Full Spectrum

Consider converting your camera to capture the entire light spectrum for new creative possibilities
Consider converting your camera to capture the entire light spectrum for new creative possibilities.

With a full-spectrum conversion, your camera’s IR filter is replaced with a clear filter. You can then use lens filters to control which parts of the light spectrum are captured by the camera sensor.

It was 15 years ago when my good friend and fabulous photographer, Theresa Airey, showed up in Molokai with a Minolta DiMAGE 7, which she had had modified to shoot IR (infrared). The quality wasn’t great and the exposures required a tripod, but for the first time I was able to look through the viewfinder and tumble into an infrared world. I was hooked!

Over the ensuing years, I continued to upgrade my infrared cameras, modifying various point-and-shoots at both Spencer’s Camera (www.spencerscamera.com) and LifePixel (www.lifepixel.com). All were better than the old DiMAGE, but resolution and noise continued to be a problem. I even modified one of my Canon DSLRs for infrared and, although the image quality was better, the frustration of not being able to see the IR image through the viewfinder (which you only can do with a mirrorless camera) led to me finding this solution wanting as well.

Finally, last year, I’d had enough. I embarked on a serious quest to find the perfect IR camera. I wanted the camera to be small, as I believed I would be carrying it as an addition to my Canon DSLR yet, at the same time, I wanted the images to have better quality than the best small point-and-shoot. Fortune smiled on me. I discovered that Olympus and Panasonic, which had been releasing cameras using the Micro Four Thirds format since 2009, had both recently made breakthroughs in this technology that had seriously upped the ante in performance.

Micro Four Thirds uses the same sensor size as the Four Thirds system designed for DSLRs, but because the Micro Four Thirds cameras are mirrorless (using an electronic viewfinder) the cameras can be much smaller and, because of the shorter flange focal distance, so can the lenses. Auto focus problems, which had been obvious in initial models, were now very close to the same level of professional DSLRs and new electronic viewfinders offered a viewing experience which, while not being quite as sharp as a DSLR, were vastly better than any of the previous iterations.

After much analysis, I finally chose the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II and called Spencer’s Camera to see about a conversion to IR. I told the owner, Clarence, that I was happy with my camera choice, but frustrated that after the conversion I still would be carrying two cameras with me—one for IR and one for color.

“Why don’t you just have the Olympus converted to full spectrum?” he asked. Honestly, I didn’t know what he was talking about. He continued: “With a full-spectrum conversion, we replace the internal IR-blocking filter with a clear filter. This allows the camera to capture the entire light spectrum: ultraviolet, infrared and visible light. All you need to do then is limit what the camera ‘sees’ by placing the appropriate filter in front of the camera lens. You can shoot color or IR (or astrophotography) with one camera just by adding a filter, all without sacrificing quality.”

Consider converting your camera to capture the entire light spectrum for new creative possibilities.

Sound too good to be true? Yeah, that’s what I thought, but I went ahead, had the conversion done and bought the color and IR conversion filters. Guess what? It was not too good to be true! It worked, and worked beautifully.

The image quality in both the color and IR was superb. Changing the filters from color to IR and back was easy, and the resulting images from both were 4606 pixels on the long side, from which I could easily make 20×30-inch enlargements.

Not having to carry two different camera bodies was a true delight. I found I could pack the camera and two lenses (plus extra batteries and cards) in a small front-facing waist pouch. The two lenses I purchased gave me a shooting range of 18mm to 300mm (or up to 600mm with digital zoom). The tripod I bought for the new rig was hardly noticeable slung over my shoulder in its small carrying case.

OK, I sound pretty enthusiastic, and I am. I’m not selling my “big boy” cameras yet, but this new camera and conversion has really opened my eyes as to how much technology has advanced and what a joy it is not to be lugging around all that heavy gear. I urge you to check out the newest Micro Four Thirds cameras and to seriously consider a full-spectrum conversion if you enjoy taking IR photos as much as I do.

Just take a look at the color and IR images that accompany this story and ask yourself if you wouldn’t want to be able to take photos like this with one camera and a rig (camera, two lenses, many filters, four batteries, cards, cable release, cleaning solution and cloths and waist pouch) that weighs less than four pounds!

I rest my case.

Dewitt Jones is one of America’s top professional photographers. Twenty years with National Geographic photographing stories around the globe has earned him the reputation as a world-class photojournalist. As a motion picture director, he had two documentary films nominated for Academy Awards before he was thirty. Dewitt has published nine books including California! and John Muir’s High Sierra. His most recent book, The Nature of Leadership, was created in collaboration with Stephen R. Covey.