Processing Infrared Photography Step By Step

In this tutorial we go step by step through the processing of infrared images from an unconverted digital camera.
Once you have shot infrared images with your digital camera you will need to do some processing to make them useable. In this article we will go step by step through the process, showing the options you have as you go.

The processing of digital infrared images is one that offers huge and almost infinite creative options. While this tutorial is illustrated by screenshots from Adobe Photoshop CS4, all these techniques can be done in CS3 and most can be done in earlier versions of Photoshop and in other programs, like Paint Shop Pro. So if you use one of these you will be able to do these processes, just the details of the exact commands will vary.

Infrared photography

As we saw in the previous article, Shooting Infrared Photography Step By Step, your images will look very strange straight from the camera. You have two different directions you can take: produce a monochrome image or go for a false color image. We will examine these separately.

Monochrome image

Approach 1
If you have chosen a single channel to expose for when you were shooting, the first approach option is to do a monochrome conversion from just your chosen channel.

Open your image in Photoshop, if necessary doing any adjustments you want in Adobe Camera RAW. Remember that you may be able to claw back any burned out highlights or blocked up shadows with the exposure, recovery and blacks sliders.

Infrared Photography

It is better to setup ACR to pass a 16-bit image to Photoshop as this will give you more headroom to make adjustments without adversely affecting tonal graduation.

Infrared Photography

Infrared Photography

Now open up the channel palette and select just the channel you wish to use.

Infrared Photography

If you use Image -> Mode-> Monochrome Photoshop will convert your image to monochrome using just the one channel.

Infrared Photography

You will probably find your image is a bit flat. So the first step is to adjust the black and white points. Use Levels to do this. You can set the black and white points to whatever you want. So you can maintain full control over the highlights and shadows and just how they look. Note that I position the dialog so I can still see the histogram panel while I make the adjustments to ensure I am not going to introduce clipping.

Infrared Photography

At this point you can take the image anyway you like, such as by applying curves to increase contrast where you want it or doing local adjustment using dodge and burn or other approaches.

Infrared Photography

Infrared Photography

Approach 1a – Simulate Halation

Many people like the glowing highlights look that came about with Kodak Highspeed Infrared Emulsion because of its lack on an anti-halation coating. You can simulate this with the following approach.

Duplicate the image layer by dragging it to the New Layer icon.

Infrared Photography

Apply a pretty heavy Gaussian Blur filter to this duplicate layer.

Infrared Photography

Now change the blending mode of the top, blurred, layer to Lighten or to another mode that works for you. Lighten will simply apply the glow to the highlights without blurring the shadows.

Infrared Photography

You can then use opacity to control the degree of the effect.

Infrared Photography

Another alternative is to add a Layer Mask to this blur layer.

Infrared Photography

Then paint into the layer mask where you want to hide or reduce the effect.

Infrared Photography

Approach 2

You can choose to combine the channels rather than select just one to do the BW conversion.

Open your image up in Photoshop and do an individual channels level adjustment by either selecting one channel at a time in the Channels palette and then Levels.

Infrared Photography

Do Image -> Adjustments -> Black & White

Infrared Photography

Now you can mix the channels together and see the result in the main image window.

Infrared Photography

Color Image

Approach 1

Using a single image we can create false color.

Open the image up in Photoshop.

Digital infrared photography processing in photoshop

Do an individual Levels on each channel. You can do this by selecting each channel one at a time in the Channels palette or by using the facility of the Le
vels dialog to work on individual color channels.

Digital infrared photography processing in photoshop

This gives you an image with subtle color

Digital infrared photography processing in photoshop

At this point you can leave it like this or further develop the image. One way to develop further is to increase the color saturation or vibrancy to make the subtle color more obvious.

Digital infrared photography processing in photoshop

You can perform channel swaps to shift the color. Say you want to swap red and blue channels. You can click on the red channel. Do a Select All and then copy to the clipboard.

Digital infrared photography processing in photoshop

Click on the New Channel icon in the Channels palette and paste the red channel in there.

Digital infrared photography processing in photoshop

Then copy the Blue channel and paste it in the Red.

Digital infrared photography processing in photoshop

Then copy the temporary channel (what was the Red) into the Blue and delete the Alpha 1 temporary channel.

Digital infrared photography processing in photoshop

Further adjustments can be made to individual channels, such as here where by lightening the red channel I add more obvious red to the image.

Digital infrared photography processing in photoshop

There are, of course, many other ways to add false color in Photoshop, such as by using the channel mixer.

Digital infrared photography processing in photoshop

Approach 2

An innovative solution to creating false color images, that look somewhat like the old Infrared Ektachrome false color film IR images did, requires that you take two images. One image should be a normal, visible light image without your infrared filter and the second is an infrared image. Life is much easier if these are both shot on tripod and in alignment, so care should be taken when you attach the IR filter.

The approach is to open both images in Photoshop and swap channels from the infrared image into the color one. To create the classic Ektachrome effect it is generally the red or green IR channel that you move into the red channel of the color image, to turn the foliage red. But other possibilities also exist for other effects.

Now because of the channel swapping between the two images you need to be careful of either camera or subject movement between the two shots, so you would wish to do this as quickly as possible. With landscapes, days of high wind can be a problem, as can other causes of movement, such as cars, people, etc.

The specific sequence of steps is shown below:

Select the images you will use in Bridge, Photoshop or some other program.

Digital infrared photography processing in photoshop

Now you will have your two images open in Photoshop.

Digital infrared photography processing in photoshop

Select the individual channel in the IR image that you want to use. In this case I am using the green channel. Do a Select All and then copy it to the clipboard.

Digital infrared photography processing in photoshop

Select the channel you want this put into, usually red, and do a Paste.

Digital infrared photography processing in photoshop

Now examine just the colored image to see if there is any misalignment.

Digital infrared photography processing in photoshop

If there is a misalignment select just the red channel (but make sure the other channels are visible by clicking on the eye next to each channel) and use the move tool to move the red layer into alignment. This is often more easily done at 100% and focusing on a distant part of the scene that does not move.

Digital infrared photography processing in photoshop

And this is the result.

Digital infrared photography processing in photoshop

Other results are possible depending on the actual IR channel you choose. Here I have used a red channel. You can see the interesting color effects you get when things like leaves move.

Digital infrared photography processing in photoshop

Here are a couple of other examples

Digital infrared photography processing in photoshop

Digital infrared photography processing in photoshop

Digital infrared photography processing in photoshop

Remember you are not limited to RGB. Here we have the color image in LAB mode and I paste the IR image into the L channel.

Digital infrared photography processing in photoshop

And here into the a channel.

Digital infrared photography processing in photoshop

I hope you have found this article useful and will get you going on working with a subject that is my passion, digital infrared photography.

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5 Responses to “Processing Infrared Photography Step By Step”

  1. Corker2September 3, 2009 at 5:55 pm #

    Dear Sir

    I have been reading your Lesson on “How To Process IR Photography. Since I am very new to this IR Photography, I have no real clue on how to process my Digital IR Images using Paint Shop Pro X2. Everything here is done with Photoshop. Can you please help me using PSPX2.

    Thanks for helping out.
    Les (Corker2)

  2. SteveAugust 31, 2010 at 10:51 am #

    Hi, great articles you have here, i’ve just purchased a Sony Nex 5 and unsure what level of IR filter it has on it. Do you have any info what IR filter would work well with it and what settings should be used? Thanks again for the interesting reading.

    • Wayne CosshallAugust 31, 2010 at 9:02 pm #

      It probably has a strong IR blocking filter so I suspect your exposures will be around 30 seconds with a Hoya R-72 filter mounted. I wouldn’t go to a stronger filter as the exposures will get even longer.

  3. I Wayan MawaDecember 19, 2010 at 6:46 am #

    This post really help me a lot. Thank you very much!

    Regrads
    Mawa

  4. WayneSeptember 3, 2009 at 11:45 pm #

    I’m not a big PSP user. But if you think about what I’ve said in the piece you should be able to translate it into PSP terms, since everything that’s in PS is also there in PSP somewhere (at least in respect of this tutorial).

    Cheers,

    Wayne

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