Infrared is the easiest to practice in summer at high noon. There is no denying it and any argument to the contrary is futile. Lots of sun and lots of contrast with ample greenery is the perfect set for IR. Is it a requirement? Not by any means, but having all that sunshine and chlorophyll makes life whole lot easier and options wide open.
What if you have itching to do some IR shooting at a time when you can only dream of greenery, summer or high sun? It is way more tricky, but not all hope is lost for those who take up that challenge and don’t give up easily.
I have to admit that some of my best IR work (at least according to my own self-judgment) were done in the middle of winter. I guess I had to work way harder for my photos and it paid off in the end? Don’t know.
One of my all time favorite IR shots I had ever created was actually one of my first IR shots I ever made. Go figure… It too was taken in the middle of winter, on a frigid January morning with temps not even dreaming to rise above 20F. That photo took me many hours to take, develop and retouch.
Over the past few years of learning the ins and outs of IR photography, several observations (tips, if you will) have emerged. I live in northern U.S., so the following observations are heavily skewed towards northern hemisphere and continental weather patterns. If you live in moderate areas or lower latitudes, none of this may affect you.
- You don’t have a multi-month hiatus where you simply cannot shoot anything due to no grass or leaves and lack of good strong sunshine
- The colder the better – those deep black Ansel Adams skies are a dream and to get them one must find that sweet spot of sunshine, humidity, temperature. Whole lot can go wrong in hot summer with this and skies looking perfectly blue to a naked eye can look washed out and hazy in IR due to high humidity levels. In extremely frigid temps at least 10-15 below zero C, that almost ceases to be a problem, because these frigid temps crystallize the humidity out of the air and skies in IR are as clean as you will ever see them. When I see stars and no clouds or haze on a winter night I know to fire up our stove on high, because it will be biting cold the next morning. Also, using a polarizer filter and shooting perpendicular or away from the sun is a good practice.
- Low sun – because the sun is much weaker in winter there is never enough contrast, which becomes apparent particularly with leafless trees. Having the sun above the horizon provides good long strong shadows for separation and the sun-side vs shade-side of the tree trunks too will have a very good separation between them, so early morning shots or evening shots work well. Downside to this method is: if you love puffy white clouds in your IR photos, you won’t find many of them during these times of day as they are primarily created by sun’s convection of warmer humid air moving into upper layers of atmosphere.
- No leaves – the glowing white hot summer foliage of deciduous trees so typical of IR photography is obviously not possible in wintry weather and the closest second (conifers) are less than desirable – their chlorophyll amount is not as high, so IR reflectance on any evergreen tree is well below what you’d hope for or see in summer – their color will be dirty, contaminated with other hues
- White Balance – where there is snow, there is no grass. I white balance every day I shoot. As a workaround I shoot grey objects – concrete. It also helps to carry a grey card with you and shoot that – it will help your WB to remain stable = less work, if you do channel swapping in post.
- Color bleed – this one is interesting and I almost put it into the ugly category – since there are no leaves on deciduous trees, there is nothing protecting the bark and branches from reflected light of the blue sky (red sky in our IR case), so the trees will have a magenta tint (or blue if you channel swapped) and for those of you who love to do those white leaves & dark blue sky a 720nm filter usually gives, you may be frustrated doing it – the trees always keep a slight color tint (bluish hue). This is why most of my wintry IR shots end up being monochrome. I don’t always feel like playing around in post and cleaning it all up.
- Tricky snow exposure – snow under IR spectrum can wreak some serious havoc on your camera metering. If you are used to certain settings (mine are ISO 400, F8 and auto shutter and EV set to +2/3) and shoot with them 90% of time in IR, when it comes to snow you can almost certainly throw that out of the window. Literally every shot you take will meter differently. And exposure compensation and reviewing your shots on the display is the safest way of doing this. I’ve shot thousands of pictures in IR on snow and have found zero rules to this mayhem. It helps to remember that the camera metering system is based on seeing visible light, but the sensor sees only IR and in snowy conditions – those two can be miles apart. If unsure, or are just learning IR in winter, bracket your shots
- Batteries will hate your gut – it pays to have a weather sealed DSLR – many water sealed ones are also cold-resistant, so keep extra batteries in your jacket’s inside pockets. If your batteries had hands, they’d slap you right and left.
- There is no beating around the bush. Frostbite. If you ever shot for extended periods of time in single digits F (-15C or below), you know what I’m talking about.
- I shot in -6F (-21C) this morning. Was I having fun? Yep. Could I feel my toes? Nope. My shoot ended after 2 hours when my GR refused to retract its lens and succumbed to the biting cold, despite me carrying it in my jacket pocket for most of the time. Li-Poly batteries hate sub-z temperatures.