Article & Photos by Brad Barr
Okay, so at the first thought, wedding photography and Infrared are two things that don’t seem to go together. In some instances, that may be correct, BUT (you knew there was gonna be a but, right?), a close examination might reveal dozens of opportunities to make truly unique wedding imagery by utilizing the characteristics that IR photography brings to the table. When utilized correctly, IR wedding imagery can be quite stunning, and not only set you apart from the crowd of photographers out there but also give your clients something that is quite amazing to put on their walls.
To explore how to get to that point, one must consider what IR is…or more correctly what it isn’t What is is not, is a quick and easy way to cure all your photographic ails. Many a photographer has gone into it thinking that just because it was an infrared image per se, that the world would beat a path to their door. Simply put, that’s not the case. What makes a great IR image, really isn’t that much different than what makes a “great image” in the first place. That is, great use of light, angle, and composition. IR is no different in that respect, although many of the examples folks see are “just an IR image”. In other words, little thought was used in its composition and use of light, and angles. The basic rules of composition are no different. That said, if you can apply these basic photographic essentials to your IR work, then you can really have something that rises above the average. Something remarkable. It is to that end, that one should embark on the journey to create IR imagery, and IR wedding imagery specifically. Some of the things that really work well in IR photography are: foliage of course, but also, clouds, water, sky, any architecture and anything with texture, much like any monochromatic image. Because you cant actually “see” infrared light, it’ll take a bit for you to become accustomed to the way your IR converted camera will “see” any given scene. You’ll learn to embrace direct sunlight, solar flare, shadows, and especially trees and water.
I’ve always maintained, that IR imagery is very much a post processing endeavor. What I mean by that is that the images straight out of the camera are not really suitable for much. Virtually all of them require at least some basic level of adjustments in your favorite photo editing program. It is in that program, that you add your special “spin” to your IR image. Here you will select to make your image either a monochromatic scheme, ie bw, sepia, or other version, or to create a colorized IR image. Typically this is done using some form of color channel swapping technique whereby the red and blue channels are swapped in order to lend a blue appearance to the sky. A great tutorial on this procedure is available here. Either way can achieve fabulous results, but I would caution again that in your post, as in your capture, you rise above the “gimmicky” IR conversions, and seek to create an overall great image, not just a “cool color IR” image. Clients will tire of those quickly. A simple litmus test is to ask yourself: “would this still be a good image if it were not infrared?” If the answer is yes, then likely you have a real winner on your hands.
One thing I’ve found almost universally required in post processing is the need to add “black” level to virtually every image. The typical image straight out of camera, is fairly flat, so adding the black back to the image regains its “pop”. Beyond that, each photographer must make his/her own decisions as to what looks best. Personally, I much prefer monochromatic versions. I make a “chocolate bw” version that my clients really enjoy, and even a “blue jean” tone that has created some of our more notable images. The best thing to do really is to just get out there and start shooting, and then experiment in Photoshop or Lightroom and you’ll quickly get a feel for what suits your eye the best.
The first question everyone asks is; “what do I need to do IR photography?” DSLR’s are quite sensitive to IR light. In fact, most have a filter on the sensor that actually blocks IR light from reaching the sensor so it wont degrade your visible light imagery. That leaves you really two options. First, you can use any dslr simply by adding a filter on your lens to block the visible light. The problem with using filters is that they require the use of extremely long exposure times, which virtually eliminates any type of people photography. The second option, is to have your dslr converted. What that means is to remove the IR blocking filter over the sensor, and replace it with one that blocks visible light only. There are several versions available at this time affording slightly varying results. You can do this conversion yourself, although, its a bit tricky, and must be done in a very clean environment. Best bet in my opinion would be to let the pros do it. There are several companies providing this service, but I recommend Life Pixel. Not only will they perform the conversion for you, but they can also calibrate your camera to your lens for you. (IR light waves converge/focus at a slightly different point than their visible light counterparts). They also have tutorials on their website on how to use, process, and even DIY the conversion if you choose to do it that way.
There are a few things you should know as you take your converted DSLR out in the field for the first time. Even though your camera will essentially operate as it always did, there are a few simple settings that will make your life easy, and your post processing time shorter.
First is white balance (wb). If Lifepixel did your conversion they will likely have done a custom WB for internal testing which you can use as a great starting point, and all you have to do is select “custom wb” from your menu. Using this sort of custom WB is especially useful if you plan to do any version of a monochromatic image. Of course you can perform your own custom wb easily at any time by simply using the grass as your “neutral” target when creating your own custom wb. However, many of you might wish to create colorized IR images, in which case you’ll probably want to use either auto white balance or even RAW, to enable the most control over your color swap. Essentially, your CWB eliminated much of the “red” from the image at the start, so by using RAW, you’ll have a lot more data in the RED channel to use. Either way will allow you to still make the same monochromatic images however.
Second, has to do with exposure levels. Here again, your camera’s meter was built to “see” the visible light spectrum, and the IR spectrum is normally a tad different. Normally you will need to add some + exposure compensation to account for this. Typically I have my Nikon D70s set to +2, and then I adjust from there. That’s the great thing about DSLR’s is that you can see whats being captured and adjust accordingly. Scenes that are heavy on the foliage will require much less e/c, while those with little foliage may force even more to obtain a correct exposure. Your histogram will be an invaluable tool for this. Each camera will have its own characteristics as the sensors vary in sensitivity to IR light. It is said by some that the D70s was/is perhaps the most sensitive to IR light of any DSLR. Its has also been mentioned that the newer sensors are becoming less and less sensitive to the IR spectrum although that may prove to be unfounded, but still something to consider. One thing for sure is the newer sensors exhibit much less noise, especially at higher ISO’s which you may find a need for as the sun begins to set. If you remember back to the film days, IR film typically had massive amounts of grain, so in some ways, the addition of a bit of digital noise, simply makes it look more like the film IR images of days past. Either way, if you love Infrared, these are great times, and giving an otherwise “old” DSLR new life via infrared conversion is a great way to extend your investment already made.
So now the question becomes, how to integrate this new tool/toy into your wedding repertoire? First and foremost, it must be remembered that the traditional wedding captures must take first priority, and that anything you get with IR is a bonus. Brides demand/expect that all the moments will be covered, and rightly so. After all that’s what they hired you for. If you never captured a single IR frame, but did a great job on the traditional captures, no one would ever say a word, but heaven help you if you have some cool IR shots but failed to catch something important via traditional capture.
Since the main source of IR light comes from the sun, it stands to reason that most of your IR captures will occur outdoors in the daytime. That in itself kind of dictates when you’ll be able to utilize IR. But as you shoot IR more and become accustomed to the results, you’ll start to see the opportunities in scenes with lots of foliage, buildings, texture, shadows etc etc. Again, this is a great way to really stretch your creative wings in an otherwise more static environment. Go for it, shoot a lot, and have fun with it. If a shot doesn’t turn out? So what? Just delete it, but learn from it. You will be surprised at what works and what doesn’t. People photograph much differently using IR than traditional. The skin becomes semi transparent. This can be a blessing and a curse. It can rid the appearance of skin blemishes, or accentuate them…you just never know. At times, you’ll be able to “see” the persons veins in the neck and hands become very pronounced, often with ghoulish results. Other times not so much. If the faces are not into the light, often terrible dark “dead” eye sockets are the result, and surely no bride really wants to appear ready for the coffin; whereas with the light on them, faces can turn rather magical. Sunglasses often become transparent as well. I think you’ll find the pluses far outweigh the negatives regarding IR capture once you get used to the way your new IR DSLR “sees” its environment.
As you begin, there are several resources you can utilize to help you on your journey. Of course Life Pixels website is a great place to start. There you’ll find all the basics to get you started. Other great ways to learn and share can be found online on the many photography forums that exist today.
Sites like www.fredmiranda.com, www.nikoncafe.com, www.digitalweddingforum.com, and many more have forums dedicated to IR work, or discussions involving IR work. Much can be learned by examining the work of others, and deconstructing how they were captured, and how they were processed.
Good luck and great shooting!!