The Easy Guide to Converting Digital Cameras to Infrared

[Breaking news December 2012 – LifePixel (see below) have slashed their prices for doing IR conversions!]


Regeneration
Shot hand-held with an Infrared-converted Canon EOS 10D

1. Introduction

This is not a “how to” guide as such, as the process of converting a digital camera is apparently quite precise and technical, with only a handful of businesses in the world prepared to do it. It is instead my generic response to the most common questions I get asked via bmail.

Thus, my purpose with this tutorial is to:

  1. Explain what the deal is with converting a digital camera to shoot only infrared.
  2. Give the reasons why you might want to do this rather than use IR filters on your normal digital camera.
  3. Provide what I believe is a comprehensive global list of where you can get a conversion done.
  4. Provide a summary of how my own IR conversion journey went, and in doing so sound a few tips and warnings before you too decide to take the plunge.

But first, recent events have forced me to add this statement:

COPYRIGHT WARNING
This Journal is subject to copyright. You do not have permission to copy it, in part or whole, and re-publish it. It is for information purposes only.

Now on with the show and tell …

2. What’s the Infrared deal?

All digital cameras have a hot mirror filter in front of the sensor to block infrared light from spoiling regular photographs. The conversion process involves removing this internal filter and replacing it with an IR filter. It’s as simple as that. Once installed, the camera then has to be carefully calibrated for focus, given you’ve now got this heavy duty body part inside it which the camera was not actually designed to have. This aspect of conversion is more important than your choice of IR filter to have inserted, and I’ll discuss this more below.

The why, or ten good reasons for converting a digital camera to IR

Number One reason for me was that I was inspired by the IR work of RBers who had already got their digital camera converted, especially Hans Kawitzki and I really wanted to give it a go. Now, Hans is a modest dude, but I consider him one of the finest Australian photographers on RB. He has a converted 9 megapixel Fuji 9600, which is a superb non-SLR digital camera, one of the best out there, with a fixed zoom lens of equivalent 28-300mm focal length. The point about his converted digital camera having a non-interchangeable lens is important, and I’ll return to this later. But for now, if you are even just mildly interested in IR as a creative outlet I urge you to check out Hans’s work , such as Barrabool River and Stormclouds:


(published with permission)

Number Two reason was the hint I read about your “old” DLSR. You’ve gone and upgraded, so what do you do with the old one? Sell it on eBay and get, what, $500 for it? Even that? In my case, I had a Canon EOS 10D which I had paid $500 for, and used for 18 months before upgrading to the EOS 5D Mark II. Selling the 10D on eBay would only get me SFA, say $350, and yet, even at 6 megapixels and only about 30,000 iterations, it was still a damn good camera. I just didn’t have a need for it. Getting it converted to an IR camera has not only increased its value, it has given it a whole new lease on shutter life. Best gear decision I’ve made, apart from the plunge on the 5D Mark II.

Number Three is the physical aspect. Be it film or digital, normally you need to use an IR filter to shoot IR. The most commonly used one is the Hoya IR72. It is dark, as in black, as in totally black. So, firstly, you need to use a tripod, compose your shot, focus, try to work out the exposure, then switch the lens to manual focus, then screw on your filter, then take a time lapse shot. Too much hard work? You got it! Kiss that goodbye with a converted camera, which enables you to shoot IR at normal speed, normal ISO, hand-held, and without a filter. How good is that? I discuss the cost of getting your camera converted later in this tutorial. Just bear in mind when you get there that, depending on the diameter, a Hoya IR72 can set you back $160 and more. They are not cheap.

Number Four is the fact that when the light conditions become unsuitable for my 5D Mark II they are invariably ideal for the IR 10D. Bright sunlight is the go, the more the better. Hey, I live in Australia, this is IR heaven! Got a problem with even exposures through light and shadow? Shooting IR kills that problem. You’ll find your back lighting issues solved on the spot.

Number Five reason is clouds. The more serious the clouds, the better for IR. Check it out:

Number Six reason is the coolness. You’re in a public place, you’ve got your “main” camera on the tripod doin’ its thang, then you go and pull out the IR camera and start snapping way. Instantly you have set yourself apart from the crowd. You’re a pro, or as the young surfer dude at Nora Head commented on the reason I was shooting with 2 DLSRs, totally sick!

Number Seven reas- oh what the hell, six is enough!

3. Where can I get my camera converted?

It seems the most highly-recommended place to get your digital camera converted, on the planet, is Life Pixel in the USA. I have found that they convert more types of digital cameras than anybody else. Here is their complete list of cameras they convert, along with their respective prices.

If you live in Australia, a year ago there was only one place to choose from – a guy with a camera repair business in Dubbo. I asked for information. He said, yeh, I do that stuff, but youse hafta get a IR filter first, mate, and send that with yar camera to me here to get it dun. Costya $500 not including the filter. I asked where do I get the filter? He said Life Pixel. Guess where I got my camera converted? And good job it was too.

More recently, I have learnt that Camera Clinic in Melbourne do IR conversions.

If you live in the UK, I am aware of two places that do them. Advanced Camera Services and Protech. I found out those sources from a Flickr group devoted to this very subject. Note that people are selling IR converted cameras through that group.

If you live elsewhere, I can only but recommend Life Pixel

4. The cost

When Life Pixel converted my 10D it cost me US$450 (plus postage and insurance). Since then Life Pixel have slashed their conversion prices, and as of December 2012 it costs only US$250 for any Canon or Nikon DSLR. Check out their complete price list for all the digital cameras they can convert.

It seems the lower price is due to the new demand for DSLRs to have their anti-alias filter removed, so as to mimic the resolution of the Nikon D800E – the first DSLR to be sold without the filter.

5. My experiences

Yep, Life Pixel did my conversion. Very happy. Their turnaround time was 4 weeks, as promised. Of course, I neglected to take the battery out of the camera before I went to the Post Office with my carefully wrapped package, didn’t I? Don’t make that mistake! [Pack the battery in the same package, just leave it out of the body.]

Because I didn’t request otherwise or send a lens to be calibrated after conversion, Life Pixel calibrated the camera to an EF 50mm f1.8 lens. They spell this out clearly on their FAQ page. And indeed, Camera Clinic also discuss the importance of calibration and their form specifically asks you to nominate a focal length for them to calibrate to, ie the focal length you are most likely to use with the IR camera. [Life Pixel require you to send them a lens to calibrate, Camera Clinic does not.]

I didn’t pay enough attention to this calibration aspect, plus I wasn’t inclined to send a lens with the body, and I let Life Pixel do the default calibration. The result was I struggled for 9 months to get a focused IR shot! Finally, for whatever reason, I started getting pin-sharp images with the EF 24-70mm f2.8L. Go figure. Shooting at a different focal length to the calibrated focal length means the AF is not supposed to give you a sharp image, but MF might.

When shooting with a converted camera, I’ve found it best to let the camera decide upon the WB. My 10D produced pink shots when I attempted to set the WB, so I left it at Custom and haven’t touched it since.

Camera Clinic in Melbourne seem to know their stuff. This is what they say about WB and converted Ir cameras:

“Using Auto White Balance (AWB), some digital cameras may produce IR images with a strong yellowish/reddish/brownish colour cast known as false colour. This is due to the characteristics of the imager and processing algorithms. Post-processing in Adobe Photoshop (or similar) is required to remove/reduce this false colour effect. False colour can be removed/reduced by shooting images with Custom White Balance. Using Custom White Balance (CWB) measured on sun-illuminated grass/leaves (a ubiquitous available midtone), IR images tend to appear more monochromatic. When using the Colour mode, random spots of colour (colour artifacts) may occur in images. If the camera has Black-and-White mode, using this mode will eliminate colour artifacts, and may strengthen the monochromatic appearance in IR images. Generally, there are 4 possible combinations of photographic modes to shoot infrared images.

  1. Colour mode with AWB
  2. Colour mode with CWB
  3. B&W mode with AWB (unavailable on some cameras)
  4. B&W mode with CWB (unavailable on some cameras)

More false colours can happen with other white balance settings such as Tungsten or Fluorescent.

It also is important to decide which IR filter to have installed. If you go with Life Pixel, read carefully their page on the options you have, here. I opted for the Deep Black and White IR Filter and haven’t looked back:

Another tip is to shoot in RAW after conversion. I’ve found the power of RAW is multiplied when shooting IR, so long as you achieved focus, and it’s almost guaranteed you will need to tweak your IR image from the camera in Photoshop or similar.

If you’re not getting focused images, you need to keep changing lenses until you get it right. That was my experience. The better option is to take care with the calibration aspect and communicate with the people doing the conversion.

Flare from the sun will be an enhanced issue shooting with a converted camera, so a lens hood is pretty much needed at all times. Don’t be afraid to shoot in the direction of the sun, just don’t have the lens in its line of sight. I’m finding you can get great results from positioning the lens behind a branch of a tree even though I’m pointing the camera straight at the sun:

I’m also finding that shooting IR with a Black and White IR filter, the Custom WB will often be a very low Kelvin factor, allowing me to ramp it up in RAW conversion and enhance contrast without darkening:

The beauty of having a converted IR camera with a Black and White IR filter is that I can choose to compose for black and white effect, as above, or go for the full on IR look, as in:

So, as you can see, big trees are ideal IR subjects. Palm trees are the best, and ferns. And ghost gums. And as you can see from the image at the start of this Tutorial – burnt trees re-growing. And clouds. Especially when you whack a 9-stop ND filter, such as the Hoya ND x400 Filter, on the lens to create a long-exposure Infrared shot:


On the Back Road

My 10D is now in the keen hands of my nephew, and I now shoot with an Infrared Canon 5D Mark II, also converted by LifePixel and with the same Deep B&W filter, but with may more colour retention and, of course, resolution. And yes, it’s available for hire to shoot TV commercials! ;)

Well, that’s it from me. If you got this far with this Tutorial, you may find others of mine of interest as well. Check out the list

Cheers
Peter

History

  1. Originally published 6 July 2010
  2. Revised to add pricing 13 December 2012

Journal Comments

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