Experimenting with infrared opens up a whole new look for your photography. IR film was a finicky and difficult material to work with at the best of times, but a standard D-SLR can be converted easily to an IR came
I must admit, I always loved the look of black-and-white infrared photography. There’s something otherworldly and dramatic about the effect, yet it doesn’t look hokey and gimmicky like some other special processes. Since most of my work is for travel magazines, I didn’t have a lot of call for alternative-process techniques, and in the film era, I frankly didn’t have the patience to deal with infrared film. It had to be loaded and unloaded in total darkness and required filters, long-exposure times and special handling by the lab—all in all, too much trouble to shoot along with my color work on a casual basis.
But Elizabeth explained to me how most digital sensors are sensitive to infrared, and camera makers have to put a filter on them to filter out the infrared. There are shops in the U.S. (see the sidebar for a list), however, that restore the infrared sensitivity of select cameras by removing that filter and replacing it with one that allows some or a lot of infrared to strike the sensor, and voiliá you’re shooting infrared photos with the same ease and speed as regular color digital pictures.
Needless to say, as soon as I got home, I dug out one of my old D70s and sent it off to be converted. I took it with me on an assignment in Iceland and Scotland, and it was an eye-opening and mind-expanding experience! The landscapes of Iceland are often stark and otherworldly, and the light can be quite dramatic. Although my primary job was to shoot color, I found myself reaching for the converted D70 more and more often, and when I got back home, it was the black-and-white infrareds that really had me excited. I’ve since taken the camera on a few other assignments, and while I’m no expert in the field, I’ve picked up a few pointers that may help you if you should decide to convert!
Which Camera, Which Lens. As in straight digital photography, a digital SLR will give you the highest image quality. Although I chose a 6-megapixel D-SLR, I could have sent a D200 or a D80 and gotten 10-megapixel quality. But I didn’t want to sacrifice one of my main machines for this grand experiment and, truthfully, I’ve always been pleased with the image quality from my D70s. Since I had a couple of them hanging around, I decided to convert one of them. (I have a tough time parting with my gear once I upgrade—call me sentimental; in the case of the D70s, though, I also kept them around because I have an underwater housing specifically for that model.)
You also can convert digital point and-shoots and EVF (electronic viewfinder) cameras. The specific models that you can convert vary with each shop that does the conversion; check their websites for the latest list of convertible models.
Choosing a lens to use with the camera is also important. Infrared doesn’t focus in quite the same way as visible light (older readers will remember the IR hashmark on the focusing barrels of old manual-focus prime lenses—it was just off from the main focus point), so lens compatibility is important. Life Pixel, where I had my D70 converted, calibrates its D70 conversions for the venerable kit lens that came with that camera, the 18-70mm ED.
I had one of these in my equipment closet and always was well pleased with its optical performance. It works like a dream on the converted camera, although I’ve also used the 18-200mm Nikkor VR with equally good results.
File Format And White-Balance Choices. You can shoot either JPEG or RAW with the infrared conversion (provided your particular camera is capable of RAW capture). It’s a matter of your own shooting style.
In JPEG, getting the proper white balance for IR is important. Life Pixel’s regular IR conversion includes setting a custom white-balance temperature for the camera, but if you don’t find it’s to your taste, and your camera can do custom white-balance readings, Life Pixel recommends taking a white-balance reading off of green grass.
There are a number of ways to convert the infrared image you get into black-and-white. You can order a conversion that’s black-and-white only, probably the fastest and easiest way (straight IR conversions allow some color in, and the image has to be converted to pure black-and-white later).
Some users prefer to do it all in Photoshop. Right now, I shoot in RAW, make my contrast and exposure adjustments, desaturate the image and then go into Photoshop for further tweaking. But I’m researching and experimenting with other ways of achieving the same net result using different tools. At this writing, I’m not interested in the weird effects of color infrared, so all of my experimenting has been in the realm of black-and-white. Your tastes may vary, of course.
Where To Get Your
Life Pixel Infrared
In The Field. The basic look of black-and-white infrared usually renders foliage and grass snowy white, while making blue skies and water dark and dramatic. It loves dramatic cloudscapes, and it does wonderful things to the texture of human skin, where it seems to put a mild glow and suppress blemishes and imperfections. You never really know what you’ll get until you shoot, which is part of the excitement of playing around with these cameras.
Infrared film was very slow, ISO-wise, and often required long exposures, and hence, a tripod. Digital infrared is a lot faster, although sometimes I find I have to go to +1 or +2 in exposure compensation to get a presentable histogram of a certain scene (remember, with infrared, just as with your regular digital shooting, never judge exposure from the way the picture looks on your LCD—always use the histogram). But in most outdoor light conditions, I can handhold my camera at ISO 200.
As with any digital camera, clipping highlights is to be avoided, if at all possible. The tonal range from an IR-converted camera may not stretch out to the edges of your histogram display, so you can us the—blinking highlights—setting on your playback menu to check quickly for clipped highlights or just watch for a sudden crowding up of pixels on the right side of your histogram—the same look that you see when, with a conventional image, it hits the right side of the histogram graph.
Experiment And Have Fun. I’ve been in a mode of taking less and less equipment on the road in the last couple of years, but I’m finding that carrying the infrared body and lens isn’t too much of a hardship. However, I’ve just sent out one of my favorite EVF cameras, a Nikon Coolpix 8400, for conversion to save me a few ounces and inches in the bag. With it’s 8-megapixel sensor, 24mm wide-angle lens and ability to record in RAW, it will be easy for me to shoot infrared any time, any place. And so, my conversion continues!
For a schedule of Bob Krist's workshops and seminars, check his website, www.bobkrist.com.