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Near-Infrared Imaging

Clement Fredembach

Welcome to my (small) near-infrared page!
Here you will find a (short) introduction to near-infrared digital photography and to our work that make use of near-infrared and visible data. This page content will be regularly updated to incorporate what we learned and the work we have done.

As usual, you are welcome to use the material presented therein for your personal or (not for profit) research work if you are kind enough to acknowledge and reference our work (most of the images here are available at a higher resolution). For more detailed information or collaboration, contact me.

What is near-infrared?
How to capture near-infrared?
Why use near-infrared?
Combining near-infrared and visible images
References, material and collaborations

What is near-infrared?

The portion of the electromagnetic spectrum perceived by the human visual system is generally called the "visible spectrum" and ranges from (about) 380 to 700 nanometers in wavelength. The near-infrared spectrum is located just after the red wavelength and comprises wavelengths that range from 700 to 1100 nanometers (this latter boundary depends on the considered application. See this page for more information). Even though the NIR band is located next to the visible one, there is, in general, almost no correlation between a visible and NIR signal (i.e., knowing the colour and brightness of an object gives no information about its NIR response). High-frequency information, however, tends to be preserved, so a near-infrared image is easily interpreted by a human observer. All this can be seen in the RGB cube figure, half of it is in the visible half in the near-infrared. The NIR response is completely independent of the colour, but the cube and shadow edges are clearly seen nonetheless. More details about near-infrared images are given here.

A printed RGB cube. The NIR response doesn't depend on the colour value, except for black, which is (in this case) made of NIR-absorbing pigments.

How to capture near-infrared?

While the human visual system is unable to capture near-infrared radiation, a camera can. Near-infrared films have been produced by a number of manufacturers but their use has always been limited to enthusiasts because of the precautions needed in operating them as well as the very long exposure times needed (up to a minute depending on the environment). Digital cameras on the other hand have silicon-based sensors that are very sensitive to NIR.

In fact, digital cameras' sensors are so sensitive to near-infrared that a "hot mirror", a filter that lets only visible light pass, is placed in front of them in order to prevent NIR contamination of the visible signal. As a result, a modification of the camera is needed to remove the hot mirror and replace it by either clear glass or a visible-blocking filter (in the latter case, the camera will only be able to capture near-infrared images). The first camera we have modified in such a manner was a Canon 300D SLR and we opted to replace the hot mirror by clear glass to be able to subsequently capture either visible or NIR images by placing a NIR-blocking or visible-blocking filter in front of the lens.

Modifying a camera in such a manner is not too difficult provided you have patience with small connectors and a guide that tells you what to expect at each step (google and youtube have "walkthroughs for a lot of different camera models). Also bring toothpicks, they make life much easier with some of the ribbon connectors.

Some of the steps involved in modifying the camera. Alternatively, a number of shops sell already modified cameras (depending on the model, for 300 to 500USD above the camera's retail price).

Why use near-infrared?

There is a great deal of interest about near-infrared, both from a scientific and artistic perspective. Here are some applications that use NIR signal obtained from a digital camera.

In photography proper, NIR delivers sharp images with sometimes a dramatic outlook. Indeed, sky and water are black, clouds stay white, and vegetation becomes very bright. The reasons for these differences with the visible are, however, very diverse. In vegetation this is due to the cellular structure of the leaves; water absorbs near-infrared radiation; clouds are composed of droplets that scatter incoming light according to Mie's law (the angle of scattering is independent of the wavelength); sky is dark for the same reason it is blue: very small particles scatter light but the scattering angle is proportional to the inverse fourth power of the wavelength (Rayleigh scattering), thus blue is the most scattered and near-infrared the least.

Rayleigh scattering is also the reason why, in landscape images, distant objects become blurred and have a blue colour cast. This phenomenon, atmospheric haze, is almost absent from near-infrared images, yielding haze-free images that have a larger optical depth.

Forgery prevention and material science use the fact that colour pigments can have decidedly different responses in the near-infrared, indeed a very large number of pigments are quasi-transparent to NIR light. This property actually allows a modified camera to capture NIR images. Recall that in order to have a colour image, a colour filter array (a mosaic of coloured filters) is placed in front of the sensor. If the pigments of the CFA did not transmit near-infrared in addition to colour, a hot-mirror would not be necessary and NIR imaging with a digital camera would be much more difficult to do (for a more detailed discussion about that point and the capture of monochromatic images, see [1] and [2]).

An example of such applications is secure printing. The image of the RGB cube illustrates that all colours have an identical near-infrared response, but black stays black due to the different pigment used. Using near-infrared can thus allow one to distinguish between the black obtained by black ink and the one obtained by the superposition of the colours. Specific colour inks can also be devised and are used as a security measure against the counterfeiting of bank notes.

Carefully choosing dyes also allows one to design warmer, or cooler, clothing. Everyone knows that, in the sunshine, a black garment is warmer to wear because it absorbs the sunlight, but this is true only to an extent. The black dye absorbs (with certainty) the part of the sun light that is emitted in the visible spectrum. The sun having a significant emission in the near-infrared, there can thus be a large difference in how warm a black item feels depending on its NIR absorption.

Other applications of near-infrared images include astronomical imaging, remote sensing (haze transparency and greater contrast between regions), biometrics (veins are more visible in the NIR) and face recognition.

Some uses and applications of NIR images. Landscape images can appear more dramatic, black is not always black, and secure printing: some inks are transparent to NIR (try it with different banknotes, it works with most of them albeit with different patterns).

Combining near-infrared and visible images.

While there is a number of applications that use near-infrared images, very few combine NIR and visible information of the same scene. We do not consider here hyperspectral techniques that use a number of narrow bands, but rather the combination of images that can be captured using a modified camera.

The images presented in this section and used in our relevant publications have all been taken with a modified Canon 300D camera, where the internal hot-mirror has been replaced by a piece of clear glass. Visible images are obtained by placing a BW 426 filter in front of the lens, NIR images by placing a Hoya R72 filter. More details about the acquisition procedure can be found in [1].

Near-infrared images have intrinsic properties that are desirable in colour, visible, imagery of a number of scenes, such as the increased contrast between sky and clouds, shadowed and non-shadowed areas, and the increased optical depth.

Looking at both NIR and visible images of the same scene, one observes the traditional properties of NIR: enhanced local and cloud contrast, bright vegetation, dark water, etc. The scene as such is, however, instantly recognisable

Colour-NIR images

A colour image is generally represented as a combination of three colour channels: Red, Green and Blue. NIR information on the other hand forms an intensity image that can be shown as greyscale. In [1], we proposed that NIR contained information could be interpreted as brightness and/or frequency content counterparts to the colour images. A way to obtain coloured NIR images is to first transform the RGB images into luminance-chrominance colour encoding and then replace the luminance channel by the near-infrared one. Results depend on the colourspace utilised; the best of of our results came form using alternatively YCbCr and HSV.

The effect of adding chrominance information to near-infrared images. The resulting colour images are sharper, with greater contrast and different information (see the mountain range in the bottom image).

Illuminant Estimation

A scene illuminant can be described by its spectral power distribution (SPD), i.e., the relative amount of energy it emits at a given wavelength. The behaviour of commonly found illuminants can exhibit significant differences between the visible and near-infrared part of the spectrum. We showed in [2] that the relative brightness ratios between NIR and colour channels could be used to determine, with accuracy, the illumination impinging upon the scene.

Some common illuminants' SPDs. Large differences can be observed between visible and NIR, thus aiding illuminant estimation.

A large number of scenes contain more than one illuminant. In this event, most colour constancy methods are erroneous since they look for a single answer to the problem of estimating the scene illuminant. For instance, when using a flash the foreground is correctly white balanced but the background often bears the orange colour cast of incandescent illumination.

Due to the sometimes large differences between illuminants' SPDs in the near-infrared, using NIR images can provide valuable information regarding the detection of multiple illuminants. In [2], we showed that using NIR to {R,G,B} ratios allowed one to identify the location of different lights and that, through interpolation, a light field could be recovered.

A lamp with two different light bulbs. From left to right: the original colour image with failing white balance; a greyscale version of the visible image; the NIR image showcasing the different illuminants; the intensity ratio of a downsampled version of the image; the final light field obtained by interpolation of the downsampled result.

References, supplementary material and collaborations

[1] C. Fredembach and S. Süsstrunk, Colouring the near infrared, Proceedings of the IS&T 16th Color Imaging Conference, pp. 176-182, 2008.

[2] C. Fredembach and S. Süsstrunk, Illuminant estimation and detection using near infrared, SPIE/IS&T Electronic Imaging, Digital Photography V, 2009.

[3] L. Schaul, C. Fredembach, and S. Süsstrunk, Color Image Dehazing using the Near-Infrared, IEEE International Conference on Image Processing, 2009.

[4] Y. M. Lu, C. Fredembach, M. Vetterli, and S. Süsstrunk, Designing color filter arrays for the joint capture of visible and near-infrared images, IEEE International Conference on Image Processing, 2009.

[5] C. Fredembach, N. Barbuscia, and S. Süsstrunk, Combining visible and near-infrared images for realistic skin smoothing, IS&T/SID 17th Color Imaging Conference, 2009.

[6] N. Salamati, C. Fredembach, and S. Süsstrunk, Material Classification Using Color and NIR Images, IS&T/SID 17th Color Imaging Conference, 2009.

Supplementary material for [1] (image pairs and enhanced ones).

This is Joint work with Prof. Sabine Süsstrunk, Dr. Yue M. Lu, Neda Salamati, and Lex Schaul.

Last update : Wednesday, 04-Feb-2009 17:52:39 CET
Comments/feedback to : webmaster [dot] lcav [at] epfl [dot] ch