A Quintessential Guide to the World In Infrared: Color Processing
Ah yes, Miami. Represented all around the world and coveted as a holiday/work/party destination by untold masses (famous & the obscure) throughout history. You don’t even need any semblance of culture to already have an innate familiarity with the classic art-deco architecture, palm tree-laden streets and pastel shades of cyan, fuchsia & magenta that garnish South Beach or downtown Miami. Wherever you happen to reside, it’s a near impossibility to avoid the appeal of South Florida’s most popular city thanks to the hordes of movies, games and books set there.
2 bus trips, 2 full bladders and 15 hours later, the WORLD IN INFRARED crew stepped onto the asphalt of Miami International Airport (the road, not the runway!) with our hacked cameras in an attempt to once again document the infamous Vice City, but in a way no one has ever seen before: in the spectrum of infrared.
This tutorial features a picture of mine entitled ‘444-4444’. It features a Yellow Cab driving by the prolific gay bar, The Palace (“Every queen needs a palace!”) on Ocean Drive. My weapon of choice is a 720nm IR-converted Canon 550D. You can check out the specifics of this conversion here.
The first thing many aspiring editors notice when they shoot infrared is an inherent deep-red tint on the pictures akin to peering through an IR filter with your eyes. You can easily correct this by setting a custom white balance in-camera and view your color corrected shots immediately on the LCD screen, but upon transferring the files onto a computer and into a program like Lightroom/Photoshop, the redness remains (This is especially true if your files are RAW format). Don’t worry, your foray into the IR spectrum doesn’t end here.
‘Color’ is nothing more than our brain’s way of distinguishing between different wavelengths in the spectrum of visible light. Contrary to popular belief, infrared is very much unlike the color red. The prefix ‘Infra’ means ‘below’ or ‘under’, so the term ‘Infrared’ actually pertains to light with wavelengths smaller than that of the color red. As such, ‘Color’ does not actually exist in infrared; It can only be measured in tones (i.e. monochromatic black & white).
The visible light spectrum extends to approximately 750nm while the IR filter in my camera cuts off light at 720nm. This small amount of visible light allowed to reach the sensor is responsible for some of the most breathtakingly colorful near-IR images in existence… and unfortunately, the source of the deep-red tint too.
Despite the fact we will never be able to ‘see’ in infrared, we can perceive the surreal spectrum as realistically as possible by setting proper color balance. If you want to shoot in infrared, yet have your whites remain white, this tutorial will show you how to do just that (and more if you pay attention).
- Adobe Photoshop Lightroom (I’m using version 5.6)
- Adobe DNG Profile Editor (Available to download for free)
For the sake of editing adjustability and the prosperous future of photography as an art form everywhere, I will be shooting in RAW format and assume you will be too. When it comes to editing IR, RAW offers unprecedented flexibility over jpeg, especially considering the large amount of color shifting required to view an image of an invisible spectrum with relative normalcy in visible light. A compressed jpeg file simply does not contain enough color data to render this transformation with accuracy. Proficient knowledge of camera operation and Adobe design suite usage will be assumed.
Welcome to the world in infrared.
Open up your image in Lightroom. Check the white balance. No matter how cold we set it, it’s not enough to remove the red tint.
Scroll down to the ‘Camera Calibration’ section and expand the ‘Profile’ drop down box. As you can see, ‘Adobe Standard’ is the default color profile… or should I say culprit? While this profile works great for color photography, it’s not calibrated for infrared and is what’s causing the image to render with the red tint.
The solution? We will make a new color profile!
To do this, we must first export the image as a DNG (Digital Negative). Note: It does not matter which photo you use and no prior adjustments need to be made before export.
Before anything can be done with the newly created DNG file, navigate your way through the malicious interwebs to Adobe’s website and download their free DNG profile editor.
We are now going to make a new color profile specifically for your IR camera. This preset will alter the baseline white balance calibration and expand the range of color temperatures available for adjustment.
- Open the DNG file inside the Profile Editor.
- Click on the color matrices tab.
- In the White Balance Calibration segment, slide the Temperature value to -100. (You will only notice a miniscule change in the color of the image).
- Note the White Balance range change from 2000/-88 to 17000/71 (As indicated by the upper left hand circle).
Click file and select ‘Export [Your camera name] profile’. The save location should default to the Lightroom camera profile directory, but if not, you can find it here:
- Windows: C:Users[Your Username]/ AppDataRoamingAdobeCameraRawCameraProfiles
- Mac: Macintosh HD/Users/[Your Username]/Library/Application Support/Adobe/
I named mine ‘Canon EOS 550D IR’.
Reopen the original image in Lightroom. Scroll down to the ‘Camera Calibration’ section once again and expand the ‘Profile’ drop down box. You should now see the newly created profile in the list.
Select it and watch the red tint of the image disappear in lieu of more ‘correct’ and ‘normal’ looking color balance. We are getting closer…
You are now able to easily balance the color temperature of the image as you wish (You can even use the eyedropper tool). As you can see, the white balance scale now has a much larger range (from 2000 – 50000K) – Searing hot to icy cold!
Lastly, edit the picture as though you would any other ‘normal’ (visible light) photograph and export!
Ah yes, Miami in infrared. There is no mistaking those light blue palm trees and dark orange sky (And I’m willing to bet that ‘Yellow Cab’ is a bit more yellow in reality). We’ve arrived at our destination.
If you want to sink your teeth into exactly what is going on in this picture, check out World In Infrared on Facebook for the science behind the art.
From a glance this process may seem complex with unfamiliar terminology, unheard of software and unapparent steps. However, setting a proper color balance on your IR photographs is a crucial first step towards bringing the world in infrared alive. Now that we’ve translated the image into terms the human eye is more familiar with, you are free to process your images as you see fit with no unnatural color casts to alter your creative experimentation. Cross-processing? Channel swapping? Instagram? 20 of Photoshop’s artistic filters on top of each other?
Your infrared canvas has been primed. Show me what you can do!
About the Guest Contributor
Steven Saphore is the co-founder and principal contributor of Destruction Of Cats, a collective of photographers, writers, illustrators & musicians. In an operation that infiltrates the borders of urban-exploration, history, archaeology and art, they are currently tracing the modern foundations of a tiny Pacific nation back to a vast subterranean labyrinth forgotten from World War II…