Friday, March 14, 2014

Winter IR Photography

This is the fifth post in my series on what to do with your IR camera during the “off season.” 

In this post, I will talk about winter landscape photography.  Winter landscape photography is very similar to summer photography except that it is cold and battery life is much more limited.  I always keep a spare battery inside my coat where it will stay warm. This gives me more shots than a battery kept in my car, camera bag, or in an outside pocket. 
It is also important to protect your camera and lens when you bring them in from the cold. Warm moist (inside) air will condense on and in your cold camera gear when you bring it in from the outside.  This will introduce moisture into areas that should never get wet. To prolong camera life, I seal the camera and lens into a gallon-sized zip-loc bag before I bring it into the house. The camera and lens stay in the bag until they reach room temperature. 
I generally classify winter shooting into three types of photography – sunny day shooting, shooting under overcast skies, and the crazy business of shooting in nasty weather. 
Sunny day shooting is the most logical type of IR photography. During sunny days, IR light is plentiful, shutter speeds are short, and you don’t need a tripod for most shots. Clear blue skies produce nice dark IR skies that highlight any puffy clouds that may be in the scene. Sunny conditions also produce lots of glare, especially from the snow. This is where IR photographers have an advantage over other photographers because IR photographers deal with glare from grass and other vegetation all the time. The same approaches and settings you use to deal with vegetation glare work for snow glare. Using a lens shade is very important under these conditions to reduce lens flare.
Gallup Park, Ann Arbor Michigan - Infrared
My first sunny day photo was taken at Gallup Park in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  The skies were beautiful and the temperature was 1 degree below zero Fahrenheit.  I wore over-gloves with silk glove liners to keep my fingers from freezing to the camera. To take a photo, I removed the over-gloves and handled the camera with the silk gloves. My hands got cold very quickly but they did not stick to the camera.  This photo was taken with a D70s with a 720nm standard IR conversion. Most people would not realize that this is an IR shot because it looks almost “normal.”  The real challenge for this photo was to remove the blue cast from the snow after the channel swap. I used a Hue and Saturation adjustment layer to remove the color cast.
Evergreen Cemetery, Alpena Michigan - Infrared
The second sunny day photo was taken at the Evergreen Cemetery in Alpena, Michigan. It was another beautiful winter day with a temperature of about 20 degrees Fahrenheit.  This photo was taken using a D90 with a 590nm SuperColor conversion. The major challenge with this photo was dealing with the high contrast caused by bands of bright snow and darker shadow. I kept adjusting the camera until the histogram was acceptable and the “blinkies” (blown out areas) were under control. As before, I used a Hue and Saturation adjustment layer to remove the blue cast that remained after the channel swap.
Curran Michigan Gully - Infrared
The next two images were taken near Curran, Michigan using a SuperColor converted D90. As you can see from the first image, the day was extremely overcast and the sky acted like a giant soft box. There is very little shadow and almost no contrast in the snowy areas. The blue cast was removed from the snow as described previously and NIK Viveza 2 control points were used to give the nondescript sky some structure and contrast. 
Snowmobile Path, Curran Michigan - Infrared
The next photo was included to show how I attempted to make a featureless snowy foreground a little more interesting. To do this, I looked around for an area that had weeds poking up through the snow. In this case, I also found an area where snowmobiles had torn up the snow and the ground. My intention was to create an image that had an interesting foreground, a middle ground, and a background. The foreground is interesting but the rest of this photo is pretty boring.
Taking IR photos in nasty winter weather has many challenges - some obvious and some not. Personal safety and potential equipment damage are some of the obvious challenges and I am sure we all can come up with four or five other reasons why we shouldn't be wandering around with a camera during a winter storm. The less obvious challenges have to do with light.   
We all know that the world gets darker when a thick, snow-laden cloud bank is overhead.  This is a world with little contrast and no color. Only the closest objects have any hope of producing a sharp image.
IR light is highly variable under these conditions. IR light can sometimes fall off faster than the visible light during winter storms. This is important because the metering and exposure system in your converted camera uses visible light.  Your routine camera settings may not work and when you find a cool shot, you may need a tripod or insanely high ISO settings to bring it home. Even with all these negative aspects, taking photos during a winter storm can be rewarding for the reckless, foolhardy, and naive. 
Snowstorm in Grand Rapids Michigan - Infrared
This photo was taken in Grand Rapids Michigan during a snowstorm. I drove over from Ann Arbor to attend a photo workshop and arrived earlier than expected. This was a Saturday and we were in an old industrial area that was being converted to lofts and studios. I decided to take the IR camera for a walk in the storm. Did I mention reckless, foolhardy and naive? 

For this photo, I was standing on an iron bridge that spans the Grand River. The snow was falling like mad, I could not see a soul, and the steel-gray water below looked awfully cold. I leaned against one of the steel uprights to steady the camera and shot back along the path I had just traveled. This is a color IR photo using a D90 with a standard 720nm IR conversion. I set the white balance with Nikon Capture NX2 but did not perform a channel swap. I liked the little bit of sepia coloration left over from the white balancing. It made the image look like vintage photo.
Iron Bridge, Grand Rapids, Michigan - Infrared
The final photo shows the same iron bridge from the roadway. As I was standing in the middle of the road, a snow plow came around the corner behind me.  I don’t know who was more surprised!  I got out of his way and captured the image after he left the scene. Once again, there was no channel swap. I did not like the sepia tone on this one so I converted it to black and white.
I hope I have demonstrated that you can take interesting landscape photos in the winter and maybe next year, your IR camera will join you on some winter excursions.


  1. Dan,
    I never thought to take an IR photo in the snow. Thanks for the inspiration. The "Snowstorm in Grand Rapids" is exceptional!

  2. Very inspirational, thank you for this post!

  3. It's a shame that modern DSLRs need to be converted to IR. But, not understanding what happens inside the chips/sensor I don't know why the camera can't just capture a ton of visible and invisible data. The reason I'm saying this is that - to my knowledge, it costs quite a bit of money to shoot IR and then the camera can't shoot regular visible light, which means it costs even more than a fullframe DSLR, which is expensive to begin with.
    But thank you for this very cool post!! Maybe someday I'll win the lottery and be able to buy or have a FF DSLR converted (I wouldn't bother with a crop sensor because they don't capture as much light).
    Thanks again and Happy New Year.

  4. I recently had Kolari Vision do a Full Spectrum Conversion on an old Canon S3 and can now shoot regular photography with their Hot Spot filter, or shoot using other filters ... 720nm, 550nm, H-alpha astrophotography, Blue IR/NDVI filters (they have more, but these are the ones I selected for now). So you can gave both worlds...though I would only convert a camera which is out of warranty, as mine was.