Sunday, June 19, 2016

Using IR to Create Stunning Low Contrast Images

In a recent photo challenge, we were asked to produce a wall-worthy low contrast image.  While this type of challenge brings to mind images of fog-shrouded paths and shorelines, the first thing I did was to grab my infrared-converted camera for some tone-on-tone work.  More on that later.

So, what is contrast?  Simply put, contrast is the degree of difference between the lightest and darkest parts of your photo.  More difference means more contrast.  More contrast also means that the image is more dynamic and it appears to be sharper.  With low contrast photos, there is much less difference between the dark and light tones. 

Low-contrast photography isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Our mind instinctively wants to understand the scene and it becomes frustrated and uncomfortable when objects cannot be distinguished clearly.  In a foggy shoreline scene, we naturally try to see through the fog to discern what’s really there.  This is desire may be hard-coded into us by our prehistoric ancestors who could encounter something large and hungry in the mist. 

Let’s set aside the fog photos for a moment and think about what low contrast really means and doesn’t mean.  Low contrast doesn’t mean lacking in contrast, blurry, or flat—it means that the tonal differences are subtle.  Subtle differences in color and tone can be visually evocative and sometimes, even peaceful.  Some low contrast images can have a fantasy look to them.

Why did I grab my IR (720 nm standard conversion) camera for this challenge?  IR photography is, by definition, a low contrast medium.  We purposely block out much of the color information thereby limiting the color tones.  While we have the full range of light and dark values, these can be easily manipulated during the capture. 

Here’s the first example, buds from a shrub.  The buds were shot against the grass which turned out white in IR, giving us the white-on-white tone.  This photo was a challenge for me because I wanted to crank up the contrast and structure.  It's now a favorite because it went against all of my photographic instincts.

Shrub bud tone-on-tone IR image
Shrub bud in infrared with grass background.
D90 (720nm conversion), Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 VR, f/14, 1/60 sec, -0.67 EV, ISO 200, hand held. No channel swap.

The second example is a photo of a chive blossom.  Illumination was from an incandescent light to camera right.  I used the LifePixel preset white balance then adjusted it in Nikon CNX using the maquee funciton.  Did a channel swap in Photoshop CS5 to get the white colors. Didn't have to do much to make this image work except for shooting multiple images and decreasing the EV until the histogram fit. This is a single image.

IR Chive Blossom
Chive blossom in infrared, 

D90IR (720nm), Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 VR, f/8, 1/20 sec, -2.33 EV, ISO 200, with tripod. taken under an incandescent lamp. 

By thinking more low-contrast, you can open yourself up to much more dreamy, romantic photography that's a little more subtle and a bit more ethereal. There's a delicacy, and fragility to low-contrast photography that shouldn't be dismissed.