Saturday, October 12, 2013

Tips for Infrared Photography Using Candlelight

Autumn is here in North America and infrared photographers are thinking about capturing those final images of the season and putting their cameras away until spring. Don’t do that!  There are many things that can be accomplished with infrared photography that does not involve leafy landscape photographs. In my next series of blogs, I will cover some non-traditional IR projects you might like to try.

We will start with candlelight photos – this is after all, One Candle Photos.

Candle is the Subject - Infrared

Balancing noise (ISO) and shutter speed (movement) are the biggest challenges the photographer faces when taking visible light photos by candlelight. The good news is that candlelight photography is easier with IR.  Candles emit more IR light than visible light. This allows us to use a faster shutter speed and/or lower ISO settings than we would normally use for visible light photos. Lower ISO means that we will have less noise (graininess) in the photograph. Faster shutter settings minimizes movement blur from the subject and from the flame. 

In visible light photography, candlelight gives a warmth and intimacy that is rarely found in natural sunlight. This warmth does not occur when using a 720nm (Standard IR) or a 830nm (Deep IR) converted camera because the warm yellows and oranges are blocked by the IR filter. The shape and relative intensity of the light is the same but the apparent warmth is gone. SuperColor (590nm) converted cameras will capture oranges, reds, and some yellows from the visible spectrum but the warm tones may not be noticed due to the overall orange hue in the out-of-camera images. Because of this, I think black and white renderings work best for IR candlelight shots. You can always apply a warm monotone to the photo during post processing.

Books and photo blogs about candlelight photography tell us to reduce or eliminate other sources of light because they can outshine the candlelight. Photography in a darkened room creates many difficulties. Autofocus struggles in low light and many of us fumble with camera settings when we work in the dark. With IR photography, we can light the room and the scene with LED light. LEDs produce almost no IR light and contribute almost nothing to the exposure. With LED lighting, my converted IR camera can autofocus and I don’t have to hold a flashlight in my mouth when I change camera settings.

So why do I mess around with candles?  A candle acts as point source and point source lighting creates spaces and shadows that are difficult for me to reproduce by any other method. Candlelight increases the dimensionality and apparent depth of the image and creates interesting shadows. And finally, playing with cameras and candles can be an enjoyable way to spend a winter evening.

What type of photos can be taken by candlelight? Almost anything you want. Traditional compositions fall into 4 major categories:

·         The candle is the subject
·         The candle and the subject are in the shot
·         Candle-lit scene where the candle is not in the photograph
·         Environmental scenes with candles.  (I will not discuss this category.)

The Candle is the Subject
When the subject is a lit candle, we have a high dynamic range scene with an extremely bright candle flame and very dark areas.It is difficult to get a well-balanced photo in these situations and we must decide whether the light or the shadows are more important. I tend to use matrix metering in these situations because I am constantly taking the camera away from my eye to evaluate the images and make adjustments. If I used spot metering, I would have to make sure that I put the spot in exactly the same place each time to ensure that base camera measurements remain the same. If I don’t put the spot in the same place, my adjustments will not be effective. In the first candle image, I had to reduce the exposure compensation by more than 4 stops to get the image you see here. I also boosted the saturation to bring out the red tones. Shooting information.  D90IR (720nm conversion), Nikkor 105mm VR f/2.8, f/8, 1/60 sec, -4.33EV, ISO 200.

Candle and Holder - Infrared
If you want to see the candle holder or other objects in the image, you may have to use a one-image HDR procedure. A standard HDR approach will produce an indistinct candle flame due to flame movement. In one-image HDR procedure I use Adobe Camera Raw to process the image as usual and bring it into Photoshop. I then process the image a second time but I adjust the exposure levels to bring out the other elements in the scene. Copy the second image onto the first as a layer mask and paint in the other elements. The Candle and Holder photo uses this technique. The first image was exposed with -6 stops of exposure compensation to capture the flame. On the second pass through Adobe Camera Raw, the exposure was adjusted 2 stops brighter to allow us to see the table and the candle holder. This technique really helps to minimize ghosting due to flame movement. Shooting information.  D90IR (720nm conversion), Nikkor 105mm VR f/2.8, f/8, 1/50 sec, -6.00 EV, ISO 200.

Candle and Subject are in the Shot
To take this type of photograph, we should: 

  • Get close.  Light follows the inverse-square rule.   When you are close to the subject, you have more available light and you will be able to capture more details.
  •  Zoom out.  This goes along with the previous, getting close, point. When using variable aperture zoom lenses, zooming out makes larger apertures available. When you stand back and zoom in, you get the double whammy - less light entering the lens and the maximum aperture becomes smaller. 
  • Remove the protective filter from your lens.  In this high contrast/high glare situation. Your protective filter may produce some unwanted glare.
  • Experiment with candle placement. A single candle or multiple candles in a single place will act as point source lighting and produce dark dramatic shadows. Spreading candles out produces more diffused lighting.
  • Keep the composition simple.   You want the viewer to be drawn to the candle and the areas illuminated by the candlelight. 
Candle and Lens - Infrared
For my example photograph, I mounted the D700/Nikkor 24-120 mm f/4 combination on a tripod and removed the protective filter from the front of the 24-120mm lens. I placed a taper in front of the lens. The candle was the only illumination for this shot. I used a small f/stop on my IR camera to increase the depth of focus and focused on the first ring within the lens.  The first image in this series had a lot of glare so I added negative exposure compensation to control it. I considered shooting an exposure bracket and processing with HDR software but the flickering flame would have caused ghosting in the stack. I converted this to BW with NIK Silver Efex Pro 2.  Shooting Information: D90IR (720nm conversion), Nikkor 105mm VR f/2.8, f/11, 1/100 sec, -2.67EV, ISO 320.

This photo shows several of the elements within the lens. It was interesting to note that the two leftmost flame images are inverted and getting larger. These inverted images were probably caused by the flame image reflections from the mirror. They were getting larger as they made their way back through the lens.

Candle is Not in the Photograph
In this approach, the candle can be just outside the frame or it can be behind an object in the scene. On a rainy weekend, I used this approach to reproduce the chiaroscuro lighting effect of the master painters. Wikipedia describes chiaroscuro as “…a technical term used by artists and art historians for using contrasts of light to achieve a sense of volume in modeling three-dimensional objects such as the human body.” Similar lighting effects are used in photography and cinema.   

Witch hats - Infrared
The scene was lit by a single tea light located behind the black hat on the left.  Light-colored walls surrounded the scene on three sides and a large reflector positioned above and to camera right added fill lighting. The candle was the only light for the shot. Without the candle, the image was black. Image was converted to BW with Silver Efex Pro 2.  Shooting Information:  D90IR (590nm conversion), Nikkor 20mm AFD, f/4, 1/4 sec, ISO 400.

The hats look different in this photograph because the leftmost hat was made of leather and the right hat was a synthetic material. I wanted the shadows to be a major visual element so I used a low tea light to create dramatic upsweeping shadows from spent Brown-Eyed Susan stems. The point source lighting also gave the rest of the scene a sense of volume and dimensionality.

You can do a lot with candlelight. People shots and flower shots are very interesting by candlelight, glass objects can be used to produce interesting abstract images, and dramatic shadow images are easy to arrange. Have a little fun with your IR camera this winter!


  1. I like the infrared and Lenz one.

  2. Hi Dan, I had hoped you were on Twitter... I was eager for an instant reply.

    Then, after writing several paragraphs to you, I accidentally closed this page. So, starting again.

    Basically I'd like to use your image on my site. I cook and heat with candles, and now have installed a Solatube to see if I can grow veggies indoors in winter.

    Solatube is great for light:

    but it filters out IR. So I was thinking maybe my candles could supplement. I want to do a page on it, and would like your permission to use your photo, with credits, of course.

    Karen Kline

  3. Which photo are you interested in using?