Check out the picture above and see how unique, surreal and specific it looks. While this appears to be an effect achieved in Photoshop or After Effects, it was actually achieved in the camera by picking up infrared, a spectrum of light that exists beyond the limits of human vision. While we may not be able to see infrared with our eyes, we can capture it with cameras (if it is set up for it) and if it is captured properly, the results can be breathtaking. At the end of this article, you'll know the basics of infrared cinematography and how to get that look in the camera.
An infrared image has a number of key features, all of which are due to how color and light appear on the final image. For example, take a look at these two example images from Wikipedia, one was normal and one was taken with an infrared camera:
This is a fairly typical example of what you see when taking infrared pictures, at least for outside areas: black sky, whitish-pink foliage and less visible colors. This is of course a very specific look that you only want to use in certain circumstances, but it is very suitable for music videos, experimental films, dream sequences and other situations and can benefit from a more surreal aesthetic. And although there are ways to replicate this look in the post, it will never be like actually getting it in the camera.
Why it is so striking
Although infrared images show us a part of the spectrum that we normally cannot see with our eyes, they still have a natural quality that you could never achieve in post-processing to the extent that you can in taking an organic image. To be able to see into the hidden part of the spectrum gives the viewer the feeling of entering another world, which is only possible with this shot. One of my favorite examples of an infrared film was the documentary "The Enclave". Here is an interview with artist and photographer Richard Mosse, describing his approach to the format:
How to get the look
There are a number of ways to take infrared pictures, just as there are a number of ways to take normal photos or videos. Previously, you could buy a special infrared film that was sensitive to IR light, which was an excellent solution at the time. However, for the purpose of this article, I'll go over the two main options that you have when you take digital photos. Before I go into the following explanation, it is worth noting that digital cameras are specifically designed to NOT capture infrared light. Modern digital cameras have an infrared cut filter that cuts off the IR light so that it does not interfere with your image because IR light mixed with light from the normal spectrum does not look good. The following two options include either bypassing or changing the built-in IR cut filter:
Option 1 – IR filter
I will anticipate my explanation of this particular option by pointing out that this method is usually better for photos than for videos. Still, I paste it here because in some situations (like time-lapse photography or when you're shooting with a camera like the C100 that can shoot at a very high ISO) it can be a viable option.
As mentioned above, digital cameras usually have an IR cut filter that cuts off the infrared rays so that they do not hit the sensor. Fortunately, these filters don't cut out 100% of the infrared light, and in fact enough infrared light still hits your sensor to draw an IR image from it. The goal is that only the infrared light hits your sensor. This means that you need to use a special infrared filter like this from Hoya:
Hoya infrared filter at B&H
This filter is designed to cut out all of the light, except for light that falls on the infrared spectrum. And since your camera already blocks a large amount of infrared light internally, this means that when you use a filter like the one mentioned above, you only transmit a small amount of light to your sensor. For this reason, I have already mentioned that this technique is used most often for photography, since you can set a long exposure and compensate for the fact that very little light hits the sensor. Unfortunately, you generally want a shutter speed of 180 degrees (or 1/48 for 24p shooting) for videos, which makes this option less than ideal for most situations. However, if you're shooting in a very bright environment (say on a beach on a sunny day) and using a fast lens (F1.4 or so), you should still be able to shoot useful results. This is especially true if you're using a camera like the C100 or C300 that can shoot at extremely high ISO values to get extra exposure.
Option 2 – modified camera
The other option you have is to actually modify your camera and remove the IR cut filter from the inside and then modify it to allow only IR light. This may sound drastic, but it's relatively easy and can be removed from most local photo stores at a reasonable cost ($ 300 to $ 400 on average). There is no question that removing the IR cut filter will give much better results than using an IR filter (as described in option 1), since in fact a lot more light hits the sensor, which means you can shoot into situations with less light and still get the infrared look. Not to mention that you don't have to use another filter for your lens, since everything is done internally, which makes it much easier to record IR.
The disadvantage of changing your camera is, of course, that you can only use it for IR photos / videos once you have made the change. However, if you have an older DSLR that you don't use as often and plan to film more experimentally, this may be a good option.
If you're considering taking IR shots and looking for one or two low-light lenses to improve your shooting situation, be sure to read mine Top 10 affordable lenses for shooting in extremely low light conditions.
Noam Kroll is an award-winning filmmaker from Los Angeles and founder of the boutique production house Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television and in various publications around the world. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!