In Part 1 of our Infrared Photography Discussion, John-Paul provided us with great comparisons of the various IR films available on the market. Additionally, he took the time to discuss the similarities, differences, and unique properties of each film. This week’s discussion will focus on the various possibilities for black and white infrared photography using digital equipment and digital post-production processing techniques. The day John-Paul made his IR film comparisons, he also made a digital capture of the scene we used to illustrate the various IR films in Part 1. The digital capture can be seen below:
One of the first things that needs to be said about most digital captures is that they are extremely high-contrast images. This is the reason, actually, why most people are somewhat hesitant about the movement to digital photography. Those who are accustomed to the look of film quite often feel the digital images have a much different ‘feel’ to them. They are correct, but they are usually correct for the wrong reasons! Most think that digital doesn’t have as much ‘clarity’ or ‘detail’ as film. The opposite is in fact true. Digital images are very clear, very detailed, very sharp – in fact sometimes too sharp. The high-contrast feel of digital can sometimes come across as phoney looking. Film on the other hand has an inherent softness to it. This is the prime issue with the image of the bridge above. As a color digital image – it’s great! However, if we are attempting to convert this image to a black & white infrared image, then we may have somewhat of a difficult time achieving the same feel film would have provided us.
To ensure the best possible conversion it is necessary to capture your images in your camera’s RAW file format. JPG files are fine for most average shooters’ needs, however whenever you plan on doing major post-processing enhancement and manipulation, a JPG file does not contain the needed precious data or the capability to alter or even undo the camera’s image processing effects! With respect to the image we are attempting to convert to an IR black & white, the default camera’s processing has set too steep of a contrast curve – the image is too crisp, too clear, and extremely vibrant looking. In general this is a good thing, but not for this exercise. Because John-Paul captured a RAW file, we are able to, through the Adobe Camera RAW converter, decrease the contrast effect, decrease mid-tone clarity, and soften the crisp edges in order to prepare this image for digital IR conversion. The ‘softer’ image can be seen below:
In the prepped version of John-Paul’s image, one can clearly see the relieved black point, the softer color graduations, a decrease in mid-tone contrast, and a drastic change in the entire contrast tone of the image. This was all achieved through the RAW processing engine by giving the image negative clarity, decreasing contrast, adding fill light, changing the tone curve to linear, removing all sharpening parameters, and taking a touch of saturation away. We can now begin the process of IR conversion.
The best way to achieve the IR look through Photoshop is to perform a Channel Mixer adjustment layer. Once the Channel Mixer dialog window is active, make sure you check the ‘Monochrome’ box. Then move the sliders around until you achieve a desired look. But what is the desired look? Through experimentation I have come up with three starting points based on what the image content is. Something to keep in mind when creating a digital IR conversion is that the one navigating the software must be cognizant of how IR film would render particular color tones. The Channel Mixer function can’t necessarily see sky, or green leaves, it doesn’t have sensitivity to a specific band of the light spectrum. It just sees luminosity [brightness]. Based on the input values we assign, we can instruct the software to interpret the luminosity values in a specific manner. You will have to tweak from image to image, but try these values as general starting points:
Mostly blue skies: Red +200, Green -65, Blue -35
Green landscapes with some sky: Red -50, Green +200, Blue -50
Skin tones: Red +120, Green +30, Blue -50
Once you have adjusted the estimated values to your image, go ahead and commit the changes to the adjustment layer. Observe the effect. Does it mimic that classic “Wood Effect” that we discussed last week in Part 1 of our discussion? What do you think needs to be changed, modified, slightly tweaked? Try readjusting the channel mixer values until you achieve the best result. One thing to keep in mind is that you want to make sure your overall image brightness remains 100%. Above or below 100% luminosity will clip details and cripple dynamic range.
Once you have the basic tonality of the image in place, you can move onto applying the halation and grain properties produced by most IR films. Typically there are two further attributes of IR images in addition to the sky turning dark and the green foliage turning a bright white. With some IR films, particularly the Kodak HIE, the bright white regions exhibit a blooming effect, known as halation. This is the glowing and ethereal effect that is seen in most IR photographs. It adds dimension and the feeling of an otherworldly experience. To add this effect, create a stamped layer on top of your layers palette in Photoshop. You can do this by selecting all of your layers and using the keyboard shortcut ALT+SHIFT+CTRL+E on Windows, or CMD+OPT+SHIFT+E on Mac. This will create a merged image on top of your layer stack, yet retaining any layers and adjustments you might have made below it. Choose this new layer and run a Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur on it. A radius between 5-8 pixels is a good place to start. The higher the blur radius, the wider the blooming effect. Next, change the layer’s blending mode to ‘Screen’, which will lighten the image and make the blur effect which just gave it so much more dramatic. Adjust the opacity of this layer to taste. Something I found was that when using the IR effect for portraits where skin tones are involved, the opacity of this Screen layers usually looks best at around 25%. The last thing we need to do is add grain to the image to finish off the IR effect. Create a new blank layer on top of your layer palette. Go to Edit>Fill and fill this layer with 50% Gray. Next, go to Filter> Noise> Add Noise. Choose Gaussian and Monochromatic and input a value of 5-6%. Then change the layer’s blending mode to Overlay. These are the basic steps. As I said, each digital image will have its own peculiarities for IR conversion and you will need to make fine tuned adjustments based on your original image content, but these steps will point you in the general direction.
One of the more popular ways (and of course quicker and easier) is to use third party Photoshop plug-in software to achieve the IR effect among a myriad of other film effects. A software company named Alienskin has developed film profiles to allow users to mimic the feels and moods of popular film emulsions. Once you open the plug-in suite, you have access to a wide variety options to choose from – Color slide films, negative films, black & white, and Infrared has its own special category. The current version of this software is named Alienskin Exposure 2.0. Among the options for IR conversion, Kodak HIE, Ilford SFX 200, and Konica 750 are all present. In last week’s article we ended up comparing all other IR films to Kodak HIE as a gold standard, we will use Alienskin’s interpretation of Kodak HIE in this week’s article. Once the user selects the preset of Kodak HIE, for example, one can then enter a series of tabs to adjust contrast – globally or on individual color channels, sharpening, halation effect, and the amount and size of grain for the output image. This process leaves endless possibilities for digital IR conversion without the user having to re-create the effects by hand as we did in our first example. One can move the slider bars around until a satisfactory visual has been achieved.
Nik software has just released their own version of Alienskin Exposure which has been built to mimic variety of film effects exclusively for black & white conversion. The program, SilverEfex is a Photoshop plug-in as well which allows for choosing from a wide variety of vintage and modern black & white film types to apply to your digital images. This program too has provision for IR conversion. What can be said about these two plug-ins is that, like the hand creation process, some tweaking will always be necessary as the software algorithms do not have an ‘electro-magnetic response’ to the capture of the light like an infrared piece of film does. In our opinion the Alienskin software captures more of the feel of what the infrared film can produce. The SilverEfex rendition is not bad, but requires a bit more tweaking in order to achieve that soft feel the Kodak HIE provides. As for the hand creation method? We feel that in most cases it may be the best way to achieve your custom-desired result. Additionally, it can be good discipline in learning and further understanding ways to interpret color, tone, contrast, sharpness, and softness across all image-editing scenarios. The most you understand about making localized adjustments, your photographs will quickly become much better looking and technically accurate.
Join us next week for Part 3 when we consider color infrared and the possibility of altering your digital SLR for infrared capture.