Getting Started in Infrared (and a little UV)
For those considering getting in to Infrared photography, it is not that hard and can be relatively inexpensive.
First off you can take any camera and try some inexpensive infrared lens filters; however, with just about every cameras there is an internal filter over the sensor that is designed to deliberately cut out UV and IR. This means that you always need long exposures (on a tripod), hoping to exploit weakness in the internal filter – which can lead often to poor results and a lot of frustration. Using specifically modified cameras, where the standard filter over the sensor has been replaced, is much easier, allowing them to operate like normal cameras (hand-held etc.). As a bonus, such cameras can be relatively inexpensive to buy second-hand, as a lot of people try and either give it up or move on to more expensive options.
You can buy the replacement filters online and convert your own camera, either by having a professional modify it or doing it yourself, if you are competent at taking cameras apart and doing basic electrical/optical maintenance and repairs. Alternatively, there are specialist companies who will do the conversion for you – there is a list of companies I have found who will do conversions on my links page: links.
It is often easier and cheaper, however, to just pick up an already modified camera second-hand. There are always some for sale on the likes of Ebay, in specialist camera shops and on some of the conversion company sites. Many people try it and, after a while, either get bored and sell their camera, or love it (as I did) and upgrade, selling their starting camera.
There are a few considerations, worth noting, in buying a second-hand modified digital camera or choosing one to convert:
- Raw or Custom White-balance – It is essential that the camera supports Raw capture and/or custom white-balance. Personally I would not use a camera that did not support RAW as it gives me so much more flexibility with WB and general adjustment/tweaking.
- LiveView – If you are going to use external filters, it is essential that the camera supports LiveView. This is often key with modifying old DSLR models, with no LiveView capability. Dark lens filters like 660nm, 720nm etc. can not be see through, hence, render a glass viewfinder, as with older cameras like DSLRs, unusable. Older DSLRs are, hence, only really suitable for fixed/specific frequency conversions and not modifications like full-spectrum. Personally I think mirrorless cameras have a distinct advantage over DSLRs and would have a preference for them when choosing.
- Hotspot Lenses – It is significantly easier if the lens, or lenses, you are going to use are hotspot free. This is something you just need to check on various sites. Quality, cost and age of lenses have nothing to do with producing hotspots or not, it is just down to the design and how they react to infrared.
Note: I have made a list for M43 lenses here: link. Other sites have lists for other models of lenses.
- Lens Filters – If you are going to use full or wide spectrum and isolate other frequencies (i.e. modify a camera for 590nm and then occasionally use a 720nm lens filter), the camera lens will need to support screw-in filters or some other system.
Note: Don’t get suckered into buying one of the many cheap modified full-spectrum compacts, sold on Ebay as ‘ghost-hunting’ cameras, where you can not use external filters.
- Modification Complexity – If you are going to do the modification yourself, it is worth researching how easy the specific model is to convert. Some models, like my Olympus e-M5, sadly are reported to be very hard (even avoided by many professional modification companies); other models like the Canon G10, 11 and 12s are reported to be relatively simple for DIY conversion. A bit of research will pay off.
- Bracketing – Camera support for Bracketing is highly advantageous, given HDR processing can enhance high-contrast IR scenes and bring though lower transmission frequencies.
Suggestion on starting
So what would I recommend as the best way to start ? Well feel free to do your own thing, but when asked (which I seem to be more often now) I suggest trying it first, cheaply, by buying an already converted camera second-hand (following the guidelines above) before converting an existing or new camera.
If you are looking to use an older DSLR with no live view or compact that won’t work with lens filters, I would convert for a single frequency of your choice (look at the galleries of images and decide which you like). A lot of people start with 720nm (I did by accident), which if you are unsure, is a good place as any to start. If you do have a suitable compact or mirrorless camera to convert (having LiveView and taking lens filters is the key) then I would convert for 590nm to give you some flexibility and buy some cheap lens filters for 660nm, 720nm, 850nm etc.
If you are then taken by the bug, or you want to jump straight into the deep-end, I would strongly recommend buying, or converting, a mirrorless camera to full-spectrum. This then gives you the greatest flexibility, including the ability to mix in UV as well as isolate multiple IR ranges.
In addition to the above, you will also need to invest in, and be prepared to work, a computer and software – this is often the bit that puts people off continuing with IR. It, however, can be done relatively cheaply using inexpensive software, like Elements+ with Adobe Elements , or open-source software, such as RAWTherape and GIMP.
Which filters to start with ?
A lot of the fun here is trying and seeing what happens with different filters; this is always part science, part art and part adventure. If you have a camera that is just modified for near-IR, I would just add the common filters for the high frequencies. These are relatively inexpensive and give a wide set of results – remember the quoted frequency number just signifies the start of the range covered . I.e. if the camera is modified for Infrared at 590nm, then get filters or 660, 720 & 830/850; if modified for 720, then just 830/850.
With a full-spectrum camera, where you have more flexibility, I would recommend also adding a dual-band Schott BG3 filter (mixing near UV and IR). See the article Combining Bandpass and IR Filters for more information.
*Note: if your camera needs help white-balancing at 590nm, use a cheap ND filter with it – see this article for more: How to white balance 590nm
If you want occasionally to use the camera for normal visible light range shots, typically for people then add:
- Absorption Hot-Mirror filter, such as Schott BG38, BG39 BG40 & S8612 or versions sold by conversion specialists like Kolari and the X-Nite filters from MaxMax
For further exploration I would add the other commonly used infrared filters, as they are relatively inexpensive and give a wide range of distinctive results: 660nm, 720nm & 830/850nm.
Finally, if you like the BG3 search out a Schott UG5. After that, I struggle getting anything significantly different out of other filters like UG1, UG11, BG24, 47B, 491 and BG36; which also often need more light, and longer exposures, than the others.
If you find it difficult to find the rarer Schott and other filters, like the BG and UGs, contact UVoptics on ebay: UVoptics. I have always found them extremely helpful and able to source what I have been looking for.
Tips for great images
Finally, this post covers tips for getting great infrared images: Post
Also see (and any of the “HowTo” posts):
- Hot do do various key activities
- Full-spectrum vs Just Infrared
- Combining Bandpass and IR Filters
- Minimum set of filters
- How to White-Balance 590nm
- 5 Tips for great Infrared Images
What ever route you take, the key thing is have fun and enjoy the discovery