Digital Infrared Photography: What You Need to Know

One of the best photography decisions I’ve made was to start shooting Digital Infrared Photography. As a landscape photographer, the worst conditions are bright midday sun, in summer, with lots of blue sky. But these are ideal conditions for shooting digital infrared photography. When it gets hard to shoot regular landscape photography, I turn to my digital infrared camera and keep taking photographs. It certainly beats sitting around waiting for the light to improve.

example image using digital infrared photography

I’ve always loved Infrared Photography since I first experienced the work of Sir Simon Marsden. After that I dearly wanted to shoot infrared film. Unfortunately, my film cameras at the time all used an infrared light source for the film advance.  If I tried to use infrared film in one of these cameras it would damage the film by fogging it.

Roll forward 10 years and I had the opportunity to convert a digital camera to shoot infrared. I took the plunge and I’ve never regretted it for one moment. In the rest of this tutorial I’ll share the key points you need to know if you want to take up digital infrared photography.

Considerations for Shooting Digital Infrared Photography

With a few limited exceptions, most digital cameras are terrible when it comes shooting infrared photography. The reason is a special filter over the camera sensor that cuts out infrared light. Some cameras have a weak filter that allows some infrared light through, but most have a highly effective filter.

You can test your own camera using a TV remote in a dark room. Turn on the camera in live mode so you’re using the rear screen for picture taking. Make sure the room is dark and point the TV remote at the camera lens. If you can see the light of the remote on the rear screen of the camera when you press a button, that’s your camera picking up the infrared.

Whilst most cameras will allow some infrared light through, it’s not usually enough for infrared photography. Often exposures, even in bright light, would run into several seconds. That’s why it makes sense to have an infrared conversion done. Here’s an example of an image shot with a digital camera that I’ve had converted for infrared photography.

Infrared image shot using a converted digital infrared camera

Digital Infrared Camera Conversions

A digital infrared conversion involves removing the infrared cut filter covering the camera filter and replacing it with an infrared filter. The infrared filter blocks visible light but allows infrared light to reach the sensor to create the infrared image.

The replacement infrared filters come in different strengths depending on the wavelength of light they block. As an example, the 720nm filter will block light with a wavelength less than 720nm but allow light through that has a greater wavelength.

Visible light runs from about 400nm to around 700nm (see Wikipedia for more information). This means the 720nm filter is blocking pretty much all visible light and the camera only sees infrared light. Compare this to a 665nm filter which allows all infrared light through and a small amount of visible light. To understand why this could be a good thing, let’s discuss filter strengths.

Which Infrared Filter Strength to Choose

When deciding on a digital infrared conversion for your camera, the infrared filter strength is one of the most important choices. Here are a few options together with some pros and cons. You may also find the filter strengths vary depending on where you have your infrared conversion carried out.

590nm Infrared Filter

This filter is quite weak in terms of blocking visible light. Given the visible light spectrum runs from 400nm – 700nm, it’s going to allow a lot of visible light through. It won’t produce the strong Infrared look which many people want but it is useful for False Colour (discussed later). If you want your photography to display the distinctive infrared look, this isn’t a good choice unless you combine it with Infrared Lens filters (covered later).

665nm Infrared Filter

The 665nm filter allows a small amount of visible light through together with all infrared light. It produced a nice infrared effect in most conditions, and you can use it for false colour effects. This is my personal filter of choice as it produces good results, even in weaker sun. This is ideal if you want to shoot infrared photography in Winter or in dull conditions. If you’re just getting into digital infrared photography and live in the UK (or a country that isn’t that sunny) this is a great filter choice.

720nm Infrared Filter

The 720nm filter has become something of a standard choice amongst photographers. Having owned a 720nm conversion, I found it a little restrictive when shooting in Winter or when the light levels were low. It also doesn’t produce a strong false colour effect if that’s something you are interest in. Despite this, it’s a good choice but probably suits areas with strong light best.

720nm infrared conversion using a panasonic gx1

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850nm Infrared Filter

This filter produces a very contrasty and deep infrared effect but needs strong light to work well. It won’t produce much if any false colour and is more of a specialist choice. The advice I would give is that if you don’t know why you need an 850nm conversion, choose a different filter.

Full Spectrum Filter

The full spectrum conversion is a clear glass filter that allows all visible and infrared light to reach the camera sensor. You can then use screw in filters on your camera lenses to either cut out the visible or infrared light.

If you want to understand the different filters a little more, there’s a good page on the Protech Photographic website. This displays an example image shot using each of the filters, making comparison much easier.

Having a Camera Converted for Digital Infrared Photography

If you haven’t already guessed, converting a camera for digital infrared photography isn’t something to try yourself at home. You really need to send your camera to a professional who specialises in infrared conversions.

If you’re based in the US, Life Pixel has a good reputation and I know people who have used and recommend them. As well as offering a conversion service they usually have converted cameras for sale and sometimes also sell them on eBay.

If you’re based in the UK, I know of two companies offering this service and have used both. Advanced Camera Solutions and Protech Photographic. My experience with Advanced Camera Solutions was poor. Although the conversion was fine, the customer service was poor. It took almost three months to get the conversion done and I had to keep phoning to pester for an update.

Protech Photographic in contrast have been excellent and I recommend them. I have used them twice now and my good friend Steve O’Nions has also used them twice. In all cases the work and service has been particularly good.

If you’re based in Europe or other parts of the world, I don’t know of any providers, so add any recommendations in the comments section at the end of this article.

Using Infrared Lens Filters

The alternative to having your camera converted for infrared photography is to use infrared filters on your lenses. These screw onto the lens just as you might screw on a UV filter.

If you haven’t had the infrared cut filter removed from your camera sensor, these filters will substantially extend exposure times. How much depends on the strength of the infrared cut filter on your camera. To give you some idea, I tested this using an Olympus EM5 (Mk1) and a 10mm lens. Without an infrared filter, f/8.0 and ISO200 produced a shutter speed of 1/40”. After adding a 720nm filter to the lens the exposure time jumped to 36 seconds.

Infrared lens filters may appear to be a cheap option, but they aren’t very usable on regular camera. You might also find you need to carry round several filters of different sizes and strengths.

Whilst we’re discussing lens filters, something that’s often overlooked is that you can use them with converted infrared cameras. For example, if you have 580nm conversion but would like to create a stronger infrared look, you could add an infrared filter. By adding a 720nm filter to the front of your lens you temporarily it to shoot infrared light above 720nm.

Lens Problems in Infrared Photography

Whilst having your camera converted is relatively straight forward, you could still run into some problems with your lenses. Here are a few things to watch out for.

Lens Hot Spots

Lens hot spots tend to show up in the centre of the lens as a lighter area, often with a blue colour. You can see an example of this below.

unconverted infrared RAW file showing a hot spot in the centre

This is an unprocessed infrared RAW file with the hotspot visible in the centre of the frame (this is a weak hot spot example). Converting the image to black and white will sometimes hide the problem but it’s still frustrating.

Some lenses (probably due to their coatings and construction) are particularly prone to hotspots and there’s little you can do to correct this. If you’re thinking about an infrared conversion for your camera, it’s worth searching the internet to find out if there are known issues with your lenses. This is especially true if you are thinking of converting a camera that doesn’t have interchangeable lenses.

Life Pixel maintains a database of lenses on its website, showing known problems with hot spots. Although it’s a limited range of lenses, it’s a good starting point that may help. You can also try asking for advice on infrared photography forums.

UV Filters

Another problem you can encounter when shooting digital infrared photography is with UV filters. These can cause a range of problems from focus issues through to hot spots. I’ve also seen examples of light reflecting from the inside of the filter back onto the lens.

If you use UV filters to protect your lenses, try a clear glass protector instead. I’ve used these in the past and they seem to work well although they are sometimes difficult to buy. An alternative is to just remove the UV filter when you’re shooting infrared.

Ultrawide-Angle Lenses

In my experience, infrared photography with wide-angle lenses isn’t a good combination. lenses that are known to be super sharp across their frame will soften around the edges. This is true even when you stop the lens down.

I’m not an expert but I think it’s probably to do with the way they’re optimised to focus visible light, and infrared light focusses differently. You can see an example below.

wide angle lens distortion in infrared photography

I shot this image using an Olympus EM5 and the well-respected Panasonic 7-14mm lens at 10mm. Although I stopped the aperture down to f/7.1, the edges and corners of the frame are very blurred. I’ve seen the same problem on many different wide-angle lenses.

Lens Calibration

If you’re using an infrared converted DSLR camera, you may find focus issues because infrared light focusses at a different point to visible light. If you have any older (usually manual focus) lenses, you’ll probably find a different focus point marked in red for infrared light. The wider the focal length of the lens, the greater this focus shift. Many older DSLR’s require focus calibration once converted so they can focus correctly for a specific lens.

With newer DSLR’s that have a live view (with on-sensor focusing), the calibration problem shouldn’t exist. This is another reason why I’ve always favoured using mirrorless cameras for infrared conversions.

Processing Considerations for Infrared RAW Files

Something that shocks a lot of photographers when they shoot their first infrared images is how bad the unprocessed photos look. You must be prepared to work at processing the RAW file to create that distinctive infrared look. Don’t expect to get an image like the one below straight out of the camera. If you want to learn what’s involved in processing digital infrared RAW files, I’ve documented my workflow for you.

Processing is required to create an infrared effect like this

Even when you’re happy to work at the RAW processing, you could encounter the “red tint of Adobe”.

Red Tint Infrared RAW Files

When it comes to processing infrared RAW files, you can run into a few challenges. This is especially true if you’re using Lightroom or Photoshop to perform the RAW conversion. Here’s an example of my Lightroom Library module showing a group of infrared RAW files.

infrared raw conversion problem with lightroom

Notice how all the images have a strong red colour cast to them. This occurred even when shooting with a custom white balance. Despite adjusting the Colour Temperature to its lowest setting, it doesn’t correct the problem.

To fix this issue you need to create a custom DNG profile using one of your infrared images. Alternatively, you can use another RAW editor that can produce the correct white balance. I use Capture One for my infrared converted Fuji X-T2.

False Colour Digital Infrared Photography

Something that we mentioned earlier when discussing filter strength was False Colour. This is a Photoshop technique you can use to reintroduce some colours to an infrared image. The colours won’t appear natural which is where the name false colour comes from, but they can still be attractive. You can see an unusual example below.

example infrared image showing false colour effect using a channel swap in Photoshop

I created the false colour effect using something called a channel swap in Photoshop. It involves using the Photoshop Channel mixer to swap (in this example) the Red and Blue colour channels.

Some people like this effect whilst others don’t. If you want to try it, the 580nm and 665nm infrared conversions are probably the best to use.

Shooting Digital Infrared Photography Summary

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this article. I’ve explained what I believe are the most important points you need to know if you want to try digital infrared photography. Most important is that ff you do decide to try this fascinating (and rewarding) genera of photography, you must get the right conversion done by a professional company. I can’t stress this point enough.

Once you can shoot infrared photography, the next step is to master the RAW file processing.

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