Why winter is a great time for infrared photography

By Geoff Harris

Ever thought about getting your camera converted to infrared (IR)?

It’s a great way to add a few more creative weapons to your arsenal, particularly with black and white. Colour infrared effects, with white or bronze trees and red landscapes, look cool at first but they are best used sparingly – you wouldn’t want to use a wah-wah pedal every time you played a guitar solo, unless were in a Hendrix tribute band!

Note how the foliage takes on a lovely white sheen and blue skies go deep black

For my money, black and white infrared effects consistently look good, however. On a sunny day, blue skies go deep black, foliage takes on an evocative white and silver sheen and shadows get really inky (though always try to preserve some shadow detail).

Try to keep some shadow detail and foreground interest – don’t get too carried away with deep blacks

Getting an old camera converted, particularly a mirrorless camera, is cheap and easy, so there are a few options. First of a bit of a technical recap.

The first option is to add a glass IR filter inside the camera, with 830nm, 720nm, 665nm, or 590nm glass filters being the most popular (nm, or nanometers, is the measurement unit for infrared wavelengths).

Longer wavelength conversions, such as 720nm and 830nm, are mainly used for black and white. Shorter wavelength IR conversions, such as 590nm, are popular for ‘false colour’ effects, such as orange skies and red or white foliage.

Even without a filter, the ‘false colour’ effects on a full-spectrum conversion can be quite attractive

For a similar price, you can go for a ‘full spectrum’ conversion. This involves removing the internal ‘hot mirror’ rather than adding an IR filter so it’s a bit more flexible.

The camera becomes more sensitive to light, so it is able to capture infrared images, ultraviolet light images and more. You then simply add IR filters to your lenses for specific effects, such as black and white at 720nm, or 590nm for false colours.

Another advantage of a full spectrum conversion is that you can go back to using the camera in the normal by adding a UV/IR hot-mirror blocking filter.

On a cold winters day a tree without leaves can take on a new lease of life

Unless you are a skilled camera technician, we wouldn’t recommend trying a conversion yourself – as well as fatally damaging your camera’s innards, you can get an electric shock. Fortunately, there a wide range of companies who will do it for a few hundred pounds, depending on your camera. I recommend ProTech Photographic in particular.

Just one thing to remember if you do decide to get an old DSLR converted – with a full spectrum conversion you won’t be able to see through the viewfinder when using an external higher nm filter. You can still use Live View, however, via the back screen, to adjust exposure and to check focus.

If you ONLY want to shoot black and white infrared, a 720 or 830nm conversion should be fine, as you won’t need extra lens filter (for false colour, try 590m conversion for golden leaves or bright blue skies, or 665nm as a good overall balance).

Depending on which option you go for, there a wide range of IR filters available, but as with anything else, you get what you pay for. If you just want a bit of fun, a cheap IR filter off Amazon or eBay is fine; for more professional results, go for a quality IR filter from the likes of Cokin, B+W or US-based IR specialists, Kolari Vision (they are not cheap though).

For the black and white images here, I used a Cokin Nuances 720nm filter on a full spectrum converted Olympus camera.

You can get some nice effects with architecture, too

Before shooting, it saves time to choose a manual white balance; you then convert the IR image to black and white in your favourite photo-editing software. I favour Lightroom and Silver Efex Pro from DxO. If you rely on auto white balance your camera, it’s not the end of the world as it can be altered later – as long you shoot in RAW.

When shooting black and white infrared, be mindful of the core principles of black and white photography: look for strong textures and shapes, vibrant colours (such as a clear blue sky) and interesting shadows. A boring scene in flat light will still be boring in infrared.

For winter photography, I love taking black and white infrared photos so I really recommend it. It is possible to replicate some IR black and white effects in editing software, but it’s not always convincing – I’d rather go for a camera conversion every time, and it gives old gear a new lease of life.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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