Take a look at the image above and notice how unique, surreal, and specific it looks. While this might appear to be an effect that was done in Photoshop or After Effects, it was actually achieved in camera by shooting infrared, which is a spectrum of light that exists beyond the boundaries of human vision. While we may not be able to see infrared with our eyes, we are able to capture it with cameras (when set up for it) and when shot properly the results can be stunning. By the end of this article you’ll know the basics of infrared cinematography and how to achieve this look in camera.
There are a number of key characteristics to an infrared image and they all come down to the way that the color and light appear on the final image. For instance, take a look at these two sample images from Wikipedia, one was shot normally and one with an infrared camera:
This is a fairly typical example of what you’ll see when shooting infrared, at least for outdoor locations: Black skies, white-ish pink foliage, and fewer visible colors. Clearly this is a very specific look that you’re only going to want to use under special circumstances, but it can work really well for music videos, experimental films, dream sequences, and other situations can all benefit from a more surreal aesthetic. And while there are ways to attempt to replicate this look in post, it will never be the same as actually achieving it in camera.
Why It’s So Eye-Catching
Although infrared shots are showing us a part of the spectrum that we normally can’t see with our eyes, they still have a natural quality to them that you could never achieve in post-processing to the same degree that you can when capturing an organic image. Being able to see into this hidden part of the spectrum gives the viewer a sense of stepping into another world, that is only achievable by shooting this way. One of my favorite examples of a film shot using infrared 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 capture infrared images, just like there are a number of ways to capture ordinary photos or videos. Back in the film days, you could go out and buy special infrared film that was sensitive to IR light, which was an excellent solution at the time, but for the purpose of this article I’m going to touch on the two main options you have if you’re shooting digitally. It’s worth noting before I jump into the explanation below, that digital cameras are actually specifically designed to NOT capture infrared light. Modern digital cameras have an infrared blocking filter on them that cuts out IR light so that it won’t interfere with your image, as IR light mixed with light from the normal spectrum doesn’t look good. So both of the options below involve either working around, or modifying your built in IR blocking filter:
Option 1 – IR Filter
I’ll preface my explanation on this particular option by pointing out that this method is typically better for photos than video. Even so, I am including it here as in some situations (like time-lapse photography, or if you are shooting with a camera like the C100 that can shoot at a very high ISO) it can be a viable option.
As I mentioned above, digital cameras typically have an IR blocking filter built into them that cuts out the infrared rays so they don’t hit the sensor. Fortunately though, these filters aren’t cutting out 100% of the infrared light, and in fact there is still enough infrared light hitting your sensor that you can pull an IR image from it. The goal is to only have the infrared light hitting your sensor, which means you will need to use a special Infrared Filter, such as this one from Hoya:
This filter is designed to cut out all light, except for light that falls on the infrared spectrum. And since your camera is already blocking out a huge amount of infrared light internally, that means that when you use a filter like the one above, you are only getting a tiny amount of light to your sensor. This is why I stated earlier that this technique is most often used for photography, as you can set a long exposure and compensate for the fact that very little light is hitting the sensor. Unfortunately with video you generally want your shutter speed at 180 degrees (or 1/48 when shooting 24p), which makes this option less than ideal for most situations. With that said though, if you are shooting in a very bright environment (let’s say a beach during the middle of a sunny day), and you are using a fast lens (F1.4 or so), you should still be able to get useable results. This is especially true if you are using a camera like the C100 or C300 that can shoot at extremely high ISO’s to help you get that extra exposure.
Option 2 – Modified Camera
The other option that you have is to actually modify your camera, and have the IR blocking filter removed from the inside and then modified to only allow in IR light. This sounds drastic, but is actually relatively simple to do and most local camera shops can remove it at a reasonable cost ($300 – $400 on average). There is no question that removing the IR blocking filter will give you much better results than only using an IR filter (as described in option 1), since you will have a much larger amount of light actually hitting the sensor, meaning you can shoot in lower-light situations and still get the infrared look. Not to mention, you won’t need to use another filter on your lens since it is all being done internally, which makes shooting IR much simpler.
The downside to modifying your camera of course is that you can only use it for IR photos/videos once you do the modification. That said, if you have an older DSLR that you don’t use as much and you plan on doing some more experimental filmmaking, it could be a great option.
If you’re considering shooting some IR footage and are looking for a low-light lens or two to help out your shooting situation, be sure to check out my Top 10 Affordable Lenses For Shooting In Extreme Low Light.