A step-by-step guide on how to create the infrared blue sky effect in Lightroom, using only free tools. No Photoshop channel mixer required.

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?

Photoshop is not the only way to achieve the infrared blue sky effect

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.

Now that the Nik collection is available for free, the easiest way to achieve the infrared blue sky effect is to use Viveza 2, one of the Nik collection modules. Just follow this link to the Nik collection page, download your free copy and start using Viveza 2.

Summarizing Jason’s instructions, here is the workflow:

The workflow

  1. First, import your picture into Lightroom. The result will look similar to this:
    Infrared image after importing in Lightroom
    After Lightroom import
  2. 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:
    Picture after applying a camera profile
    After applying a camera profile

    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.

  3. Finally, apply a 180° hue shift in Viveza 2 and the picture will look like this:
    Infrared blue sky effect after 180° hue shift in Viveza 2
    Infrared blue sky effect after hue shift in Viveza 2

    If you cannot see the Hue slider in Viveza, you will have to click on “Expand Sliders” first:

    Expand button and Hue slider
    Expand button and Hue slider

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:

The original infrared picture right after it was imported into Lightroom, with a typical red tint.
Infrared picture right after importing it into 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:

The infrared picture right after the infrared profile was applied, with much less red tint
Infrared picture after the infrared profile was applied

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:

The picture after the white balance eyedropper was applied to the tree on the right
Step 1: Use the white balance eyedropper on the tree on the right

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:

Lightroom hue and saturation adjustment sliders
Hue and saturation adjustments

Consequently, this resulted in a lot more yellowish picture – a much better basis for the next step:

The picture after hue and saturation adjustment to the yellow, orange and red tones
Step 2: Hue and saturation adjustments to increase the yellow, orange and red tones

Finally, I could apply the 180° hue shift in Nik Viveza and get some decent results:

The picture after the 180° hue shift in Nik Viveza was applied
Step 3: Apply 180° hue shift in Nik Viveza

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:

Basic adjustment sliders in Lightroom
Basic development adjustments

Finally a pleasing result – a really nice lighthouse with a great blue sky and white foliage:

The picture after some final adjustments in Lightroom
Step 4: Final adjustments in Lightroom

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.

Other approaches

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.