A Brief Introduction to Digital Infrared Photography – By Matthew Patey

By Matthew Patey

Human vision is sensitive only to a small part of the entire colour spectrum. Infrared photography allows us to visualise reflected light that is otherwise invisible to us and opens another dimension for photographers to experiment with. The following outlines my experience getting started with digital infrared and the results that ensued.

Most if not all digital camera sensors are capable of “seeing” infrared light. If you put a filter on your digital camera’s lens and shoot a scene with sources that reflect infrared (e. g. leafy trees), you’ll find that it will produce results. Chances are that you’ll require much long exposure times and focusing (automatically or manually) will be nearly impossible. This is because most digital include a hot mirror, which prevents infrared light from reaching the sensor. The reason for this is simple: infrared light results in photos taking on a reddish hue. Removing this filter is necessary to make handheld infrared photography practical because it greatly reduces exposure times, though at a cost. Without a hot-mirror:

  1. Regular colour photos will require introducing an infrared cut filter to stop infrared light from hitting the sensor.
  2. Autofocus performance will suffer and, in some cases, not work at all.
  3. Images taken with a camera without a hot mirror may display lightly coloured blobs in the centre of the photo though some lenses are better than others in this regard.
Petal and Bud Impression
Petal and Bud Impression

The conversion process

A few companies offer infrared conversion services but it’s also possible to do this yourself. I can only speak from experience converting my Nikon COOLPIX A, for which I followed Life Pixel’s tutorial. DSLRs and cameras with in-body image stabilisation are likely more difficult due to their added complexity, and would recommend doing some research on the camera you’d like to convert to see if you’re up for the process before diving in. Assuming you decide to proceed with the conversion process, here are a few tips I can offer:

Use good tools

Small screws used to keep cameras together often strip easily. Be sure to use good quality and correctly sized screwdrivers. I’d recommend a precision screwdriver set, preferably one with ESD protection.

Be organised

Use a project tray to keep things sorted. You’ll be managing tiny parts and flimsy bits that you could easily lose in the conversion process. An anti-static tray is especially useful as it will protect sensitive electronics.

Use a spudger

Use a plastic spudger to reduce the risk of scratching or otherwise damaging components. It’s especially useful for gently disconnecting the many ribbon connectors in most cameras.

Don’t shock yourself!

If your camera has a built-in flash, beware of capacitors. Touching them or nearby circuitry could result in a nasty shock.

Expect imperfection

Be aware that alignment of parts will be affected the minute you start fiddling with the camera’s internals. There’s a good chance that you introduce focus shift or ruin focus altogether. Sometimes lenses are seated with spacers between it and the body. Be sure to include these in exactly the same place and orientation when re-assembling.

Work in a clean environment

When working on the inside of your camera, be sure to do so in an area with minimal dust. Clean your work surface with a damp cloth and keep the windows and doors closed. You might even want to consider wearing latex gloves and a face mask.

Concrete and Plants
Concrete and Plants

Converted camera in use

Once converted, you’ll notice that images taken with the camera have a reddish hue. This is the result of the sensor interpreting the near-infrared part of the spectrum. For straight out-of-camera results, try setting your camera to shoot black and white JPEGs. In my experience, landscape and portraiture provide the most interesting results. For example: cloudy skies and foliage become extremely contrasty; and people’s skin takes on a milky smooth texture, and emanates a subtle glow.

Colour infrared photography requires a bit more work depending on the look you’re going for. Personally, I prefer like to simply swap blue and red channels, which typically results in an otherworldly appearance. Furthermore, the use of glass filters to limit which part of the spectrum is captured makes it possible to produce more extreme effects, such as emulating Kodak’s long discontinued Aerochrome.

Lichtenberg, Berlin
Lichtenberg, Berlin

Examples

Eerie Park
Eerie Park—Swapping colour channels in Photoshop result in foliage looking like it’s covered in a fine white dust

 

Red Planet
Red Planet—Processing in Photoshop can significantly change the palette of the final result

 

Another World
Another World

 

Portrait
Portrait—Note the texture and subtle glow of the subject’s skin
Summer as Winter
Summer as Winter

Conclusion

Unfortunately, there aren’t many cameras on the market that are designed to do infrared photography out of the box. Sigma’s SD-1 and SD Quattro include easily removable filters, but aren’t all that common. Chances are you’ll need a donor camera and either do the conversion yourself, or have a third party do the conversion for you. Exploring the infrared spectrum has rekindled my interest in landscape photography, whether black and white or in (false) colour. As such, I believe the risk of conversion is worth the ability to explore this part of the colour spectrum that was otherwise invisible.

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Comments

Eric on A Brief Introduction to Digital Infrared Photography – By Matthew Patey

Comment posted: 29/07/2022

Thank you for this article. Great images and write up. Had been meaning to test out infrared photography with my sd Quattro and you have inspired me to order an IR pass filter just now.
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Matthew Patey replied:

Comment posted: 29/07/2022

Thanks, glad to hear I was able to inspire!

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John Hillyer on A Brief Introduction to Digital Infrared Photography – By Matthew Patey

Comment posted: 29/07/2022

Hi, nice article. Am interested in your comments about Sigma SD1 and Quattro being suitable for IR as 'filter is easily removable' . How is this done, Sigma manuals only refer to removal of the Dust Filter, there is no mention of IR. I have both these bodies so am especially interested. Can you clarify please ?
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Matthew Patey replied:

Comment posted: 29/07/2022

Hi John, indeed, the SD1 manual only seems to refer to the IR filter as a dust protector. In fact it can be removed to allow for IR photography as described in an article here: https://blog.sigmaphoto.com/2012/sigma-sd1-and-sd15-for-digital-infrared-photography-by-jack-howard/?amp=1 I expect the same can be said for the Quattro SD models as well.

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John Hillyer replied:

Comment posted: 29/07/2022

Matthew, thanks for quick reply and link; have also found the Tim Shoebridge article which covers this. Have tried both bodies , and yes it is more than a dust protector !

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Edward Noble on A Brief Introduction to Digital Infrared Photography – By Matthew Patey

Comment posted: 29/07/2022

Nice article! Not all cameras can shoot IR by simply adding an IR filter to the lens due to some hot mirrors blocking all of the near-IR wavengths. The Sony A7ii doesn't work for example. This is a trend on newer cameras since the more IR you block the better the colour accuracy is for visible.
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Matthew Patey replied:

Comment posted: 29/07/2022

Hi Edward. Thanks! Indeed, not all cameras are equal when it comes to their out of the factory IR sensing abilities. There are lists on the internet describing some cameras as being more sensitive than others due to weak hot mirrors, so it would be wise to do a bit of research before assuming that a given camer will be suitable for IR photography without some kind of modification. It’s important to keep in mind though that most cameras are not suitable for handheld IR photography without first removing the hot mirror as they still block a significant amount of the IR spectrum.

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Paul Trantow on A Brief Introduction to Digital Infrared Photography – By Matthew Patey

Comment posted: 27/07/2022

Lovely. And if you like Infrared, do check out MDMullen1 on Instagram. David is an ASC cinematographer who sometimes shoots with a "720nm infrared Sony A6500 customized by Life Pixel" (I had to look that bit up).
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Matthew Patey replied:

Comment posted: 27/07/2022

I’ve been following MDMullen1 for a while now, and was impressed with his recent IR posts. Very dramatic results!

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Dan Mountin on A Brief Introduction to Digital Infrared Photography – By Matthew Patey

Comment posted: 27/07/2022

What a great article! I’ve been a member of the IR club for years! I’ve became fascinated with Infrared starting with my first experience using Kodak’s High Speed Infrared film over 35 years ago. Infrared photography was a bit more technical back then, but the results were still stunning! On the downside, only B&W was possible. Recently, I returned to Infrared. I purchased and converted a Lumix DMC-ZS8 myself. The results have exceeded my modest expectations! I’m still more partial to monochrome, but now, I can experiment with full spectrum color! My conversion included epoxying a filter ring to the lens barrel. I’m screwing in a 720nm IR filter for infrared. If I do want to return to “normal”, i’ll just screw in an IR Cut filter. Since mine is a full spectrum conversion, I think I’m gonna try experimenting w/ ultraviolet too and get a 365nm UV filter too! I compliment you on your conversion! It’s nice to see I’m not the only convert!
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Matthew Patey replied:

Comment posted: 27/07/2022

Thanks for the nice words!

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Alex Hazuki on A Brief Introduction to Digital Infrared Photography – By Matthew Patey

Comment posted: 27/07/2022

The Panasonic GF3 and G3 are both easy to convert to full spectrum following the life pixel guides. Just be aware that they will not focus with native lenses. Adapting old Nikon mount manual focus lenses with a cheap adapter seems to work better than other vintage lenses for some reason. So if you like to shoot below 60mm your up the creek without a paddle.
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Matthew Patey replied:

Comment posted: 27/07/2022

To be clear, do you mean that auto focus no longer works after the conversion? And why can’t one shoot below 60mm?

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Alex Hazuki replied:

Comment posted: 27/07/2022

Auto focus does work, you just can't focus to infinity unless you replace the ir glass with plain schott glass. With micro four thirds doubling the focal length of any adapted glass there's not many cheap lenses under 24mm/28mm hence the 60mm .

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Matthew Patey replied:

Comment posted: 27/07/2022

Ah gotcha, thanks for clarifying. That’s good to know, I wonder if I might find some plain glass for my Nikon…

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