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Photographing in Black & White and Infrared

One of the masters of black & white photography was Ansel Adams, shown here discussing his books with Tim Hill of New York Graphic Society.
The Fuji FinePix S3 Pro UVIR camera is designed to capture photos in infrared and ultraviolet.
On some digital cameras you can add an infrared filter and shoot black and white infrared images.

For years, photographers in the fine arts, such as Ansel Adams, have taken black and white pictures almost exclusively. If you want to work in the same medium, some cameras have a black and white mode. This mode is also useful if the photograph is going to be printed in black and white because the scene is displayed on the monitor in that format. This makes it much easier to visualize the end result. A film photographer has to do this visualization in his or her head.

Digital cameras are designed to capture the same light we see, but that isn't all of the light there is. Outside of the visible range of light lies higher frequency ultraviolet (UV) and lower frequency infrared (IR) light. You are probably familiar with UV from posters that glow when exposed to a black light. Infrared is probably most familiar from the night scopes that let you see things in the dark. For years film photographers have used special film and filters to capture black & white images in infrared light. The images are almost surreal. Green vegetation goes white, the blue sky goes black, and skin takes on the look of alabaster.

The infrared band of light is often divided into two parts, near and far. The far band is generated in part by heat and is captured by night vision scopes and other detection gear. The near part is what is photographed with normal digital cameras. For this reason, this kind of photography is often called near infrared photography.

Will your camera capture infrared? Not all do. Some cameras have installed filters in front of the sensor that block infrared light. If your camera has one of these filters you are out of luck unless you are willing to disassemble your camera and remove it. There is a very simple test to see if your camera can capture infrared. Look at, or photograph, the business end of an infrared remote control using the camera's LCD monitor, it has one that can be used to compose pictures, and press a button on the remote. If you can see the glow of the remote's light, you are in business. If your camera doesn't display the image on the monitor, take a picture of it while holding down the remote's button.

When first trying infrared photography, you can just mount the camera on a tripod and hold a filter over the lens. These filters are so dense, you can lose up to seven stops, so expect fairly long exposures even in bright sunlight. If you want to go farther, you'll need to find a way to mount the filter to the lens.

If you press a button on an infrared remote control and can't see the beam on your camera's LCD monitor or in a photo of it (left), you can't take infrared photos with it. If you can see the beam(right) you can take infrared photos.

Infrared filters are numbered #89B, #88A, #87, and #87C. The filter you need varies depending on the camera you are using. To find out what works best with your camera, search the Internet or visit discussion forums. Many other people are exploring this area and are happy to share tips. To search for information try searching for "digital camera infrared" or even add your camera model to the list of terms you are searching for. The firm making or selling the filters may also be able to offer advice about what works best.

Filters come in both glass and gelatin versions. You can find them at B&H Photo, Tiffin, or BW. For glass filters you may need step-up rings from CKCPower. For gelatin filters, you'll need a filter holder.

When taking infrared photos here are some things to keep in mind:

  • If you camera isn't an SLR use the LCD monitor to compose and preview the image because it shows you what it looks like through the filter.
  • Because all of the visible light is blocked, exposures can be quite long. If necessary, increase the camera's ISO to its highest setting and use a tripod.
  • Autofocus doesn't work well with infrared photos because infrared light comes to a focus at a different point. This is more critical in close-ups than in landscapes where there is much more margin for focus errors. Try increasing depth of field or using manual focus.
  • Infrared photography is best in bright sunlight and worst indoors.
  • If your infrared photos have red in them, your filter is letting in too much red light. You can get rid of it in a photo-editing program that lets you remove a color channel, desaturate the image, or convert it to gray scale. If your images are too dark, use your photo-editing program to expand their tonal range.

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