Infrared photography is an artfully exciting alternative to photographs made with the visible spectrum. Overcoming the challenges of capturing “invisible” light can help you break out of creative habits, tap into your imagination and see your favorite subjects and locations in a radically new way. Converting a camera to infrared capture is relatively affordable compared to the cost of our cameras and lenses in general, in the ballpark of about $300 depending on the type of conversion you choose.
You can convert an older camera that you don’t use often, or you can opt to buy a new camera that’s already been converted directly from a conversion service provider like LifePixel, which is the company that pro photographers like Nevada Wier recommend.
We asked Daniel Malkin, co-owner of LifePixel, to explain the basics of converting a camera to infrared or full-spectrum capture and to demystify the process for photographers interested in pursuing this creative option.
Infrared Conversion: How Is It Done?
You might not realize that your digital camera’s sensor is already capable of capturing infrared light. Camera makers install what’s called a “hot mirror filter” in front of the sensor to block the infrared spectrum so that only visible light reaches the sensor.
The infrared conversion process removes this filter and replaces it with one designed to allow specific wavelengths to pass through. One of the first choices you’ll need to make is the type of filter you want installed, which will determine the portion of the spectrum you can record.
Types Of Infrared Conversion
- Standard IR (720nm). “Our Standard IR filter is what we started the company with 20 years ago and remains one of our most popular filters,” Malkin says. “For traditional-looking IR with little to no color, it is great.” He explains that images captured with this filter can be processed to change, add or remove color easily and that interesting results can also be achieved with little to no processing after a basic white balance correction.
- Deep B&W IR (830nm). “This filter is by far the best option for photographers who don’t want to do a lot of editing and who like black-and-white infrared with lots of contrast,” says Malkin. “It is truly the closest thing to infrared film.” There’s one potential drawback: “This filter captures the smallest tonal range compared to all of our filter varieties,” he cautions, “so there isn’t much you can control in post-processing, as the image is comprised of the least amount of usable information.”
- Enhanced IR (665nm). This filter may be a safe choice for photographers who aren’t sure where to start. “The Enhanced IR is a great halfway point between our Standard IR and our Super Color IR, our two most popular varieties,” Malkin suggests. “If the Super Color is too saturated for your liking but the Standard is too plain, the Enhanced IR is usually a great option.”
- Super Color IR (590nm). “Also known as Goldie IR, the Super Color has been our most popular filter since we released it back in 2009,” Malkin says. “Since it can easily replicate all of the stronger IR filter varieties that we offer depending on how it is processed, most people are drawn to its versatility. For those that are comfortable with post-processing and want both color and black-and-white infrared, this filter is usually the best choice.”
- Hyper Color IR (470nm). LifePixel’s newest filter variety, Hyper Color IR blends more visible spectrum with infrared spectrum than any of the other varieties the company offers. “As a result,” Malkin explains, “images can seem more ‘normal’ compared with other IR varieties. It is great for black-and-white scenes especially. Aside from full spectrum, a lot of people get an internal Hyper Color conversion and buy stronger external IR filters to further control the end result.”
- Super Blue IR. “We came up with our Super Blue for those that wanted a blue sky with their IR but aren’t skilled in post-processing. It is essentially a two-band filter as it simultaneously passes both visible blue and IR,” Malkin says. Though it was conceived for photographers who don’t want to do much Photoshop work, Malkin notes that contrary to LifePixel’s expectations, “Most people that get it are well versed in processing and choose it for its inherent characteristics.”
- Full Spectrum. “Full Spectrum is a clear filter conversion that opens up the full sensitivity of the camera’s sensor. Once it is converted this way,” Malkin says, “the camera can be used for UV, IR or as a regular camera. This works very well for any newer DSLR that has Live View and also with all mirrorless cameras.” This conversion is the most versatile, as you can control which portion of the spectrum you are capturing for each shot using lens-mounted filters. LifePixel offers a visible bandpass filter for use with this conversion to shoot visible light photographs, as well as six different infrared filters that are equivalent to the other internal filter types mentioned above.
If you’re still not sure which type of infrared conversion might be best for you, Malkin welcomes you to call or email LifePixel. “Each person has different needs and desires,” he observes. “The spectrum of ‘first timers’ varies greatly, so it’s usually a great idea to start a dialogue with us so we can give one-on-one advice. We do everything we can to ensure our customers make the best choice and that they are happy.”
Infrared Conversion & Focusing Calibration
Your lenses are designed to focus visible light. Infrared wavelengths are longer than those of visible light, so each lens—and even various focal lengths in a zoom—will focus light differently. For this reason, mirrorless cameras, which calculate focus using the camera’s image sensor, are the best suited for infrared conversion, as they don’t require any special lens calibration. You’ll be able to shoot with every lens and achieve sharp focus.
For those wanting to convert a DSLR, you may need to calibrate your lens for infrared focusing. “With mirrorless cameras and with our universal calibration for DSLRs when using Live View, all lenses focus correctly,” Malkin says. But note that Live View capability is important here if you’re converting a DSLR.
“For older DSLRs that do not have Live View, it is usually best to send us the lens you want to use so we can calibrate the camera for the lens, as this ensures that the optical viewfinder is accurate.” Malkin concedes that, “There is a decent chance that other lenses will work at smaller apertures by increasing your depth of field but isn’t a guarantee that all lenses will work the way they do with mirrorless cameras or DSLRs that have Live View with our universal calibration.” That said, Malkin advises, “If somebody wants to convert a DSLR to IR—even if the camera has Live View—it is still best to have it calibrated for a single lens if the person wants to shoot through the viewfinder accurately or if they are simply going to be using one lens primarily.”
So, for the easiest, most versatile infrared experience, we recommend converting a mirrorless camera. We asked Malkin if there are specific camera models that are the most popular or that he specifically recommends. He replies, “Honestly, most cameras—Canon, Nikon, Sony, Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic—convert nicely for IR if they have been made in the last 10 years.”
Older cameras will also work, though. “All interchangeable-lens digital cameras are more or less equally sensitive to IR once converted,” Malkin says. “Other than focus and image quality, there isn’t anything about an older camera made in the last 15 years that makes it unsuitable for a conversion. As long as somebody doesn’t have unrealistic expectations about image quality, then converting an older camera is usually just fine.”
Lens Hot Spots
Another lens consideration that’s unique to infrared photography is the possibility of “hot spots,” the most common image quality issue people encounter with infrared. These hot spots appear as a bright circle in the image and are exacerbated when you stop down to smaller apertures. They are suspected to be the result of the optical design of specific lenses and possibly the coatings lens manufactures employ, but it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what causes the problem in a given lens.
“We are honestly not sure what causes a hot spot in IR,” Malkin admits, “other than knowing that the lens itself is the culprit. For example, a Nikon lens that has a hot spot will have one with any converted Nikon camera. Strangely, we are not aware of any older lenses that cause this problem for IR. While it might be the use of modern lens coatings that cause hot spots, it can also be because of their design. So, the literature for two Nikon lenses might indicate that both have the same or similar coatings, but one might have a hot spot in IR and one might not.”
Unfortunately, there’s no simple fix for this, and you won’t know in advance if a given lens will produce hot spots. “The only way to truly know if a lens has a hot spot is to test it with different filter varieties in different lighting conditions,” says Malkin. “Some lenses have no hot spots at all. Some lenses have them at all points of their zoom range and at all apertures. Then there are some lenses that create hot spots that are still usable on a converted camera as most hot spots in IR occur at ƒ/11 and smaller. So, if you are shooting and see a hotspot, try opening up the aperture [and] changing your angle or the zoom setting, as a few small tweaks like this can greatly reduce the intensity of a hot spot.”
To help photographers avoid the problem altogether, LifePixel has compiled a database of lenses known to cause hot spots. They’re also willing to test a specific lens for you if it’s not one they have previously examined.
A Departure From The Ordinary
There’s a lot more to know about infrared imaging than we can cover here, but this introduction should give you the foundation to consider whether the medium is something for you. Though there are technical challenges to overcome, the unique, otherworldly effects of infrared photography might be a novelty that develops into a prominent part of your photographic toolkit. It’s an opportunity to see even your most-frequented photo destinations in a totally new light.
See more of Dan Wampler’s work at danwampler.com.