IR PHOTOGRAPHY - TO CONVERT, OR NOT...

There are three main ways to get into shooting infrared photography. A converted camera makes IR photography much easier, but it's expensive and usually you can't use the camera for normal (visible light) wavelengths afterwards. Thus the easiest, safest and cheapest way to try out infrared (and see if it's for you), is the first option... 

1. Just Add A Filter - This means just buying (or even better - borrowing) an infrared filter for your existing camera, to put on in front of your lens. Unlike a converted camera, by far the best wavelength to choose here is a 720nm.

pros:

  • The cheapest & easiest option to shoot IR

cons:

  • ** May not work (Check the note below)

  • Mostly only B&W IR possible / Color separation difficult or impossible

  • Long exposure times / Tripod usually needed

  • Motion blur usually unavoidable, not suitable for portraits

  • DSLR viewfinder unusable with IR filter

  • DSLR phase detect focus will not be correct

NOTE: ** Unfortunately it is becoming increasingly common that this option does not work at all due to modern internal hot mirrors blocking all IR (to improve colour accuracy). To help know if it's worth you even buying a filter you can try pointing an IR remote at your camera. If you see a light when you press a button on the remote then you should be good to go ahead and buy a filter.

My Sony A7 requires a conversion to shoot IR) **

* As you can see from the red line above - there is very little light coming into your sensor with this method. This will most likely mean that you need a tripod, due to the long shutter speeds required (although 4 minutes is probably longer than you will experience). high ISO will most likely not be enough to enable hand-held shooting here.

2. IR Conversion

Converting your camera to IR involves replacing your cameras hot mirror with an infrared filter. This will allow you to shoot in that wavelength at normal shutter speeds.

pros:

  • No need for external filters

  • Normal exposure times with IR

  • Potentially improving image quality & vignetting

  • Shoot IR with super-wide lenses

  • Can shoot higher wavelengths with external filters

cons:

  • Can no longer shoot normal color (visible light)

  • Cannot shoot lower wavelengths

  • External filters on DSLRs will cause the optical viewfinder to be unusable

The tricky part here is choosing which IR wavelength that you wish to stick with*, but if your internal conversion has a lower wavelengths (590nm) then higher wavelengths can also be achieved using external filters. A logical extension of this is to not block anything internally, see option 3 (full spectrum - below).

3. Full Spectrum Conversion

Converting your camera to full spectrum involves removing its hot mirror and replacing it with glass (so that it doesn't block anything).

Pros:

  • Any wavelength / combination of wavelengths between 300-1200nm now possible

  • Normal exposures with any wavelength

  • Shoot color with the same camera (using additional hot mirror)

  • Can shoot UV

  • New Multi-band filters like Kolari's "IR Chrome" allow color IR results to be seen in the displays in real-time (no processing required)

Cons:

  • Can be expensive due to the need for filters

  • Recommended for mirrorless cameras, not DSLRs

 

This is the most flexible option. It will require external filters to shoot anything other than full spectrum, which can be tricky and expensive (see 'Filter' Section for help), but only needing one camera can be extremely powerful (and light for travelling).

 

CAMERA TYPES

WHICH TO CONVERT & WHY

This section demonstrates the pros and cons of converting different types of camera technology. 

1. DSLR

Converting an old DSLR to IR has been a common option for IR enthusiasts, but the process often isn't cheap, so I would advise anyone considering this to think hard about the pros and cons, as DSLRs have a lot of down sides. Also consider buying pre-converted cameras (new or second hand) because a different model / type might suit your needs better. Some prefer the look of a an optical viewfinder, but it doesn't have any specific advantages over an EVF (electronic viewfinder) for infrared.

DSLR Advantages For IR (OVF):

  • None

2. Mirrorless

Converting a mirrorless camera to IR or Full Spectrum is a significantly more compelling option compared to a DSLR due to the advantages are completely opposite to that of a DSLR.

Mirrorless Advantages For IR (EVF):

  • Accurate AF at any wavelength on any lens / focal length

  • Accurate metering - not calibrated for visible light (cannot see what the sensor does)

  • Full spectrum + external Hot mirror looks normal through the viewfinder

  • Full spectrum + external IR filter shows the effects of the wavelength in the viewfinder

  • Histogram visible in the viewfinder

  • Looking into the sun through the viewfinder will not damage your vision

  • Mount is adaptable to most old SLR mount lenses, allowing some great IR lenses to be used

  • Cameras and lenses are mostly lighter

3. Compact Camera

Non-interchangeable lens cameras are becoming less common as smartphone cameras continue to improve, but they are still very useful for infrared conversions. In a small package they can restrict your need for filters, thus make a relatively reasonably priced option for full spectrum and just a couple of filters. They have all the mirrroless benefits without the spiraling complexity and bulk of mirrorless and adapted SLR lens options. The trick here is to find one with a lens range & speed that you like, which doesn't suffer from hotspot in infrared.

Edward Noble

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