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Introduction to Digital Infrared Photography

Last updated January 09, 2010 - Send Feedback
Praying Mantis in Infrared
Praying Mantis, Nikon D200-IR

Glossary

Electromagnetic spectrumRadiation. Good stuff and bad stuff. Stuff we see with, stuff that burns our skin, takes an X-Ray, etc.

Infrared (IR) — The spectral band from approximately 750 nanometers to 1000 nanometers, invisible to the human eye, just beyond deep red. See also infrared. Digital cameras are generally most sensitive to infrared in the range from 750 to 900 nanometers.

Full-spectrumIn the context of this article, the spectral band which can be photographed without truly exotic equipment, including UV, visible light and IR.

Nanometer —One (1) billionth of a meter, or 1/1000 of a micrometer.

Spectral Transmission and Spectral Reflectance — The amount of light transmitted and reflected, respectively. Typically presented as graph with wavelength on the X-axis and transmission/reflectance on the Y-axis. For examples, please see the B+W Filter Handbook Technical Data (also in the full B+W Filter Handbook). The Range Overview is also a useful reference.

Spectral band — A portion or portions of the electromagnetic spectrum described most accurately by a spectral transmission graph.

UltravioletThe spectral band from about 10 nanometers to 400 namometers, invisible to the normal human eye, just beyond deep violet.

Visible LightLight visible to the normal human eye, approximately 400 (deep violet) to 750 nanometers (deep red).

Introduction

Last updated: 02 Feb 2008

Infrared photography can produce fascinating images. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I love the alternate reality that infrared can produce. Combined with infinite variations in image rendering ranging from black and white to false color of all sorts, the possibilities lie very much in the creative and artistic realm, whereas color photography is quickly assessed as “manipulated” if it strays too far from the norm. Even banal scenes can be transformed into interesting ones by the elimination of the distractions of normal color vision, provided there is structure to the composition.

Sometimes infrared photography is an accident, and undesirable; see Infrared Contamination—Good Color Gone Bad.

If you decide that infrared is for you, accelerate the long learning process by ordering my diglloyd Guide to Digital Infrared Photography—you’ll save a huge amount of time.

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Converting a normal camera to infrared

Human vision

There is no color. There is only a spectral band, and human vision invents “color” from radiation (egads!) in the range of about 320 nanometers (violet) to about 670 nanometers (deep red). There is some natural variability in each individual, but a few individuals who have had their natural lens replaced with older technology might actually see ultraviolet, normally invisible to the human eye (modern replacement lenses block ultraviolet for the same reason sunblock is advised).

Filter glass just over the sensor

Manufacturers always use filter glass just over the sensor that blocks infrared light while allowing visible light to pass through. This is done because all CCD and CMOS sensors are highly sensitive to infrared light—and letting infrared light get to the sensor itself causes large and bizarre color shifts if a lot of it gets through. Lenses are also not designed to focus the whole spectrum equally, so infrared will focus differently than visible light with most lenses.

Sensor filtration wasn’t always adequate—for example, the Nikon D2H rendered some fabrics with a strong magenta cast (such as brown cordura interior of a car seat-cover). People’s faces could look rather ruddy, or even sunburned. This drove wedding photographers crazy. Only application of an infrared blocking filter to the lens, such as a B+W 489 was sufficient to eliminate the problem (your author resorted to this strategy). Today, all digital SLRs sold seem to have very strong infrared filtration in their sensor glass—which is a problem if you want to shoot infrared.

Performing the conversion

To convert a camera for pure infrared use, the original filter glass is replaced with glass that blocks visible light, but passes infrared light. Once that is done, the camera can no longer “see” most visible light; it will only “see” very deep read light and thence on into infrared light, starting at about 750 nanometers. Human vision ends at about 670 nanometers, a very deep red, though there is some natural variability in each individual.

Choosing of camera

See also the recommendations section.

My cameras

Nikon D70

I converted a Nikon D70 for pure infrared use in June 2005 by removal of the stock filter glass covering the sensor.

Canon EOS 5D

In June 2006, I converted a Canon EOS 5D for pure infrared use in the same manner as the Nikon D70, and have been shooting with it since then, usually with the Canon EF 24-105/f4L. It is now my preferred infrared camera.

Nikon D200

This camera recently arrived (September 9 2006) . I will be comparing it to the modified Canon EOS 5D and the modified Nikon D70.

Filters

You can get started in infrared by using an infrared filter, such as a B+W 092. However, I don’t recommend that approach, as most digital cameras include IR-blocking filters over the sensor, so exposures land in the multiple second range, completely prohibiting any kind of spontaneous handheld-shooting. Add the considerable cost of such filters, and it makes little sense as compared with converting an existing camera.

A common exposure with my converted Nikon D70 is 1/320 @ f11 (ISO 200). Using a filter with an unconverted camera, the exposure might be 4 seconds at f11 (or thereabouts, depending on the camera).

Getting started

To get started with an infrared camera, try maxmax.com. You can buy an already-converted camera, or send yours in for conversion. Conversion is fairly expensive, about $450for a digital SLR, so factor that into your total system cost—buying the cheapest camera doesn’t make sense when you add in the cost of conversion. However, maxmax, does a very clean and fast job. See recommendations.

A dedicated (converted) camera is by far the best way to go. If you are just getting started, any basic Nikon or Canon or other DSLR is a good choice, but preferably with Live View. A number of consumer-grade digicams can also be converted, but I strongly recommend a DSLR for serious work, due to the higher noise levels often encountered when shooting infrared. Still, the same attributes that appeal with use of a digicam (size, weight) also make them attractive for some kinds of shooting.

Lenses

Lenses are highly variable in the quality they render in infrared. Some perform well, and others generate central hot-spots (worsening as the lens is stopped down). Still others produce very soft, smeared corners. Experimentation is the name of the game, as is stopping down to f11 or f16 to reduce optical aberrations.

Shooting

Focus adjustment

With some conversions, such as my Nikon D70IR, a focus adjustment must be made because infrared light focuses differently than visible light. For example, if the lens must be set at 4 meters for the subject in visible light, you might have to focus at 3.5 meters to get a sharp infrared image. In practice, this means regularly guesstimating, and shooting at f11 or f16 to get adequate sharpness. This becomes pretty easy after a while, but does slow down shooting. Still, for many types of shooting (eg landscapes), it’s really a non-issue.

The focusing issue arises because the sensor “sees” infrared with the special filter glass in place, but the focusing system still “sees” visible light. Some camera models can be adjusted so as to compensate for the focus difference, though performance is still not as accurate as in visible light.

The Canon EOS 5D that I am having converted to infrared will also be adjusted to focus in infrared, largely eliminating this problem, though I don’t expect that f1.4 or f2 will be adequately accurate even with this improvement.

Examples

See each photo for details. In general, little or no processing was done, other than “Levels” adjustment and some sharpening. In spite of this, I think some of the images are quite lovely, and could be further enhanced by manipulating tonal curves and color. Virtually all of the Markleeville examples were shot handheld, demonstrating the advantages of using a dedicated infrared camera—just shoot as normal, a huge plus.

Clicking on it will show a somewhat larger version. All of them had minimal processing: levels adjustment and some sharpening and thus demonstrate that with little work, very interesting images may be produced. False color offers infinite variation; the examples seen here simply use a default custom white balance; no special work was done.

Examples—black and white

Most of the examples in this section were taken from a single color channel, thus producing a monochrome image rendered as gray scale.

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Grazing Horse, Markleeville CA, Nikon D70-IR
One of the “color” channels, used as black & white
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Glowing Oak , California, San Luis Reservoir, Nikon D70-IR
The blue channel, used as black & white
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Lone Fisherman, Markleeville CA, Nikon D70-IR
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Aspen, Markleeville CA, Nikon D70-IR
This image could benefit by careful enhancement of tonal separation.
MainPic
Distant Valley, near Markleeville CA, Nikon D70-IR
Infrared cuts through haze. Shot at 300mm (equivalent) and it was fairly hazy to the naked eyed.
MainPic
Golden Gate Bridge Panorama , San Francisco, CA, Canon EOS 5D-IR
Infrared cuts through haze, but not fog!

Examples—false color vs black and white

These images are shown in pairs. Sometimes the monochrome black and white image is more appealing, and sometimes the false color image is more appealing. It’s a matter of personal preference.

MainPic
MainPic
MainPic
MainPic
Aspen—Young and Wizened, Markleeville CA, Nikon D70-IR
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MainPic
Cabin
Markleeville CA, Nikon D70-IR

Examples—false color

MainPic
Monitor Pass Marmot
Markleeville CA, Nikon D70IR
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“He went that way”
Markleeville CA, Nikon D70IR
MainPic
Bike Route To Ebbett's Pass, near Markleeville CA
Nikon D70-IR
A favorite route of those training for the “Death Ride”.
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Monitor Pass Descent
Markleeville CA, Nikon D70IR
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The Glory of Spring
Monitor Pass summit near Markleeville CA, Nikon D70IR
flowers
Infrared Flowers
Canon EOS 5D-IR

False color vs black and white details

False color is a very useful effect which results from the bayer-pattern interpolation. Setting the white balance differently can produce quite variable results. The white balance used below was one I set at random—and decided I liked as a starting point. Of course, when shooting RAW files, you can set whatever white balance you want later— always shoot RAW for infrared if possible.

MainPic
Monitor Pass
Markleeville CA, Nikon D70IR
default processing, some basic sharpening

The addition of some contrast-sharpening (Photoshop Unsharp Mask {60%, 50, 0} or similar) can add visual impact. Such effects can easily be overdone, but do work very well in false color or black and white infrared images (see below). Of course, far more sophisticated techniques may also be applied.

MainPic
Monitor Pass
Markleeville CA, Nikon D70IR
default processing + Unsharp Mask {25, 50, 0}

Of course, you can also use any of the individual “color” channels (red/green/blue) as a black and white version, and they can be combined to varying degrees. The results vary greatly, depending on the white balance chosen, and the particular subject. Examples are shown below for the Monitor Pass photo. The differences are somewhat subtle in this photo, occurring mainly in the sky and tree leaves. You can also see the images in a larger size.

MainPic
default grayscale conversion
MainPic
Red Channel
MainPic
Green Channel
MainPic
Blue Channel

Another false color vs monochrome example

This example is appealing in both color and monochrome. The color version benefits from a strong tri-color composition. The monochrome version has a wonderful glow.

na

na

Swapping color channels

Other renderings are of course possible. Swapping color channels and/or saturating and/or desaturating certain colors can provide many interesting variants.

na

San Francisco Bay example

For the shot below, the original has a brownish sky and bluish foreground. Then the red and blue channels were swapped. It’s all a matter of visual balance, and “season to taste”. For this shot, the BGR swap seems more interesting and balanced.

SFBay
Original — Color channels Red, Green, Blue
SFBay
Swapped — Color channels Blue, Green, Red

Equipment recommendations

Normally recommendations are found on my Recommended Products and Vendors page, but I’ve chosen to list them on this page for convenience.

Please help support the free content on this site when you buy (at no cost to yourself)—see the Recommended Products and Vendors for details.

Vendor Product(s) or Service(s)
SFBay
maxmax.com
Camera Conversions

Highly recommended. Camera conversions, filters, UV and IR flashlights, lighting and gear.

My Canon EOS 5D and Nikon D200 (and Fuji F30/F50/S6000) were converted by maxmax.com, and I am extremely pleased with the cleanliness of their conversions (little or no dirt on the sensor after conversion), fast turnaround, and good communication (via email, they're a small outfit—know what you want in advance—don’t expect lots of hand-holding on the phone).

Conversion of cameras for infrared use, including the Nikon D50, Nikon D70 and Nikon D200, Canon Rebel XT 350D, Canon 30D, Canon 5D, Fuji S3 Pro (and others). You can buy an already-converted camera, or supply your own.

Canon

Canon EOS 5D, converted for infrared use by maxmax.com (see above). [If you buy this camera, please help support this site by buying it at amazon.com using the link on the Recommended Products and Vendors page].

The image quality from the 5D in infrared is stunning, with very low noise (for infrared). ISO 1600 images are perfectly fine, and even ISO 3200 is quite good. Look for a full report in the October/November 2006 time frame.

The Canon “1” series are likely to be outstanding performers in infrared, but I haven’t tried them.

Canon Canon EF 24-105/f4L IS USM . As with visible light, the corners remain slightly soft even at f11 and there is some “smearing” (none of which would show up on a Canon body with less than full-frame). But its size/weight and zoom range, combined with image stabilization, allows the capture of images you might miss while switching lenses. I use it frequently on the 5D-IR. Look for a full report in the October/November 2006 time frame.
Nikon

Nikon D70. This is an excellent “starter” camera. It does exhibit more noise than the Canon EOS 5D, but considering that you can buy 4.2 of them for the price of just one Canon EOS 5D, it’s a steal! Note that you can no longer buy the D70; the current model is the D70s. My camera is the D70, and it’s possible the D70s performs better (or worse) than the original D70—but probably better.

The economics of spending $450 to convert a camera do need to be factored in: if you buy a $700 camera and then spend $450 converting it, that’s not much different than spending $999 and then spending $450 converting it (in terms of percentage). So the Nikon D80 might be a better choice, but I can’t speak to it’s performance in infrared. Most likely it will perform similarly to the Nikon D200 (see below).

Nikon

Recommended

Nikon 18-200mm f/f3.5-f5.6 ED-IF AF-S VR DX (that’s a mouthful!)

A full report is coming, but in short, this lens focuses perfectly in infrared on my Nikon D70-IR. Every other Nikkor I tried back-focuses in infrared. If this behavior holds on a Nikon D200-IR (coming soon), then the lens will gain my Highly Recommended rating.

See Also

Comparison of Fujifilm S3 Pro-UVIR, Nikon D70-IR and Canon EOS 5D-IR

See also—diglloyd.com blog entries

Learning it quickly

Infrared offers great potential for those willing to explore a new way of seeing. I find it fascinating, and perhaps you will too. Why not give it a try?

Enjoyed this article? Get the diglloyd Guide to Digital Infrared Photography today!

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See also—Web sites

Site Link
Perhaps one of the most experienced infrared shooters, Bjorn Rorslett. Both infrared and ultraviolet,with an excellent article on shooting both.
lulalake.conforums.com A nice discussion board dedicated to infrared. Great for both “newbies” and more advanced shooters.
maxmax.com

Conversion of cameras for infrared use, including the Nikon D50, Nikon D70 and Nikon D200, Canon Rebel XT 350D, Canon 30D, Canon 5D, Fuji S3 Pro (and others). You can buy an already-converted camera, or supply your own.

My Canon EOS 5D and Nikon D200 were converted by maxmax.com, and I am pleased with their work and fast turnaround.

lifepixel.com Conversion of camera for infrared use. I have not used this company.
echeng.com A variety of examples and technical information. Infrared.
cocam.co.uk Everything you wanted to know about infrared
infrareddreams.com Fine-art infrared photography.
David Burren Infrared photography site.
spacearchive.info Infrared astrophotography (Nikon D70)
google.com Search for: digital infrared photography

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