Infrared gives us X-ray vision. Well sort of. It allows us to see past our own narrow (pathetic) bandwidth. It is perfect for night photography. You may think this is an oxymoron. Infrared is normally viewed as photography under a blazing sun, perhaps peppered with some puffy clouds. A type of photography generally shot within the 10 am-2 pm window when light is at its harshest and limited to spring and summer when the trees are full of leaves.
Well, infrared is much more than that. Yes, infrared allows us to see a great deal in daylight, but it isn’t limited to just daylight or a couple of seasons. It is a fantastic tool to view the heavens at night. It can distinguish the dark gasses of the galactic core of the Milky Way in greater detail. It brings into focus starlight that cannot be seen by the naked eye or normal camera.
An infrared camera can see incredibly well in the dark of night.
Infrared photography has been used in astronomy for almost 100 years. Infrared cuts through high-level clouds and light pollution, and allows you to see the Milky Way in areas where light pollution obliterates it. Normally, one has to travel to dark sky areas to see and photograph it. Dark skies are becoming ever more elusive due to the encroachment of light pollution. A digital infrared camera, which basically can be any DSLR or mirrorless camera converted to infrared, brings Milky Way photography to your backyard. Photographing the Milky Way with an infrared camera brings to light stars that cannot be captured by a normal camera let alone seen by the naked eye. An added perk of my converted infrared camera is that I can photograph the Milky Way without the need to travel to a dark area.
Image A – 590nm Infrared
This image was photographed at a fairly dark location in southern New England. Whenever you are facing southward by the ocean in this area, you have a better chance of seeing the Milky Way. This night was cloudless, yet the infrared camera picked up thin high-level clouds in addition to greater detail of the Milky Way. These high-level clouds were not visible in the image shot by the second camera that photographed the same scene simultaneously. Compare the infrared image (Image A) to the normal camera image (Image B below). Infrared captured a great deal more detail in the galactic core in addition to a multitude of tiny distant stars. The images have not been channel swapped.
Image B – Normal Camera
Here’s a cropped area of an infrared photo from the same night (Image C). Notice how much detail is in the galactic core. The nebulae (pink spots), Dark Horse, and dust lanes are more pronounced. I did not use a fast lens for the infrared images. They were shot with a 24-120mm f/4 lens which is not great for astrolandscapes. Nonetheless, I was pretty happy with what I was able to get.
Image C – Detail of Galactic Core
Image D – 720 nm Infrared
The image above was photographed at a wetland near my home (Image D). This is in a suburban area outside of Boston which has quite a bit of light pollution. It is classified as a class 5 Bortle area which means it has substantial light pollution which obliterates the Milky Way. I often photograph this area during the summer when the fireflies are out. This was shot during one of those firefly-seeking nights. There was a great deal of cloud cover and sky glow from the local towns, yet the Milky Way is clearly visible. This is a single frame image, photographed with a full spectrum camera with a 720 nm filter. We are used to seeing Milky Way photographs in color. Yet infrared allows us to see a great amount of detail even in black-and-white.
Infrared is a grainy medium. It is the nature of the beast. Sometimes it can give an image a cool effect. Other times it needs to go. My favorite tool to mitigate noise is Topaz Denoise AI.
So, if you have a DSLR or mirrorless camera converted to infrared don’t limit yourself to just daytime photography. You don’t have to be a Milky Way hound such as myself to photograph the Milky Way. You can capture the elusive beauty of our galaxy right from your backyard. Give it a try!
Thinking of converting a camera to infrared? Ask me for a discount code at LifePixel.
Do you shoot infrared? What is your favorite scene to shoot in IR? Let’s hear it in the comments or drop me a line. I’d love to hear about it.
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© Silvana Della Camera