Set Your Filter To Infrared

Hacking cameras to capture infrared light

Most photographers rely on the light that humans can see, known as the visible spectrum. But photojournalist Steven Saphore thinks they could do a lot more with the light our eyes can’t detect. By hacking cameras, he says, photographers can take pictures in the infrared spectrum—just as he does in his World in Infrared project.

While we can’t see infrared light, we experience it all the time in the form of heat, which almost every object on Earth emits. Dark objects tend to radiate more heat than pale ones because they can absorb more light energy. This makes them appear brighter in infrared. In that way, Saphore’s photography flips expectations: Leaves on a tree, for example, might look muted and dark in visible light, but through his lens, they become glowing and vibrant.

“It’s mentally challenging because you are forced to see beyond your perception,” says Saphore. “You can’t detect infrared with your own senses, but you have a tool in front of you that can.”

Saphore’s favorite demonstration is to create infrared images of people with varying skin tones. In the presence of infrared light, the pigment melanin is more transparent. “Differences in skin tone are less obvious,” says Saphore. “It’s hard to make a snap decision based on what you see.”

How To Hack Your Camera

Hack Your Camera

Make your own DIY infrared instrument.

Infrared cameras are often expensive and specialized. But with a few tweaks, any camera, from a point-and- shoot to a DSLR, can snap infrared images.

All cameras can capture infrared light, but a filter allows only visible light through. To photograph both, first open up the camera so you can see the lens and the glass filter over it. Carefully remove that filter. (Warning: This might permanently alter your camera.)

To give your images a more washed-out look, you can add a relatively inexpensive (ranging from $50 to $100 and up) filter that will block visible light, leaving only infrared.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2016 issue of Popular Science, under the title “Set Your Filter to Infrared.”