Easy IR (Infrared); Create Your Own From Any Color Image File

Could your portraits be enhanced by the mysterious, otherworldly glow of a black and white infrared (IR) effect? In the past, pre-digital darkroom, the only way you could get the IR look was shooting special IR film, quite a challenge to expose, process, and print correctly. Working digitally you can avoid many of the pitfalls and gain much more control in the bargain. Here's how to emulate that exotic infrared look digitally:

You can start with a scan of any color slide, print, or negative you've shot with your film camera or, even easier, with a color file from your digital camera. If you're starting with a print, negative, or slide, scan it in RGB color mode. Once you've got the digital file, open it in Adobe Photoshop CS (or some earlier versions) to follow the steps outlined here. You can also achieve the effect with Adobe Elements 2 or other advanced image-editing programs, but the names of some tools or dialog boxes may be slightly different. Always work on a copy to preserve your original scan. In fact, with this technique, it is a good idea to make two or three copies in order to try different settings in search of the effect you like best. Just follow these steps and you'll be on your way to easy IR.

1. I began with this original color file shot in Raw mode with a Canon Digital Rebel 6-megapixel digital SLR with a Canon 18-55mm lens at 55mm (equivalent to a 90mm lens in 35mm format). File size: 18MB. (Model: Riley Messina.)

1) Open a copy of your color file in Photoshop #1. First, we'll convert it to black and white. By doing this with an Adjustment Layer, we never change the original pixels and can go back and make further changes as desired at any time. To add an Adjustment Layer, from the menu bar choose Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Channel Mixer, #2. A dialog box appears naming the new layer Channel Mixer 1. Click OK and you'll bring up the Channel Mixer dialog box, #3. This is a powerful tool to make black and white conversions (among other uses).

2. To convert the portrait to black and white, add an Adjustment Layer. This doesn't change any original pixels and you can go back and make further changes at any time. From the menu bar I chose Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Channel Mixer. A dialog box appears naming the new layer Channel Mixer 1. Click OK to bring up the Channel Mixer dialog box, #3.

First, check the Monochrome box at the lower left of the Channel Mixer. This will change the Output Channel at the top to "Gray" ("Black" in Photoshop 5), indicating that you are outputting a gray scale black and white image. The Channel Mixer allows you to decide which amounts of the red, green, and blue channels will be used to create a black and white image. Begin with a high setting for red. Don't worry if your screen goes totally white or black during these operations--as you move the other sliders, you'll regain more normal tonalities.

3. The Channel Mixer is a powerful tool to make black and white conversions. With the Monochrome box at the lower left checked, I adjusted the mix of red, green, and blue components of the image as follows: I set the red to +200, the green to --38, and the blue to --60.

Try setting the red all the way to +200, then take the blue down to --60 or --75. The green middle slider might go from --40 to +30, all depending on the image. Experiment with many different mixes, and try the sliders throughout their full range. However, you'll probably want to keep the red at least +100 to +120 minimum.

2) For this portrait, I set the red to +200, the green to --38, and the blue to --60, #4. For a different portrait, +120 red, +32 green, and --75 blue worked best. As you make the adjustments, you'll begin to see the IR effect: In theory, you should adjust the percentages so that their total equals 100 percent. This is not a hard and fast rule, though, and I often find settings outside this range work well. The Constant slider near the bottom of the Channel Mixer dialog box changes brightness. While I usually prefer to leave it at 0, you may find it useful when the final mix of percentages is more or less than 100 percent.

4. Adjusting the Channel Mixer settings as shown in #3 resulted in this black and white conversion of the portrait. Using a high setting for the red channel lightened skin tones and her hair while increasing the overall contrast. If the Mixer settings you prefer result in too low contrast, pump it up with a Curves or Levels Adjustment Layer.

Here's a tip: If you have adjusted the sliders for a look you like, but the image is a bit dull or low in contrast, try adding a Levels or Curves Adjustment Layer, then using it to pump up the contrast.