A Completely Different Way of Seeing

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Friday, May 8, 2020

I’ll be completely honest here, I had no intention of completing this image, let alone posting anything about it.  I still have very mixed feelings about doing so, but I figured that this is part of my journey as a photographer and it might have an impact on my images later on.  With that in mind, this is going to be a very different blog entry from what I normally do.  It is not about a trek where I am trying to create images for my portfolio.  It not really a tips and tricks entry because I still haven’t figured everything out with this process.  It isn’t really something that I would do for a Behind the Camera feature either.  This is an entry about one picture that really wasn’t all that well thought out during the composition stage, and the result isn’t nearly as polished as I would like it to be.  It was an experiment, and one that I thought was a total failure to begin with, and then made it all about a learning experience in post processing.  Yeah, that is what this entry is all about…post processing.

Recently, I have been gaining more and more interest into Infrared Photography.  For those that don’t really know what that is all about, it is photography of light that is outside of the visible realm.  If you were to look at a range of light, the visible light takes up the majority of the spectrum in the middle with Ultraviolet light in the lower bands with Infrared in the extreme upper bands.  Our eyes can only see that visible spectrum and that is what cameras are created to record.  They actually have filters to block the IR waves entering into the sensor because they would introduce some odd colors to the images we were capturing.  I’m still not completely sure on what the best way of describing IR light would be, but it does take on a different look when recorded with a camera.  The trademark look of IR photography is one where the foliage is bright white and the blue sky is usually black, or very dark.  That is when you are dealing with pure IR light.  There are methods of photographing the same IR light but introducing some of the visible spectrum of light as well which will yield the otherworldly colors that usually range in the blues, reds, and oranges.

For my first attempt at IR photography I decided that I wanted to keep it simple and stick with a monochrome representation as working the color channels in the colorized versions is quite a bit more advanced than I was ready to delve into.  But, for the sake of this entry I will say that to capture that aspect of the light, I would need to block almost all of the visible light up to around 690 nanometers which would allow some of the visible spectrum to enter the camera.  This can be done with one of the Singh-Ray I-Ray filters which I don’t have currently.  In hindsight, I probably should have purchased that one, but instead I went with the pure IR filter which blocks everything below 830 nanometers.  I’m sure your head is hurting at this point…mine sure is.  Enough with the science class and on to my experiment.

I knew going into this that the I-Ray 830 filter was a very dark filter and would require a long exposure.  I’m no stranger to long exposures and regularly capture images with exposures in excess of two to three minutes.  I’m aware of the issue with hot pixels and some noise that is introduced, but that didn’t bother me at all as I have learned to deal with that in post.  I was expecting the filter to be something like my Mor Slo ND filters which I was able to work with by using the live view display during bright conditions.  This shouldn’t be too much different for me at all.

HA!

A few days after I received my brand new filter from Singh-Ray, I started to think about how I wanted to try it out.  I knew that I didn’t want to travel far for this experiment because I had no idea how I was going to have to process the image, and more importantly, I didn’t know if it would work as well as I thought it was.  I didn’t want a full day invested in something that was going to fail.  With that in mind, I decided to go out to Old Salem because I knew that in God’s Acre there was plenty of foliage and grass with other details that would look good in a black and white IR image.  At least I thought that they would.  My other issue with this was one that I really didn’t put much thought into.  That was a known issue with certain camera and lens combinations when used with the I-Ray filters that caused a hot spot in the middle of the image which was actually an overexposed area in the middle of the frame.  I wasn’t quite sure how this would present itself, but since it was rare according to Singh-Ray, I wasn’t all that concerned with it.

“Note: A few camera lenses can produce an infrared “hot spot” in the center of the frame, a circular spot in the center that is lighter than the rest of the image and may or may not be correctable in processing. This problem is not specific to I-Ray filters, but rather is a function of how the specific lens treats infrared light passing through it and can occur with any camera shooting infrared, with either a filter or a converted camera body.”

I had my filter, and I had my plan.  It was time to get out there and give this a try.  On Friday, the weather was supposed to be mostly sunny with some passing clouds in the late morning.  Knowing that IR photography works best on bright days with direct sunlight (typically the worst time of day for photography), this was going to be just perfect.  I had three different areas that I wanted to photograph to try out this technique that I thought would work very well.  I hopped in the truck and headed down the road for Old Salem.  When I got there, I made the short walk to the graveyard where I wanted to get things started.  They were mowing the grounds so I tried to concentrate on areas where there was no activity.  I found a section that included the trees, a patch of the sky and a large expanse of grass bordered by the brick walkways.  There was plenty here for contrast in the image and I was pretty sure I was off to a good start.

I got the camera all set up on the tripod and fitted my 16-35mm lens to get a nice wide view of the area and to include as much of the sky as I could.  I got the shot composed and focused before I added the filter.  When I was reasonably happy with things, I slid the filter in the holder and turned on the live view.  Nothing…there was nothing at all to be seen on the back of the camera.  Even switching over to Bulb mode there was nothing but a black screen.  I was going to have to guess at the exposure here because I didn’t have a good conversion scale to work with.  I had heard that ISO640, f/8 and 50 seconds would work on this filter, but the lighting wasn’t exactly bright at this point so I knew that I was probably going to have to go a little longer.  But it was a good starting point for my experiment.

Unedited, RAW Capture, ISO640, f/8, 50 seconds, Singh-Ray I-Ray 830 Filter

That was a very long 50 seconds but when it showed up on the image review I could see that the exposure had worked, but it was a little dark which I expected.  What I saw more concerning was that bright hot spot in the middle of the image.  It was a perfect circle dead center that was clearly overexposed.  I double checked the filter to make sure that the gasket was all sealed up which it was.  I had my viewfinder cover on, so there were no light leaks to the camera.  This was obviously the warning that I had read about when ordering the filter.  I was disgusted at this point because there was no way to deal with something like this in post.  The edges were too defined and to get the exposure right across the board, I would have to underexpose the vast majority of the image to rescue this center spot.  I almost packed things up right then and there, but got to thinking about the fact that the the anomaly was something related to certain lenses.  Maybe if I switched lenses, I would have better luck.  Fortunately, I find the most use out of my 24-70mm lens so that was an easy switch to make knowing that I would probably be using that one the most anyway.

I repeated the process with getting the shot lined up and focused before sliding the filter on the front of the lens.  Knowing that the previous exposure was a little dark, I decided to increase the exposure by a full stop to 100 seconds at ISO640.  I’ve had reasonably good luck with anything under ISO800 on this camera when it comes to noise, so I wasn’t overly worried about the ISO.  I did want to minimize the exposure time as much as possible, so 100 seconds seemed decent, but I didn’t want to go much longer than that.  I would have much preferred to shoot this at f/11 since that is my sharpest focal length, but that would have increased the exposure time far too long.  This filter required an exposure compensation more than a 10-stop filter and possibly more than a 15-stop.  It really does take a long time to bypass that internal IR filter on these cameras.  That is essentially what is going on here.  I am completely blocking the visible spectrum of light, and forcing the IR light to slowly overpower the internal filter.  If I were to convert the camera to IR photography by removing that filter, the exposure times would be much more reasonable, but I could no longer use the camera for visible light photography.

OK, enough of the science part, back to the testing.  That was an even longer 100 seconds that was ticking by.  During that time there were a few people that were walking through the frame which I wasn’t worried about at all.  With these long exposures, anything that is in motion and is just passing through will not show up.  At the end of the exposure the review image popped up on the screen and I could see that the overall exposure was better, but the hot spot in the center was also still there.  It wasn’t as bad, and the edges weren’t as pronounced which was a very good thing.  I could see the potential of being able to do a little burning in the center of the image to counter that hot spot.  It was not ideal, but at least it was an option.

Unedited, RAW Capture, ISO640, f/8, 100 seconds, Singh-Ray I-Ray 830 Filter

I tried one more exposure at 200 seconds which was again adding a stop of light to the exposure.  The difference wasn’t all that tremendous and it showed a lot more movement in the trees.  The hot spot was still there as well.  I didn’t bother switching over to my 70-200mm lens because I really didn’t see much use in using that lens for this type of photography so it really didn’t matter to me if the hot spot was there with that lens or not.  I had a somewhat workable combination with the 24-70mm lens and that was good enough.  I was no longer excited about the filter or the IR photography though at this point.  I don’t like creating work for myself on the post processing end of the day, and that was what this filter was doing for me.  Sure, I was planning on doing a whole different workflow for this type of photography that was going to create many more steps, but now I was looking at having to go and fix that hot spot in the middle.  I absolutely hate “fixing” an image after I shoot it.  I want the image to be right in camera as much as possible.  The more I thought about it, the less I wanted to continue on this path with IR photography.  It was just something that I wanted added to my bag of tricks and not something that I really wanted to delve into on a grand scale.

I had decided to not process the image since I was going to have to learn a whole different technique to process the image and actually create a specific color profile for this very purpose.  Neither of these things did I really have the time for right at the moment.  When I got home, I just left the gear in the truck hoping that I would be able to get out again in the near future to capture images that I knew would work out.  I spent the rest of the afternoon doing some research to see if anyone else had come across the problem that I was having with the filter and sent an email to Singh-Ray about my results.  I could find nothing online about anyone else with this problem, or how to deal with it other than slowly massaging the hot spot out of the middle of the image.  I just wasn’t all that thrilled with the idea of doing that, so I just decided to let it go.  I would keep the filter in hopes that when I do eventually upgrade my camera (going to be a while now), I might be able to use it effectively at that point.  I was still very interested in IR photography and didn’t want to totally let it go, but my gear was going to be a limiting factor for it.

As we start to move through the week, I did finally get the opportunity to go out on Tuesday to the mountains to get some landscape images.  That day didn’t go to plan either and I found the sky to be less than exciting through the morning.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my mind just wasn’t able to focus on my photography as it needs to in order for me to enjoy it like I want to.  When I get into these modes, I tend to put a negative spin on everything surrounding photography until I can get my mind back in the groove of creating.  It can be a difficult process for me to change those gears, and I am really not looking forward to the coming months when I am going to have to really try and keep my creative energy flowing.

Knowing all of this, while I was processing my images from the day, I did look back at the first three images on the card for the first time since seeing them in review on the back of the camera.  The hot spot was definitely there with the 16-35mm lens.  There was no disputing that at all.  In the subsequent images the hot spot wasn’t nearly as defined and I was pretty sure that I could work it out by burning the area a little bit.  I made the decision to give it a try so I started the process of creating a custom camera profile.  I had to find it online as it was a free download from 2012 that allowed me to make a profile which could be accessed in Lightroom.  Without going into a lot of detail about this process, I essentially desaturated the red and green channels and partially desaturated the blue channel before adding some basic contrast in curves.  It was a simple process actually which I wasn’t really expecting.  It was the exporting process that caused me grief which I didn’t expect.  I couldn’t find the right path to save the profile to in my file explorer.  I’m not the most computer savvy I’ll have to admit.  Getting frustrated all over again, I decided to let it go since the image was not all that terrific anyway.  I went back to editing the images from my morning in the mountains and slowly started to feel better about my photography.

When I had all of the pictures processed, uploaded, and the blog finished, I had some extra time so I decided to go back and try to figure things out on the computer.  What I found out was the path that I needed to follow was actually in the hidden files, so I had to show them in the trees in order to save the new profile.  Once I did that, I restarted Lightroom and there it was.  I was back in business.  I converted the image by using my custom profile and then started to work on that hot spot in the middle.  I used three different radial filters with various feathers to get the area to blend into the rest of the exposure.  Then I went in with a brush and fine tuned the exposure a little more in certain areas.  When I was reasonably happy with the blending job that I had done, I started to work on the entire image.  The processing portion was interesting to say the least.  The tools that I used were the same ones that I was used to, but I was using them for slightly different purposes now.  It was easier than I thought it would be, and quite intuitive as I found out.  I was really liking the effect of the IR filter on this image and I could see some use for it in the future.

The Final Rest“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray I-Ray 830, Processed in Lightroom

The more I worked on the image the more I was liking it, but there was an aspect that I really didn’t care for.  That was the noise, or the grain that was showing up in all areas of the image.  It was turning out to be a very soft image already and then when I started to deal with the added noise from the long exposure at ISO640 it softened it even more.  It kind of fit with the overall feel of the image so I could deal with it here, but I really didn’t like how grainy it was looking.  I wanted to figure out a way to deal with that.  I started looking online for the exact cause and to see if there was something that I could do differently to minimize it.  I really didn’t find anything at all other than film IR photography was full of grain normally.  I’m suspecting that what I am going to have to do is try to increase the exposure a little bit more so I am not raising the exposure quite so much in post.  The added length of the exposure will add noise, but I’m hoping that the reduced need for post processing will result in an image with less noise in it.  But then, I will have to be careful not to overexpose the center area of the image which becomes very easy to do with this particular issue.

I’ve still got some things to figure out here with the IR photography, but I think if I can restrict my use to the 24-70mm lens, I might have a workable combination which will open up a new style to my photography.  If I can’t effectively deal with the noise in the image then I will have to learn how to incorporate it into the style that I shoot these images in.  There is a lot of work still to be done with this before I really understand how it all works, but as of right now, I am happier with the outcome than I had been originally.  We shall call it cautiously optimistic.

The image above is the final edit to this piece and while I don’t really consider it print worthy, I really wanted to share with you a bit of my learning journey.  I’ve always shot more bad images than good, but this one falls somewhere in the middle.  It is neither bad nor good, but it does show off what IR photography looks like.  It is a very ethereal look I think and one that will strike you as alien, but comfortable at the same time.  This image has served several purposes for me.  The first was seeing first hand how IR photography renders the world.  I now have a much better understanding of that spectrum of light through this experiment.  I have also learned how to create a custom camera profile in Lightroom and edit a B&W Infrared image.  I have also gained insights into how to do a color image should I opt to give the I-Ray 690 a try in the future which I am interested in at this point.  I’ve learned how to adapt to the hot spot in the filter and after a little more experience with it, I will set up a preset in Lightroom with the radial filters already applied in hopes that I can fix the hot spot with a single click as opposed to the gradual massaging of it.  Since this will be a regular fix for this type of photography, there is no sense in doing it from scratch each time.  The most important thing that I have learned here is that I have another way that I can present the scenes that appeal to me in the world.  Infrared Photography shines on a bright and sunny day with direct light which is one of those times when I will typically do anything but photography.  I now have options here and am looking forward to exploring them a little more in depth.  Another option that I might have is to switch to a cheap kit lens for IR photography since this problem is lens specific.  I can grab one of those cheap and just use it for this type of work.  It all just depends on how the next few images turn out.

I do hope that you enjoyed this very lengthy account of a single image and how it came to be.  It was a learning process for me, and one that I enjoyed even though my mind wasn’t fully into it at the time.

Until next time…

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