Digital Infrared Photography Post Processing for Black and White

It often surprises photographers new to digital infrared photography how different the RAW files are to the finished image. Digital infrared photography post processing is a critical step to creating good infrared images. So critical that in this tutorial I will share my workflow for processing infrared RAW files to black and white.

Please keep in mind that this tutorial only covers black and white digital infrared photography post processing. Infrared false colour requires a different technique and I will produce a separate tutorial to cover that. I also want to stress this tutorial is about digital infrared process. It doesn’t cover film or the hybrid scanning and processing of film.

The Special Qualities of Infrared Photography

Before we look at the post processing techniques for digital infrared, we need to think about the special qualities of great infrared photography. When I first became interested in infrared photography, it was the work of photographers like Simon Marsden and Tim Rudman that inspired me.

Their images were completely different from other photography I had seen, and they had a ghostly quality that drew me in. Later learned that the effects they achieved were carefully crafted through exposure, filters, film & development choice, and printing techniques. These skills take a lifetime to master and I still marvel at their work today.

Unfortunately, my efforts to replicate the typical infrared look with digital infrared were initially poor. I hadn’t appreciated the level of processing required and that great infrared images don’t come out of the camera. You must create them with photo processing tools.

Characteristics of Infrared Photography

When I think about infrared photography, three characteristics spring to mind are:

  1. Halation – This is the ghostly glowing effect that often surrounds foliage. In film photography, it’s the construction of the film causes the halation. Kodak HIE (sadly no longer manufactured) would produce extraordinarily strong halation in the right conditions but digital infrared photography doesn’t produce halation.
  2. Grain – Many of the great infrared photographs that I love have a strong and distinctive grain. As with halation, this is partly down to film choice, but it can also be emphasised using processing and printing techniques. Whilst digital infrared RAW files may have some noise, they don’t have the wonderful grain of infrared film images.
  3. Exposure – The light areas of an image shot using infrared film tend to be bright, often made brighter by the halation. In fact, it can sometimes be difficult to make out highlight detail because of this yet somehow the images work. In contrast, digital infrared tends to be darker and lacks this brightness.

Whilst these are the characteristics of infrared film photography that I love, it’s clear they are missing from digital infrared photos. This means you will need to add them during post processing.

The Digital Infrared RAW Image

Now that we’ve considered three strong characteristics of infrared photography, let’s look at a typical digital infrared image and the processing required. In this example, we see the RAW file in Capture One before any post processing. This is how the image looks directly out of the camera.

digital infrared image RAW file prior to post processing

I shot the image handheld on an infrared converted Fuji X-T2 digital camera. I had the camera converted by Protech Photographic using a 665nm filter. You can learn more about the conversion and the different filter strengths in my Digital Infrared Photography tutorial.

Now let’s look at the typical steps in a workflow for processing this digital infrared RAW file to black and white.

Correcting the White Balance

Probably the first thing you will notice about this image is the colour cast. That’s despite my shooting the image using a custom white balance.

To correct the colour balance, I can apply a white balance correction in my RAW converter with the white balance picker tool. This allows me to click on a sample point in the image, which the software then corrects to be neutral.

Foliage in the scene will usually make a good sample point, especially if it’s in sunlight rather than shade. You can see the effect of the white balance correction below.

digital infrared image after applying the white balance correction

This creates an enormous change in the image with some of the vegetation taking on a blue tint whilst the sky on the right now has a slight orange tint.

One problem you may encounter with some RAW converters is that they can’t create a good white balance. Adobe Camera RAW and Lightroom have this problem. It doesn’t matter how you adjust the Temp and Tint sliders the image will still appear red. If you are using an Adobe RAW converter, you will need to create a bespoke Camera profile before the white balance will work correctly.

Adjusting the Image Exposure

The next step is to adjust the exposure of the image. When I check the histogram for the example image (shown below) I can see that it’s well exposed if it was a conventional image. But for an infrared image, it will require adjustment.

histogram of the image prior to adjustment

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Checking the white foliage on the ground and in the trees, most of it is midtone grey or slightly darker. Ideally, these should be brighter and will require using the exposure and tonal sliders.

Other good tools that you can use to adjust the exposure and image tones of the image and Levels and Curves. Which you have access to will depend on the RAW converter you are using, and it may be necessary to continue your infrared processing in Photoshop or Affinity Photo.

For my example image, I was able to apply all the necessary adjustments using Capture One. You can see the image below together with the adjusted histogram.

image and histogram following exposure adjustments

Following adjustment, most of the foliage tones are now lighter than a midtone. I’ve also tried to avoid introducing any highlight clipping to the brightest tones. The image may also require further adjustment after I have converted it to black and white.

Black and White Conversion

There are many ways to convert a digital infrared image to black and white, but my tool of choice is Exposure. Exposure X5 is the latest version of the software at the time of writing. There are three reasons why I like this so much for digital infrared photography post processing:

  1. The software comes with a huge collection of accurate film simulation presets. These include several infrared film simulations which you can apply with a single click. Often this is enough to produce a great image. At other times they make a good base conversion to apply further adjustments.
  2. Exposure X5 has a wonderful halation simulation tool. This is something that I haven’t found in any other software and it makes it easy to create the halation effect mentioned earlier.
  3. Exposure X5 provides a film grain simulation with more control than I’ve found in other software. You can change the amount, size, target grain by tonal range and introduce a push processing simulation.

It is of course possible to produce a good black and white conversion using other software such as Nik Silver Efex Pro. You can even create an infrared simulation using the Nik Collection but I find it requires much more work than Exposure X5.

digital infrared image processed to black and white using Exposure X5

I created this conversion in Exposure X5 by applying one of the Kodak HIE film simulations and then added a vignette. I’m then ready to apply dodging and burning to the image.

Dodging & Burning

The final step in my process is to dodge and burn selective areas of the image. Which areas will depend on the image but in this example, I want to darken the path using burning to give it greater contrast with foliage. Burning will also enhance the trunk and branches of the more distant trees by darkening them.

You can see the finished image below.

converted image after dodging and burning

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Summary of Digital Infrared Photography Post Processing

In this article we have looked at a general workflow which you can adopt for digital infrared photography post processing. I hope that it has helped you understand the levels of processing required to create a good digital infrared conversion, and that you can’t expect to achieve this in camera.

In summary, the steps required to produce a good digital infrared conversion are:

  • Setting a correct white balance for the RAW file to neutralise any colour cast.
  • Correcting the exposure and tones in the image to emphasise the white foliage.
  • Converting the image to black and white.
  • Adding any special effects like halation, grain, and a vignette.

Some may argue that relying on a tool like Exposure X5 for the film simulation is cheating. Whilst it’s possible to produce similar effects in other tools, Exposure X5 does this well and is fast to use. After investing in a digital infrared camera conversion, I’m personally not prepared to scrimp on the cost of processing software. Especially software that produces such good results.

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