For the Love of Infrared

Waikiki Beach in IR

I’ve always loved infrared (or IR) photography, from the very first time I saw it. I guess it sings to my love of the surreal.

I feel very fortunate that I have a friend, who has a digital camera that has been converted to ‘see’ the infrared spectrum, and he’s been letting me borrow it, for the past couple of months. It’s a fascinating process to compose photographs in this way, mainly because anything that’s living (or emits heat of some sort) tends to turn white. You are actually recording something that cannot be see by human eyes, so there’s a little bit of a wow factor, every time you take a photo.

In order for a camera to be used for infrared, the sensor needs to be altered. Once that’s done, there’s no going back, so it’s best to have it done with either an extra camera, or one that will be designated for that purpose only.

I’m not going to go into a lot of technical details about infrared conversions, mainly because I’m really just not that technical. There is one well-known conversion company called Lifepixel, and they have in-depth information on the whole process. I highly recommend checking them out, if this is something you’d like to learn more about, or if you are interested in converting one of your own cameras.

I think the main thing I want to talk about is my experience with IR photography and how it’s been a real adventure for me. At first, I thought it was absolutely thrilling to see all those green things turn snow white, just like a winter wonderland!

Then I realized, that there’s not a lot of contrast in seeing all that “white” in the foliage, though there is some interesting texture, especially in palm trees.  I found it interesting too, that water turns very dark in these images, as well as does a clear, blue sky.


Of course, anything inanimate does much the same thing, i.e., reads as very dark. This means that composing a photograph creates a new challenge, which is actually really fun! What you see, may not be what you get, until you get the hang of it. As in regular black & white photography, there are several elements, (beyond good composition) that help to make a pleasing photograph. There’s contrast, tone, texture, patterns and shape that often work together to create an interesting viewpoint. What happens in IR is some of the elements change, such as tree leaves and flowers turning white, while leaving the tree trunks dark. Tree leaves take on a whole new texture. On a brilliant, sunny day, the tree’s foliage, grass and flowers literally seem to explode in vibrant, light color. If you shoot a portrait of a human face, the skin will usually appear as milky white and smooth, and sometimes the veins beneath the skin become more prominent. If you think it’s challenging enough to “see in black and white” with a regular camera, your composition challenge becomes greater in shooting in IR.

What I found in my adventures with this converted camera, is that I like to see a bit of man-made element in my IR photos. Fences, benches, bridges and statues all add a special component to my nature compositions, because they bring in added form and contrast. I found this out, after a morning of shooting trees in Kapi‘olani Park—I came upon the bandstand and the rows of curving benches. I discovered a whole new world in the way I see things, at least as long as I am using this camera. I can’t say it hasn’t hurt the rest of my digital photography, either.

I’ve since made my way around the island, at least as much as possible, seeking those places where these interesting, man-made structures are. And still, there are photos I’ve taken that showcase only trees, and they are beautiful, too.

Meanwhile, I’ll be giving up this camera back to its owner in a month or so, and I’m very strongly considering converting my old Canon 30D to shoot infrared. When I move to American Samoa next year, I will have a whole new world in which to explore IR photography.


Soon enough, I will be posting yet another gallery, thanks to the inspiration of these adventures. My collection of ‘Benches’ will be coming soon!

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