For the human eye, the lowest visible wavelengths are red light measuring about 700 nanometers (nm). Below that, infrared radiation runs from about 750nm down to 1mm. When photographed in this part of the spectrum, leaves and grass glow with energy, as if the entire natural world is lined with fiber optics. Skin is luminous and perfect, like alabaster. Infrared photography gives you an inhuman view of the world, and it’s a beautiful one.
In the beginning, infrared photography was nothing you needed to know about. It was a high-tech procedure reserved for laboratories and mapping satellites. Even when artists got their hands on the stuff, it required special film that had to be kept in an ice chest until it was used, and special processing that required access to a darkroom with the right chemicals, and all the expenses those items entailed.
Digital photography has made infrared accessible to everyone. That’s great news to those using IR for the first time, because this is when you’re liable to make the most mistakes. Better yet, you don’t need an expensive camera to take great shots. In fact, cheaper and so-called “dinosaur” digital cameras can be the best ones for IR shooting. The reason is simple: most high-end cameras come with a built-in infrared-blocking filter (sometimes called “hot glass”) that sits right in front of the camera’s sensor chip. Cheap cameras don’t always have this IR filter, and they’re easy to hack if they do. But remember when picking your cheap camera to make sure it has a Preview mode. This will allow you to see your infrared shot and make adjustments on the fly.
1. Get a digital camera that can see infrared
You may already own a camera that can see infrared. To find out, point a TV remote control toward your camera (in low room lighting), press any button on the remote, and watch it on your camera’s LCD screen. If you see the tiny lens on the end of the remote glowing white, your camera is sensitive beyond the human visible spectrum.
I shoot infrared with a Sony Cybershot DSC-F707. When it was released in 2001 it was considered a fairly high-end “prosumer” camera. Most photo geeks now think of this 5-megapixel machine as a kind of steam-powered relic, something that would have wowed Jules Verne, but that’s just amateur-hour snobbery spouted by people who think that the only thing that counts is who has the bigger megapixel count. Even shooting in regular mode, it’s not hard to make good 8×10 prints with the F707. In fact, 95% of the prints in my first gallery show were shot with the F707. And it packs plenty of power for infrared work.
One reason the Sony F707 is such a great off-the-shelf infrared shooter is that it comes with a NightShot feature, which is a built-in infrared system. Unfortunately, this works only in the dark.
Sony crippled the ability to shoot IR in daylight because, supposedly, some fabrics are transparent to infrared, effectively turning all of Sony’s cameras from that period into a voyeur’s favorite new toy. But any hack a corporation comes up with can be broken by patient geeks on a mission. By putting the F707 in NightShot mode and adding infrared and neutral density filters, we trick the camera into thinking that daytime is nighttime.
Infrared photo wiz Chris Maher shoots with other dinosaur cameras, such as the Nikon 950 and 990. I loved the 950 and 990, generally loathed by “real” photographers when they came out. Their bodies swiveled independently of the lens, so using Preview mode, you could shoot over and around people without anyone knowing what you were doing.
Another favorite of infrared enthusiasts is the old Olympus 3030. Instead of trying to unload it for $10 in a garage sale, you can use it to see the world in a whole new light — literally.
2. Get some infrared filters
By hacking your digital camera, you’re tricking it into thinking that it’s still shooting in the visible spectrum. To do this, all you need are a few simple filters. When you put the filters on your lens, you can forget about all your regular camera settings. This is why you need Preview mode.
The rim of the F707’s lens, like most lenses, is threaded so that you can screw on standard filters, such as polarizers for outdoor shooting. If your lens doesn’t have threads, you can simply hold a filter over the lens with one hand and shoot with the other.
Infrared filters come in all the standard lens sizes. The F707 takes 58mm filters. The first IR filter I used was the Hoya R-72, which allows only infrared rays longer than 720nm to pass through. Other infrared filters block different parts of the spectrum, giving your shots different looks, bringing out different details in the sky, foliage, and foreground objects.
The best way to find out what works for you, and works in different situations, is to experiment. Since you can pick up an F707 on eBay for $225–$250, you may have some money left for filter shopping. Filters can run from $35–$200, depending on the size of your lens.
3. Get some neutral density filters
Along with your infrared filter, you may need 1 or 2 neutral density filters to cut the amount of visible light entering your camera, without changing its color. Think of it as a piece of welding glass you could use to look at a solar eclipse. My first neutral density was an ND-400.
Without an ND filter your infrared shots can be much too bright. On a sunny day, the highlights will be completely blown out. Even with a single neutral density, you can end up with too much light. Since the filters come threaded, you can add a second ND, along with the infrared filter.
4. Learn more
For a more rigorous and technical exploration of infrared photography, with many camera comparisons, visit dpfwiw.com/ir.htm.
You can find infrared filters at most decent camera shops, as well as good online photo sites such as bhphotovideo.com. You can even find them in Amazon’s Camera area.
Have fun shooting. Experiment. Take chances. And be prepared to see a world that you have never seen before.