Infrared photography can transform ordinary photos into magical, other-worldly landscapes. It will add a whole new dimension to your photography.

Some of the most stunning and unexpected landscape images come from infrared (IR) photography. Turning an invisible part of the light spectrum visible, IR photography has the power to transform mundane, familiar places into other-worldly beauty. Back in the days of film, IR photography was not only expensive, but also very difficult do. With the advent of the digital age, however, just about anyone can access this hidden world. 

The Gear

• The Camera

While dedicated IR pros often have a camera they have converted just for shooting IR (a very expensive option), beginners and dabblers usually start off with IR filters. These filters block out all light other than infrared, and, like ND filters, either screw on to your lens or come with a one-size-fits-all frame that you place in front of your camera. The good news is that IR photography filters aren’t particularly expensive. The bad news is that you’ll need to make sure your camera can work with them. Most DSLRs have filters that block IR light—the better they are at this, the worse your camera will be for IR photography. Luckily, there are plenty of resources on the web to help you figure out if your camera’s a good candidate. You can also Google your camera model to see if it has a built-in IR filter—if it doesn’t, you’re good to go. 

• The Lens

Just as with cameras, not all lenses work well with IR photography. Some create hot spots—lighter areas that you’ll need to edit out in post-processing. If you don’t want to deal with the post-processing (which, depending on the hot spot, can be quite intensive), getting a lens that works well with IR photography is a must. 

• A Tripod and Remote Shutter Cable

IR filters block out about a lot of light—the entire visible spectrum. That means that all your shots with the filter will need to be long exposures in order to let in enough light to the sensor. As a result, a sturdy tripod is a must. You’ll also want remote shutter cable so you can avoid camera shake caused by pressing the shutter button on your camera. 

The Subject Matter

Landscapes are particularly suited to IR photography. Coniferous trees, blue skies, and water absorb IR light, while deciduous trees, grasses, and puffy clouds reflect it. The magic is in the contrast between the two. Other subjects are, of course, possible, but keep in mind that you’ll be doing a long exposure.

The Technique

1. Set your camera to shoot in RAW. (The the level of post-processing your images will need requires this.)

2. Take a color exposure. (Optional.) This is very helpful for figuring out your IR exposure. If you’re not used to working in manual, take this shot in aperture priority mode and jot down the exposure. If you already shoot in manual, no problem. You can skip this part if you want to. Still, it is fun to compare the color version with the infrared version. As a bonus, it will also help you in learning which subjects work well with IR. 

3. Dial in your settings. 

  •  ISO: Start out with a maximum of ISO 800 for shots between 10 seconds and 1 minute, and a maximum of ISO 400 for shots over 1 minute.
  • Aperture: You’ll need a smaller the aperture to get a good focus with IR photography. Something between f/8-f/11 tends to work well.
  • Shutter Speed: For this setting, you’ll need to know how many stops of light your IR filter is blocking. Many folks figure this out by trial and error. Others suggest using the High ISO test shot method explained in this link by Rick Battle. One of the more popular filters, the Hoya R72, is about 14.5 stops. Whatever the filter, you’re probably going to need to shoot in bulb mode (ideally with a remote shutter cable).

4. Focus. This needs to be done in manual mode. If you’re not using an older lens that has an IR focusing scale on it (back when IR was popular), you’ll need to experiment with your focus. Generally, if you can focus at infinity with an aperture between f/8 – f/11, everything should come out sharp. If it doesn’t, you’ll need to experiment a bit to find out what works for you. (You’ll need to do this step without the filter.) 

5. Attach the filter. Be careful not to bump the focus ring—it’s remarkably easy to do! This is also a good time to recheck that your camera is in manual mode (if you took a color shot in aperture priority).

6. Block the light from your viewfinder. Believe it or not, light can leak in and hit your sensor through the viewfinder. You can block it either with the rubber piece that came with your camera, a piece of black card, or your hand. Just be careful not to touch the camera if you use the latter two options.

7. Take the photo. Remember that these exposures may take a fair amount of time. Make sure your camera is fully finished with the shot before touching it again.

Pro Tip: If you’re not sure about your exposure, try taking bracketed shots. These will help in post-processing, especially if a portion of your main shot is blown out. Also, if you miss the exposure by a step or two you might get lucky and have one of the other shots come out perfect.

Once you’ve taken the photo, check it and see how you did on the exposure. You’ll probably find that you need to use at least some level of exposure compensation as well as a few different trial shots to get it right. Once you do, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how you should set your exposure for future shots. (It might be helpful to have a notebook to jot down the settings.)

One thing to keep in mind is that IR photos, like most Raw photos, don’t tend to look particularly exciting straight out of camera. You’ll need to use photo editing software that can handle Raw images to tune them up and make them look the way they should. With a bit of practice, though, you’ll find that taking infrared shots can totally change how you (and your viewers) see the world, capturing otherwise unseen beauty from places you pass by everyday.