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What Is Infrared Photography?

By R. Britton
Updated May 23, 2024
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Infrared photography is photography using a specific portion of the light spectrum which is invisible to the naked eye known as near infrared. A common misconception is that infrared photography and thermal imaging are the same thing. Though both of these techniques do use parts of the infrared spectrum, thermal imaging uses far infrared as opposed to near infrared and has entirely different applications. Used both as an art form and a hobby, infrared photography is also used in a variety of other fields. This method is used to create some unusual effects which differ considerably from conventional photography, particularly when used with post-production editing software.

Technological developments mean that infrared photography is widely used in astronomy, cosmology, and aerial photography, as well as medical and forensic science, and a number of other fields. A very small number of digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) have been created for professional uses and fewer still are available to the average consumer. This is primarily because standard digital cameras do not always cope very well with infrared photography as of 2011, making the few that are available are incredibly expensive. More popular options for most photographers involve the use of infrared lenses or filters which can be placed on the camera so that infrared images can be captured easily.

Invisible to the naked eye, the infrared light can lead to some very interesting photographic effects, but, from an artistic or photographic enthusiast perspective, it can pose a very challenging past time. Even an experienced infrared photographer cannot take a shot with any degree of certainty regarding how the picture will turn out. This is because the light used to capture the image cannot be seen with the naked eye, and the filters used to capture the infrared light also filter out the majority of the remaining light spectrum. When using infrared photography, skies appear almost black as they reflect very little near infrared light, and foliage appears bright and almost white as it reflects a great deal of near infrared light. This means that, until the photo is processed, it is very difficult to predict the results.

Color can be applied to the photograph using an additional colored filter or, more popularly, using a digital photo editing software. Post-production editing can be used to infuse the black and white infrared image with often unusual color choices. This technique is commonly used to create fantastical images and dreamscapes. Some cameras with infrared photography or night shot capabilities have a variety of false color schemes where a user can pre-set to add color before taking the shot, greatly reducing the need for editing.

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