Sunday, January 12, 2014

Creative Infrared Photography - Low Key IR Photography

Low key is a photographic style that employs dark tones to create drama and depth in an image. Low key lighting isn't just about making dark image – it’s about selectively lighting the scene so that only specific areas are illuminated. Humans are creatures of the light and shadowy things emerging from the darkness give us pause. It creates tension and mood. Our eye instinctively moves away from the darkness to the brighter areas of a photograph and with selective lighting, the photographer can draw the viewer to different areas of the image.

In my normal approach to photography, I use fill flashes or reflectors to add light to dark areas.  With low key lighting, shadows become a major photographic element rather than a problem to be corrected. The selective use of shadows can not only add drama but it also bring realism to an image by creating three dimensional depth.

Greenhouse Path - IR Ann Arbor Michigan
Low key shooting is all about controlling the light. So what do you do when you cannot control the lighting in a scene? This is where camera settings come into play. The first image shows the main walkway of the greenhouse at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens in Ann Arbor Michigan. As I looked at this scene, I noticed that the lighting was mottled with bright and dark areas that would be a problem for normal photography. I decided to embrace the uneven lighting and let the sun puddles highlight different areas of the scene. To make this happen, I metered on the windows and invited the darkness into the scene.

This approach was not totally spontaneous.  My test shots showed that the poinsettias in the foliage would help to break up the mass of color on the left and the palms would provide some visual texture. So I went with it.  I also captured a 5 shot HDR bracket just in case my grand scheme did not work.  

My post-processing is described at the end of this article.  Nik Viveza 2 was used to add contrast and structure to the scene and Nik Define 2 was used to manage the noise. The final image was not quite dark enough so I applied a Low Key filter (dynamic low key) using Nik Color Efex Pro 4. 

Koi Pond -IR  Ann Arbor Micigan
The second image from this shoot shows the koi pool that is just inside the entrance to the greenhouse. A glass wall separates the reception area from the greenhouse and I was able to use it as a mirror to capture the reflections from the greenhouse behind me. Unfortunately, I could not capture the reflections and the pool in a single image because the dynamic range was too great. I shot a 3 image HDR bracket with exposures separated by 1.3 EVs. I set the white balance on the three images individually as described below.and I merged the balanced images using the Nik HDR Efex Pro2 software plugin in Photoshop. The channel swap was done on the HDR image. Once again, I was not concerned about the unevenness of the lighting.  It is what it is.  

Desert Plants - IR  Ann Arbor Michigan
The final image has low key elements but it may not be classified as low key by some photographers. This was taken in the arid desert greenhouse. One of the challenges a macro photographer faces in a greenhouse shoot is that all the plants are close together and it is difficult to get subject isolation. The foreground plant in this image was in a sun puddle and the background cactus was bathed with mottled light. The lighting made the texture of the cactus even more pronounced. This is not a good scenario for a macro photographer.
I could have blacked out the background in post but I wanted to try something different. By metering for the foreground plant, I was able to create a shadowed, dimensionally-diverse background. This background is too busy to please most macro photographers but I liked it because it kept my eye moving around the photo. The downside to this approach is that the photographic subject is no longer the foreground plant; it also includes the background elements. I’m OK with that.

All of these images were captured with a Nikon D90 with a LifePixel SuperColor (590nm) conversion and a Nikkor 20mm AFD at f/8. The initial white balance used the in-camera LifePixel preset. The final WB was set using Nikon Capture NX2 software and the channel swap was done in Photoshop CS5

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