How to sell infrared photography to wedding and portrait clients
Back in the days of film, infrared photography was a complicated undertaking and therefore rarely used outside of scientific and fine art applications. The advent of digital imaging allowed photographers to convert standard digital cameras affordably and see on-camera histograms easily, which opened up possibilities for more widespread use of infrared. Today, photographers looking to offer something unusual to clients might find this alternative process an appealing option.
Laurie Klein is one photographer who’s demonstrated the power of differentiation through an infrared specialty. One of the nation’s best known infrared artists and instructors, she’s charted a course for success that others can learn from.
Klein’s history with infrared began in college at Rochester Institute of Technology, where she studied biomedical photography and used infrared imaging for research and diagnostic purposes. When she found that niche wasn’t for her, she shifted her efforts to fine art.
And it was that shift that afforded Klein an opportunity to study with Ansel Adams, who was using infrared for large-format landscape photography. “I didn’t even realize you could use infrared for fine art purposes,” remembers Klein. “I thought it was only for medical and scientific research. Learning Ansel’s process was mind blowing.”
After earning a Master of Fine Arts degree in photography, Klein studied with another legend, wedding photographer Monte Zucker. At this point, her training in scientific infrared photography, fine art landscape photography, and traditional wedding photography intersected, and the beginnings of a new specialty started to form. Building off Zucker’s lessons, Klein established a wedding and portrait business that emphasized black-and-white photography. She started to mix in infrared photographs a little at a time, gradually building up a portfolio of dramatic images she could use to market her work in that niche.
Klein’s approach was a hit. Wedding bookings grew to between 60 and 70 per year, she added associate photographers to her studio, and her annual gross sales shot to around $250,000. Eventually, Klein was able to scale back her wedding photography schedule to about 10 a year, spending the rest of her time on portrait commissions, fine art projects, and teaching, all with a strong emphasis on infrared photography.
“I’ve made most of the money in my career with infrared photography,” she notes. “There are pathways for others to do something similar.”
How infrared “sees”
Infrared images show how objects absorb and reflect light in the infrared spectrum, which is outside the human eye’s visible range of light. Objects that reflect this part of the spectrum appear white, while objects that absorb infrared rays appear dark. For this reason, light and dark often appear reversed from a standard photograph. Foliage and flowers tend to reflect more IR light, rendering them lighter, while bark and tree trunks reflect less and appear dark. Clear, sunny skies look very dark since all the infrared rays are escaping the atmosphere. Freckles and blemishes often disappear entirely. Eyes can look like dark recesses, while sunglasses may be clear because their coating is intended to block visible and harmful UV rays but not infrared. Tattoos can show right through garments. Infrared light penetrates into skin, making things like veins appear darker and more prominent.
Once you understand how infrared detects light, then you can start composing images. Much of the success of infrared portraits is understanding how to separate subjects from their backgrounds in what can seem like an upside-down visual world. For example, placing a figure in front of a clear sky (which will render very dark) will produce a dramatic effect.
“Because of the requirements of infrared photography, you really have to think about your compositions,” says Klein. “As a result, infrared images are more designed. They are edgy but also romantic. It’s almost like you’re selling a fantasy. There’s something about infrared that can pull the heartstrings like nothing else out there.”
Launching an infrared product line
Infrared photography is unlikely to replace your standard style, but it can be a lucrative add-on. Klein recommends gradually working your way into it and building up interest in the medium by educating clients.
“You can’t just tell clients that you’re going to incorporate some infrared photography into their wedding or portrait session,” she says. “They won’t understand. You have to show them.”
Klein recommends including a few infrared captures at every wedding and at certain portrait sessions. The infrared shots work particularly well for broad views and emotive pieces, not always as well for candids. She suggests making infrared a special part of the process or an entirely separate session if possible. That way you can stage a setting that’s conducive to infrared photography rather than trying to fit it into a less-than-optimum situation.
Once you’ve done a few infrared images, show them to your clients. You can do these on spec at first, surprising them with the special art process. After the work has taken hold and you’ve built up your portfolio, you can start to charge extra for the specialty process.
“I always price the infrared images differently to make sure my clients know that they are special, fine art pieces,” says Klein.
Taking the infrared plunge
Like any new undertaking, you’re likely to feel trepidation when you start trying infrared image making. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Once you get the hang of it, infrared photography could add another dimension to your business.
“Just try it,” recommends Klein. “Almost everyone I’ve taught gets hooked. It gives a new boost to your work. This is a tough industry with a lot of competition. But when you can find something new, unique, it gives your entire business a facelift.”
- Get the equipment. You’ll need a digital infrared camera that’s been custom balanced for the infrared schematic. No need to buy anything new; a lot of photographers convert older cameras with great success. You’ll also need a lens that’s been calibrated to your camera for infrared photography as well as a lens shade. Standard lenses aren’t coated for infrared and can create a lot of flare without one.
- Determine your infrared conversion. Google “infrared conversion” and you’ll find sites like kolarivision.com and lifepixel.com that detail several options. Klein uses the 720 conversion, which is standard, but the conversion you choose is up to personal taste or what you believe your clientele will prefer.
- Learn histograms, nail exposures, and shoot raw. Infrared photography requires precise exposures, so master your technical skills before delving into this medium. Once you’ve done that, infrared is relatively easy to learn. The histogram gives you all the info to know if your exposure is correct. Shooting in raw provides the digital data you’ll need to process the file correctly.
- Develop a workflow. Infrared files are different so you’ll need a post-production workflow to maintain the infrared look. Klein provides several workflow options in her book, “Infrared Photography: Artistic Techniques for Brilliant Images,” co-authored with her son Kyle (Amherst Media, 2016). They recommend using Photoshop and Lightroom as well as Macphun, Nik, and Topaz plugins for post-production.
- Build a portfolio. Since most clients aren’t familiar with infrared photography, you’ll want examples of your work to show them. To build your portfolio, Klein suggests inviting select clients to participate in a free session or offering to make infrared images during their session at no extra charge. “Tell them you’re trying a new fine art style and ask if they would be your models,” she suggests. “Then give them a print for participating. Before you know it, you’ll have enough of a portfolio to show and [can] book paying infrared sessions.”
- Experiment and expand. Learn the basics and then experiment with effects, digital painting, or customized plug-ins to create unique images that fit your brand.
Jeff Kent is editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.