False-Color Infrared

By John Custodio Back to


I bought a Canon 5D about two years ago and had it modified for infrared by MaxMax.com, which installed a 715nm filter over the sensor, allowing only deep red and infrared light to pass through. My initial intention when I started shooting digital infrared was to convert the images to black-and-white. When I used to shoot film, I sometimes used Konica’s infrared, which I scanned to make black-and-white inkjet prints. Since digital infrared images are still color images, they can exhibit a “false color” effect caused by the different response that each of the red, blue, and green photosites has to deep red and infrared light. Areas in the scene reflecting more deep red and infrared have a different hue than areas reflecting less.

I found that the introduction of a small amount of color to the image looked much better than simply converting it to black-and-white, and as a result, most of my infrared images are treated as color.

I mostly photograph landscapes using the 5D for infrared and a Canon 1Ds for color. Since converting the 5D, my work has been gravitating more toward infrared because I find that landscapes simply look more interesting in infrared. Foliage, for example, has more detail, and I like the false-color effect. My aim in infrared, however, is to try to avoid images that have a typical infrared look (a lot of white foliage and black skies). Frequently, I’ll tone down the color saturation because—especially after contrast increases and other processing steps—the color tends to get too saturated. I’m looking for a more subtle effect rather than wild colors.

My first infrared project was Las Vegas. I’ve been there many times over the years, but I was never really interested in Las Vegas as a photographic subject. I found it “too colorful” in color, and not that interesting in black-and-white. But on one of my trips I decided to take some shots on my newly modified camera. The fantasy effect that the infrared portion of the spectrum added to the already fantastical architecture really inspired me to pursue this further.

Last summer I spent two weeks in Washington and the Columbia River area of Oregon. Even though I did get some color photographs that I’ve added to my portfolio, the majority of good images I was able to add were infrared. The Washington and Oregon in Infrared series consists of 14 images that I exhibited in a gallery earlier this year.

I’m currently working on a series of infrared photographs taken in an old cemetery in South Carolina. And I’ve just started exploring night photography in infrared. The flare effects from light sources such as street lamps are sometimes quite interesting.

White balance and color palette

I always use a custom white balance with my 5D and shoot in Raw (see “Digital Infrared, Part I: Making Images,” in PT September/October 2008).

The false-color effect is influenced by the Raw converter used. My initial infrared series on Las Vegas actually took advantage of a shortcoming in earlier versions of Adobe Camera Raw. Adobe’s Raw converter doesn’t fully honor the color temperature of the As Shot setting when opening an infrared image taken with a custom white balance. The color temperature slider in the Raw converter only goes down as far as 2000°K, but needs to go lower. As a result, images have a red-to-magenta hue—red where the infrared reflectivity is low, and magenta where it is high. Opening the same image in any other Raw converter such as Capture 1 or Bibble Pro yields a closer-to-neutral look similar to what is seen on the camera’s rear LCD. This look is actually not neutral, but has a yellow-to-blue hue—yellow where the infrared reflectivity is low, and blue where it is high. The Washington and Oregon series was converted in Bibble Pro to get this palette.

These are the two color palettes I’ve been using so far with my infrared images—using Camera Raw for a red-magenta look and Bibble Pro for a yellow- blue look.

The problem is having to use two different Raw converters. I would prefer to use only Camera Raw for all my conversions because of its feature set and because it’s well integrated with Photoshop and Lightroom. Adobe has recently solved this problem by making available a camera-profile editor that, among other things, allows you to effectively recalibrate the color temperature slider so that you no longer hit the 2000°K lower limit.

The editor allows you to create a custom infrared profile that can be selected in the Camera Calibrate tab of either Camera Raw or Lightroom. Now, selecting my 5D IR profile and As Shot gives me a result similar to what I saw on the camera’s LCD
(yellow-blue rendition). But I can always go back to the old rendition (red-magenta) by selecting one of the original, non-custom camera profiles that are still there. Of course, other palettes can be obtained by adjusting the color temperature and tint sliders.

The profile editor, along with a tutorial on how to use it, are located at www.labs.adobe.com under Camera Profiles and DNG Profile Editor.

The profiles you make using the profile editor will only work with Camera Raw 4.5 or higher (download at www.adobe.com/products/ photoshop/cameraraw.html).

About the Author

John Custodio
A standard and panoramic photographer, John Custodio has photographed landscapes in the West and Southeast since 1988. He has a bachelor of fine arts degree in photography from the School of Visual Arts in NYC, and works as a video editor on documentaries for independent producers. His work has been seen in NYC exhibits at Soho Photo Gallery, E-3 Gallery, and The Camera Club of New York, among others.