the mechanism that normally counters slight movement in your hands may actually introduce movement on a tripod as it tries to compensate for movement that isn't there.
- One last step before taking the shot: Turn on your camera's self-timer for its minimum duration (typically 2 seconds). This helps eliminate any movement caused by you stabbing the shutter release and jolting the camera at the beginning of a long exposure. When you're ready, go ahead and hit that shutter release and wait for the magic! Exposures at the settings I use typically last from 6-10 seconds.
Check your camera preview to see the results. Be sure to zoom in on the photo preview to see if details are reasonably sharp. The use of an IR filter (or at least a cheap one like mine) will cut sharpness by some degree, but you should still see fine details like blades of grass or grooves in tree bark. If not, you may have jarred the lens while screwing on the filter. In that case, remove the filter and go back to step 3.
After your photo session is over, import your photos into your favorite image editor and adjust the settings to taste. I find I typically need to boost exposure and contrast, in addition to increasing clarity and sharpness. If the longer exposures added noise, you may want to clean that up, too, unless you prefer the grittier look.