It’s going to be a decade now since I’ve read this funny comment on a photo forum where someone had said that hell would freeze over before someone would shoot wildlife in IR. Back then I chuckled and silently agreed. Wildlife and infrared photography do not play together very nicely. Some years back when I stumbled onto IR by mere coincidence and started maniacally researching it and looking at other photographers’ portfolios on Flickr and 500px (remember those days?) all I could find were landscapes, seascapes and an occasional ghostly portrait. There were next to no pictures of any living (non-human) creatures. Maybe pets, but calling those wildlife is pushing it.
Further research on the technique explained to me the severe limitations of using an on-lens IR filter (back in the day, I don’t think LifePixel even existed), which comes with really long exposure times, dashing any hopes of wildlife photography.
Today, a completely different story. Cameras being released with so many megapixels that I would not want one with more than 24MP, because of the sheer size of the RAW files, multiple camera conversion services available at somewhat reasonable cost, and contemporary cameras have such a great ISO performance that the IR converted cameras of the present have their shutter speeds not too far behind regular spectrum ones. Yet, there are not many portfolios online showing that IR is possible when shooting wildlife. So, that got me thinking…..
I was pleasantly surprised when testing these shots. Not only was I able to see the carp under water in IR, but their reflectance (in sunlit shallow water) was so high they literally “popped out” and looked as though they were swimming above water. Just as an aside: these carp are in a lake, which is not being fished and what you see are specimen over 2 feet long, I’d gauge them well over 20 lbs each.
There is no denying it, even a converted camera will struggle in keeping the shutter speed reasonably fast to prevent motion blur while shooting water creatures. IR reflectance in water is that abysmal.
Another problem I ran into (and it was a show stopping one for some situations) was sky reflectivity on water’s surface. The only way I was able to get the shot of the fish was while standing on a bridge and shooting straight down into the water. As soon as I aimed at the water under any angle other than head on, the reflectivity of the sky would completely mask what was under water. If you ever try to do IR of fish, be sure to invest in a high quality polarizer filter and hope your shutter speed can keep up with them moving around. You’ll probably have to sacrifice some noise and crank up the ISO.
In closing, yes it is possible to shoot wildlife and fish in IR, but it also taught me why others often avoid this topic. First, it doesn’t have that IR magic one can find in glowing white hot foliage and deep black skies and waters, which gives them that classic and well loved ethereal feel.
Second, wildlife in its natural habitat and without color will be often well masked and not stand out too much against the background, so not being able to capture the color makes them even less visible. The tonality contrast simply isn’t there. Not too many people realize it, but most animals are color blind, or have a very limited color spectrum sensitivity.
So, that’s it! I may venture into this area in future, but will keep my hopes in check. Honestly, either of these pictures would look the same, if shot on a phone and processed with one of the Instagram B&W filters. There is nothing extraordinary about it.
At least I get some brownie points, because I’ve tried.
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