I used to love Kodak HIE high-speed infra-red film. This was a grainy black and white film with strong halation (highlight glow) that gave images a bright, dreamy, other-worldly look.
I don’t shoot film any more, but there must be a way to get the same look digitally, right? Well, yes and no. First, there’s the problem of infra-red light itself.
How infra-red works
Infra-red light is light of a much longer wavelength than the visible light spectrum we see with the naked eye. Most films and camera sensors have infra-red filters to stop them picking up this infra-red light because it could mess with the colors captured. So that’s a problem if it’s infra-red you’re interested in!
Kodak’s HIE film was specifically formulated to respond to infra-red light. Typically, it was recommended that you use it with a deep red filter to cut out as much regular visible light as possible and to give blue skies that dense, almost black tone this film is famous for. You also needed to use a different focus marker on the lens – that’s how far into the infra-red this film went.
With digital cameras you can’t just put in an infra-red film. The sensor has an infra-red filter to STOP the infra-red. It is possible to pay for a third-party conversion to have the infra-red filter removed, but then that camera can’t be used for anything else.
You can get infra-red filters for unconverted cameras, but all these do is make the best of any residual infra-red that does get through the sensor filter by blocking regular visible light. It’s not the same as actually extending the sensor’s sensitivity into the infra-red spectrum.
All this is a bit too much trouble for my liking. Fortunately, you can get pretty close to the look of HIE infra-red film using some digital trickery with regular color images.
Digital infra-red simulation
To get this Kodak HIE infra-red look, there are three key steps:
- You need to do a mono conversion with tonal adjustments to simulate a strong red filter. Typically, this means turning the red, yellow and green up to maximum and blue and cyan down to minimum. This will produce the strong red filter effect associated with black and white infra-red. This can produce a lot of noise, but this will get swallowed up in the next steps.
- Now you need some halation, a soft spreading of the highlights. This is trickier than it sounds to get right, and not many programs or plug-ins offer the right kind of tools.
- Finally, you need some grain, and plenty of it. There are lots of programs now that are pretty good at simulating film grain realistically, so this is probably the easiest part.
- Read more: Black and white photography basics
My original image
I chose this shot because it has a good mix of blue, red and green tones, which are the key colors in black and white infra-red. I tried three different software candidates to see which gave the best infra-red effect, and I’ve put them in reverse order below.
Infra-red in Capture One
Capture One does two out of three of these jobs brilliantly. I used the Black & White panel and Sensitivity sliders to get the strong red filter effect needed, and for the grain I used the Film Grain panel and the Extreme+ preset. The trouble is, there’s no tool for adding the highlight halation effect. A negative Clarity setting doesn’t do it (a handy trick in Lightroom), and you can’t apply negative sharpening, so I’ve got close to the effect I want, but it’s not quite there.
Infra-red in Silver Efex Pro 3
You would have thought that Silver Efex Pro, the king of black and white conversions, would have done the best job here, but like Capture One, it lacks any kind of tool for creating that soft highlight halation that’s a characteristic of Kodak HIE film. It produced a darker sky and brighter reds than Capture One (I doubled up on the color sensitivity and filter options, using both) and the grain effect is good, but it can’t create that ethereal glow I want.
Infra-red in Color Efex Pro 4
I thought Color Efex Pro might be a good candidate because it actually has an Infra-red filter with four different black and white Methods. However, the first two don’t give the correct color filtration and the second two are just too extreme. Instead, I combined the B&W Conversion filter with The Classical Soft Focus filter and the Film Grain filter, and the result’s not bad at all. I’d say its a close tie between this and Lightroom (next).
Infra-red in Lightroom
Lightroom (or Adobe Camera Raw, the tools are the same) has done a remarkable job here and gives the best-looking result all-round, though it’s really close. The B&W color filtration tools have produced a rich dark sky and bright reds and foliage, the ever-reliable Adobe Grain effect has given this shot authentic-looking grain, and setting the Clarity to -100 has produced nice spreading highlights. I would give Lightroom the edge for the tonal filtration, but Exposure X7’s ‘halation’ effect is much nicer.
Infra-red in Exposure X7
Exposure X7 specializes in analog film effects and it even has a dedicated Infra-red panel and a series of Kodak HIE simulation presets. These look good, if subtle, straight out of the box. All I did was strengthen the filtration settings and set the halation to max. I’d say this is the best result all round. The filtration still isn’t as strong as I would like, and I would want the grass to be lighter in particular, because vegetation is very bright in the infra-red spectrum, but that’s just one factor. I know I go on about Exposure X7 and what it can do, but this is (one of the reasons) why. Time and time again it does something subtler, more evocative or just that little bit better than its rivals.
- Create spectacular landscapes with the Color Efex Pro Infrared Film effect
- 5 ways to convert colour images to black and white
- Rediscover dodging and burning in black and white
- Fine art black and white with the Fujifilm GFX
- Black and white filters in digital imaging
Exposure X7: $129
Exposure X7 bundle: includes Blow Up 3 and Snap Art 4: $149
Exposure X7 is also available as a full 30-day trial