Close Enough for Government Work: Lessons in Infrared photography

Yesterday I got the opportunity to spend the entire day out and about shooting some photos. While I started the day with only a vague idea of where I was headed, I figured I would take the back road and see if some additional adventure could be had. I ended up deciding last minute to take the 162 through the back side of the Wasatch range to get to Logan which ended up being an excellent (if not a little slow going way) to go. The road itself is only accessible from March through November due to lack of maintenance because it’s a completely un-maintained dirt path that drives up the backside of the mountains.

Besides being a sketchy road with no guard rails, the 162 is also the only way to stop into the little towns of Avon, and Paradise, Utah both of which are absolutely adorable. Paradise exists as a total throwback to the 50s as there seems to be all the old fashioned-ness that is lost in today’s average city. I remember, as I was driving through, seeing a three year old on a tricycle riding up and down the sidewalk in front of a home with no adult in sight. While the idea of that terrifies me as parent, I remember doing the exact same thing growing up. There was a feeling of safety there I don’t think I’ve seen or felt elsewhere in a long time.

That road also happened to dump me out into the town of Hyrum, which is connected to Logan on the south side and home to a gorgeous little reservoir. That of course, ended up being an excellent little spot to stop the car, soak my toes, and shoot some picture. It’s also where I happened to have some realizations about infrared photography.

1) There is a legitimate similarity in how IR is done to shooting film.
The reason I say this is because due to the light restrictions and settings your viewfinder is often going to be black or just dark enough in which you won’t be able to make out anything distinguishable. What that means, is you’re basically setting up your camera, shooting the picture and hoping it comes out like you expected. Of course, unlike film, with a digital camera you can always go back after the fact and review an image, these of course show up, but if something is wrong (focus, position, brightness, etc) you’re forced to make some small adjustments and try again until you get it right. This is where having the knowledge (or as I recommend a cheat sheet) of what each setting does/means comes in handy.

Take this shot from yesterday for example:
DSC08941

I knew I wanted the log to be in focus and the primary focus of the image. So, I had to visualize a full scale “Rule of Thirds” grid on the landscape and estimate where I need to set the camera so the log will end up on an intersecting line. When shooting IR, you want to be sure that you’re in manual focus as well since there isn’t anything just yet for your camera to see, (I mentioned very briefly about IR settings in the last post, but will give more info later on) the auto-focus isn’t going to be of any value to you. So now you’ll need to understand focus distances. Here’s an image I found doing a google search from Tech-Tut.com

What this is saying is that in manual focus, you have a range in which you are in focus for what you’re shooting. When shooting normally, you can turn the focus ring back and forth and see the difference. In IR however, you’re gonna have to guess. So for the above image I knew I was about 2-3 feet away from the log, so I set my focal distance to 1m (One meter which is about 3 feet) and snapped. Upon review, it looked pretty good so I opted to roll with it.

On the other side of that is a shot like this one:
DSC08928

To be honest, I had no idea how far I was from the building. I would have guess probably around 3-400 feet, so I opted to set the manual focus to infinity and then pull it back some. Turns out, on the lens I was using the next stop down from infinity is 142m. Since I knew I wanted the whole scene available and to go back as far as I could, I figured that would be close enough and ran with it. As it turns out, basic math tells us that the 142m is 426 feet, so if my eyeball guess of 400 ft was right, then the image would have worked, which it did. Huzzah!

2) This mode or style of shooting requires a lot of dumb luck and/or patience.
You can either spend 15-20 minutes tinkering wit setting between shots to get one where everything is perfect, or you can get lucky and snap one that’s pretty good within the first few tries. That’s kind of the joy of this style in that no matter your personality type, it’ll mostly work out either way. As I mentioned earlier, if you have either the know-how or a cheat sheet, as well as a good imagination, you should be able to get it pretty close to start and work from there. Where the luck comes in though is when your camera starts interpreting that data and making the IR conversion. Here’s two more images shot from Hyrum lake both within about a foot (left or right) of each other:

DSC08937

DSC08932

If you comapre the two, you’ll notice the top has much “whiter” whites, and the blue of the water is a little more reflective and mirror-like. Turns out, even the slightest change in cloud cover, or lighting can impact pretty drastically your images. Unlike in traditional photography where if a cloud moves in, you’re likely to end up with the same (or too close to tell) shot, IR can and will punish you for things outside your control. It’s like Russian Roulette, but with pictures!

One more example of this can be seen in the Temple shot from earlier, here’s another one in which no matter what I changed or fiddled with in Lightroom, I couldn’t get them to look the same, meaning some random thing happened which caused this image to be a “cooler” temperature and come out more blue than the first:

DSC08927

With all that being said, this filter is easily one of my favorite purchases and I can’t wait to do more like this. Also, if you’re interested in learning it, here’s what you’ll need to get going:

First, you’ll need to either mod the camera, (which I DO NOT recommend as once you’ve made that adjustment you’ll never get to take normal photos on it again) or pick up an IR filter, which is easily done. They run 40-70 bucks from most sites and come in all different lens sizes from 42mm up to 70mm I believe.

Once you’ve got that squared away it’s time to get out and shoot. Make sure you bring a tripod or something akin to it as you’ll be taking very long exposures and need to keep the camera still. Here’s the settings I’ve found worked best for me:

ISO – 800
Shutter Speed – 30 seconds
F Stop – f/8 (there is a lot of wiggle room on this if you want to go lower to say f/3.5 it doesn’t hurt at all, higher, such as f/32 is a bad idea though)

I also make sure that I am either using a remote, or set the shutter to a 2sec timer to give the option to click and move before the picture snaps so I’m not getting camera shake.

You’ll also want to adjust your white balance. Auto (AWB) is the devil and should be avoided at all costs. On most cameras you can set a custom white balance by pointing the camera out into the world and pressing the OK button while in the custom WB menu. Do this. In a lot of cases it should set you up at around 2500K which then allows you to adjust further in Lightroom. If you want more yellows and pinks, use something around 3700K instead.

The next most important thing is making sure you’re shooting at the right time of day. Unlike everyone else, you want to be shooting at 1-3pm. You want as bright and hostile lighting that you can get. Having clouds makes for some great effects, but make sure they’re in the distance and not looming over you as you want clear unabridged sunlight.

Once you’ve got all that, set your manual focus like I mentioned earlier, and enjoy! From there you should only have minor tweaks to get the shots you want.

That’s it for this one folks, as always, Until next time, Thanks for Reading!
-D

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