Infrared images require a lot of work in post production, more so than just normal RAW images but this is because there is an awful lot of flexibility and potential in generating your end images so, you can look on this as a ‘good thing’ rather than any kind of barrier to your making progress with infrared photography.
Rather like astrophotography to which it is closely aligned in many ways, infrared photography doesn’t give you optimal images straight out of camera, there is a lot of post processing to be done which, is all part of the fun. As you are working with RAW images there are a whole number of photo editing tools you can use to do the post production workflow not all of which I mention below and bear in mind that each can deliver a slightly different end result ‘out of the box’ as it were.
I have tried the Lightroom/Photoshop combination however as my versions of both are from the ‘outright purchase’ days of PS CS6/Lightroom 6 and required me to create a ‘camera profile’ from a DNG file to start with, using software tools provided free by Adobe. The current subscription based versions of Photoshop and Lightroom may have slicker tools for manipulating infrared images with better end results but I don’t know that as a fact. Check out Rob Shea on YouTube for advice on this as he seems to try out all the different software packages in his videos and does step through tutorials on them.
On Open source (free) software I have experimented with Raw Therapee and Darktable and they both produce excellent end results and have great broader potential as high quality photo editors. There are lots of fantastic free software packages out there but if I have a software package that works for me, paid or free, I will tend to stick with it rather than learn a new one just for the sake of it. That said, I enjoyed playing with both these software packages, there is not much to choose between them and personal preferences will be highly subjective however I favoured Darktable slightly more of the two.
As is often the case with open source software, what they may lack in User Interface polish they compensate for with a broader and more granular range of tools than most commercial packages would ever offer. Time and circumstances permitting, I will certainly explore them further as general photographic editors beyond just how they handle infrared which was my focus this time around. Don’t be put off by this, do a tutorial on using them for just processing infrared and as you get comfortable with doing that, you will also get comfortable with the software in a broader sense. The point is, if you are familiar with some existing software you have access to, you should use that but if you are starting from scratch, why spend money on software when you can get it for free ?
When Adobe decided to go subscription only some years back, it wasn’t the cost of the subscription for Lightroom and Photoshop that bothered me, I had always upgraded both to whatever the latest version was so on an annual basis I was already paying that amount in effect. No for me the problem was if you stopped paying you lost all access to the software therefore, the ability to edit your photographs and the day may well dawn that perhaps I couldn’t afford the subscription because of other priorities.
Under such circumstances I would have to find other software and ‘learn’ how to use it and that being the case, I decided that I may as well make a start on that now. This is how I started taking a look at open source options as well as commercial ones but in the end I decided that I liked ON1 software and bought into it. Later when Serif launched their Affinity Photo software I also bought into that too but here lies an amusing tale:
I wrote earlier that changing software packages just for the fun of it was not something I do especially sophisticated graphics programs so the truth was that whilst I had ‘bought in’ to other software, for some years I kept using Lightroom and Photoshop simply because I knew them very well from the years of using them. Eventually as new cameras came along which my versions wouldn’t recognise and therefore you had to convert images to DNGs etc before you could edit them I finally got fed up with it and that then focused my mind to becoming as familiar with ON1 and Affinty as I had been with the Adobe products.
Also both ON1 Raw and Affinity Photo have become increasingly competitive, they didn’t stand still on their product development and both do a lot of product support especially on YouTube which is helpful. The consequence of this came a couple of months ago when I bought another external USB drive for my backups. Included in my purchase I found there was an ‘offer’ to try a Lightroom and Photoshop subscription free for 4 months, I thought about it for a moment and decided NO. The reason wasn’t me being anti Adobe it was because I realised that I had ‘moved on’ and great though they had been for me over many years, they were now in my past.
So now in general terms, my preferred tools are Affinity Photo and ON1 2021 plus when it comes to processing infrared images both give me rapid workflows that I can revisit later. The point here being that editing infrared photographs is multi stepped or layered if you like and as I tend to shoot a lot of photographs, I need software that not only through macros or ‘copy/paste settings’ allows me to apply the same steps across the whole shoot at a mouse click but also allows me to return later to tweak each image individually because the changes to each image are not hard baked in.
However whatever software you use, the variations and possibilities to manipulate infrared images are pretty amazing because it takes you beyond normal photography and offers you the chance to be totally creative.