A step-by-step guide on how to create the infrared blue sky effect in Lightroom, using only the Development module. No external tools are required.
Until very recently, it was not possible to create the Infrared Blue Sky effect (changing the typically yellowish sky to blue) in Lightroom, you had to use external tools (most notably the Photoshop Channel Mixer) for that. Finally, this is now possible – and actually very easy to do – in Lightroom.
On June 16, 2020 Adobe has added local HSL adjustments to the Development module of Lightroom Classic 9.3. Now it is possible to create the Infrared Blue Sky effect in Lightroom, without additional tools. This post has been updated accordingly.
If you use Lightroom Classic 9.2 or an earlier version, the instructions for using Nik Viveza are still available. Just jump to the corresponding section.
Workflow for Lightroom Classic 9.3 and later
Lightroom 9.3 made this effect a lot easier to achieve for us infrared photographers. The new workflow is as follows:
Import your picture and apply an infrared profile
Import your infrared picture into Lightroom and apply a matching infrared profile. This is described in detail in my article How to Set Proper Infrared White Balance in Lightroom. After these steps, your picture will look something like this:
Next, set the White Balance on the foliage using the White Balance Eye Dropping tool so that the yellowish tint disappears from the foliage and they show up in white and grey tones. In my example, I used it on the bright foreground bush slightly left to the center of the image:
The next step is optional, but will make your life easier. Go to the HSL/Color panel and click on Saturation. Click the small dot in the top left corner of the panel:
Now click on a yellowish spot in your picture, hold the mouse button and drag the mouse upwards to increase the saturation of the yellow(ish) tones. In my example, I used a dark yellow area in the sky. The result should look like this:
If you cannot bring out the yellow(ish) tones in your picture like in the example above, there is another section in this post dealing with exactly this issue. It was written with Nik Viveza in mind, but works exactly the same way for the new Lightroom version.
Create a mask and change the hue
Using the tool of your choice, paint in a mask where you would like to change the hue in the picture. I have used the adjustment brush, and here is how the mask for my picture looks like:
Notice that on purpose I have left out the grass in the foreground. This will leave some yellow tones in the picture, to contrast with the (soon) blue sky.
Optionally, you can now refine the mask using the range mask tool, in case you would like to have more control over the mask. Working through a couple of example infrared pictures, I have not found this to be necessary.
Finally, move the new Hue slider to the left towards -180 (if you prefer a reddish blue) or to the right towards +180 (if you prefer a greenish blue). Note that -180 and +180 should give you the same result.
Your picture should now look like this:
Looks nice, don’t you think? Here is an optional final step to refine your picture: add some contrast (try out the Dehaze slider, you will be surprised!) and saturation to make your picture stand out. Here is how my final example looks like:
That’s it! Super easy with the new Lightroom version, isn’t it?
Workflow for Lightroom Classic 9.2 and earlier
If you are using Lightroom for your digital infrared photography, you did probably already realize that you cannot create the infrared blue sky effect using only Lightroom tools. The most widely published method is this: you export your image to Photoshop and then use the channel mixer to swap the blue and red channels. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent to the channel mixer in Lightroom.
For those of us not using Photoshop, I recently discovered some other ways to achieve the same effect. So, what are your options?
Jason Odell (one of the Nikonian Image Doctors) published a blog entry explaining various ways to create the blue sky effect. Of course Photoshop is mentioned, but you will also find guides for Photoshop Elements, Nik Viveza 2 (part of the Nik collection) and Nikon Capture NX2.
Unfortunately the Nik Collection is no longer available for free. This means the instructions below will only work if you already have a copy installed on your computer or bought a license from DxO.
Summarizing Jason’s instructions for Nik Viveza, here is the workflow:
Import your picture and apply an infrared profile
First, import your picture into Lightroom. The result will look similar to this:
Next, apply a camera profile to get rid of the red color cast. This is described in detail in my article Proper Infrared White Balance in Lightroom. After this step, the picture will look similar to this:
Please note that if you want to achieve the infrared blue sky effect, the sky in your picture should be yellow, orange or brown, like in the example above. Otherwise, the next step will not lead to the desired result.
Use Viveza to apply the hue shift
Finally, apply a 180° hue shift in Viveza 2 and the picture will look like this:
If you cannot see the Hue slider in Viveza, you will first need to click on Expand Sliders:
What if the sky does not want to turn blue?
A reader left a comment to this post where she mentioned that the above approach does not work for her. She just couldn’t get the sky turn blue, no matter what she tried. Shes used a Micro Four Thirds camera with a permanent 720nm conversion, actually perfect for IR photography. We exchanged a couple of emails and with her permission (Thank you Bonnie!) I would like to explain the findings and the solution.
Here is the picture straight from the camera, after import to Lightroom:
She also tried to apply a white balance profile, similar to what I describe in How to Set Proper Infrared White Balance in Lightroom:
Now there is less visible red tint, but the picture is rather “brownish”. I did not have any luck with this profile, so I discarded it and went back to the original version. As a first step, I did a white balance on the foliage:
Increase yellowish tones
While the picture was a lot more neutral, the histogram showed lack of yellowish tones. A first 180° hue conversion did not work at all. The yellowish tones are required for a nice blue sky conversion. As a next step, I did increase the hue and saturation of the yellow, orange and red tones:
Consequently, this resulted in a lot more yellowish picture – a much better basis for the next step:
Finally, I could apply the 180° hue shift in Nik Viveza and get some decent results:
Fine-tune the results
The blue is dark and not very saturated, but it is a good basis for the final step. Back in Lightroom, I did tweak some basic adjustments to add some “pop” to the image – contrast and saturation adjustments:
Finally a pleasing result – a really nice lighthouse with a great blue sky and white foliage:
In conclusion – even if the original image is not promising, there are still some tweaks we can add to create a beautiful infrared image with a blue sky.
The only other ways I am aware of is either using the channel mixer in Gimp or using command line tools like ImageMagick. This blog entry by Chris McClanahan describes both methods. So, just download the ready-to use plugins from that page if you have the required tools installed.
Reader Jacob mentioned in a comment to a different post that you can download Lightroom profiles with a built-in red and blue channel swap. Unfortunately this approach does not consider the infrared white balance limitations of Lightroom, so your options are still limited.
Are you aware of additional ways to achieve the infrared blue-sky effect? If yes, I would appreciate if you leave a comment below, so I can update this article for the benefit of other readers.