While on a spring weekend getaway to New Mexico, we ventured over to Ghost Ranch, the former home of Georgia O’Keefe. We were introduced to Ghost Ranch a couple of years ago when visiting the Georgia O’Keefe museum in Santa Fe. Her paintings of the incredible landscapes of the area have been a great inspiration to me as a photographer, and I intentionally try to mimic her simplifications of the landscape in my compositions.
The scenery at Ghost Ranch did not disappoint, and I highly recommend a visit if you are in the area. We spent the afternoon hiking one of the many trails. As we returned to the trailhead, the afternoon sunlight broke through some passing clouds, spotlighting the rock formation known as Chimney Rock. I was carrying my infrared-converted Sony a6000 with a 590 nm filter on the lens-as soon as I saw the preview image on the back of the camera, I knew I had captured a special image. (I submitted this photo to the Ghost Ranch Calendar Photo Contest. It didn’t win overall, but it was selected to be included in the 2020 calendar.)
When I sat down at the computer to process this photo, I quickly realized one of the great challenges with infrared photography-dealing too much contrast. When working with a regular digital camera to create black and white images, it is sometimes difficult to create enough contrast in the scene. But with strong lighting, the contrast in the scene can easily overpower an infrared image. For this image, the direct sunlight reflecting off the rocks was incredible strong, but the shadows reflect very little light. It is not a problem of dynamic range-the raw image has detail in both highlights and shadows. Processing this image was all about controlling the contrast already present rather than building up contrast in a flatter image. And although you will often hear that infrared images can be captured during at midday when regular cameras are useless, I have learned that golden hour is just as powerful for infrared images as for regular visible light images.
Writing this post in November 2019, I have a lot more experience both capturing and working with infrared images. When I captured this photo, I had only had the infrared camera for a little over a month and had not processed many images. I also had very little experience working in black and white, so creating a print-worthy photo from the raw image presented an incredible learning opportunity!
I’ve since learned how to process many of my black and white infrared images in Lightroom, but this image really needs the power of Photoshop. I still have much to learn about processing black and white images in Photoshop, but I consider this photo to be my first real success using the skills I have developed. One of the best resources I have found for learning about infrared photography is a seminar by Vincent Versace at B&H Photo in 2015 that is available on Youtube. I think Vincent is a great teacher and incredible photographer. Unfortunately, his books have become out of date with the rapid advancements in image processing software.
For this image, I used many of the techniques presented in Vincent’s “From Oz to Kansas” book and from the B&H seminar. The raw image was separately processed for shadows and highlights (I would have used alternate exposures from a bracketed set, but my other exposures were blurry), and these base images were blended in Photoshop. I used several filters from Color Efex Pro 2 including Skylight, Contrast Only, Detail Extractor, Dark Contrasts, and Tonal Contrasts. Each of these filters was applied locally within the image by painting through luminosity masks so that the adjustments are gradually accumulated. The image was further adjusted with dodging and burning applied with Curves layers and addition of Clarity with the Camera Raw Filter. The final image was cropped and toned in Lightroom.
I have to say that I was still not totally happy with the appearance of the final image on the screen, but now having seen it printed in the calendar, I don’t think I could make it any better. I am planning to add a print of this photo to my personal gallery in my office.
Update: This photo was selected to be included in the Ghost Ranch calendar for 2020! I was hoping to win first prize but at least my photo was selected (and I got a stack of calendars).