What is Infrared Light ?

The world of invisible light

So what is infrared light and what makes the world of infrared photography so special...

What we see - the world of visible light - is just a small part of what is known as the electromagnetic spectrum of radiation, which ranges all the way from gamma rays at very short wavelengths (and correspondingly dangerously high energies) to low energy radio waves with wavelengths of over a mile.

The wavelengths that our eye can see are limited to those between around 400-700 nm (a nanometer is one millionth of a millimeter), a tiny fraction of this huge spectrum. The infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum lies beyond the red. This portion of the spectrum is invisible to human eyes and was first discovered by Sir Frederick William Herschel (1738-1822) in 1800.

spectrum range

Infrared includes all radiations between wavelengths just beyond those of the deepest reds of the visible spectrum (700 nm) and microwaves (100,000+ nm), which are used for cooking in microwave ovens. Although infrared covers a vast part of the spectrum, the portion of it that can be used to expose photographic emulsions is actually quite small. The area extends from about 700 nm to about 1200 nm, but most amateur and commercial infrared films are only sensitized to about 900 nm.

The peculiarities of infrared photography lie in :

  • the ability of the film or image sensor to record what the eye cannot see (permitting, for instance, photography in the dark);
  • the fact that many materials reflect and transmit infrared radiation (light) in a different manner than visible radiation (light);
  • the ability of infrared light to penetrate certain kinds of haze in the air so that photographs can be taken of distant objects that cannot be seen or photographed on normal films or image sensors;
  • and in the ability to photograph hot objects by the long-wavelength radiation that they emit.

  • infrared_standard_color_lifepixelImage courtesy of  Lifepixel.com

    These properties make infrared photography very special and permit it to be used as an important adjunct to photography by normal light.

    Continue from What is Infrared Light
    to History of Film Colour Sensitivity Section

    | Homepage | Masters of Photography |Digital Photography Basics |
    |Basic Composition Techniques |Digital Camera Basics |Careers in Photography |Stock Photography |Infrared Photography |

    Digital Photography Tips by and for photographers
    Return to top