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Convert your Digital SLR to Infrared

Peter Bargh takes his Pentax *ist D for a makeover and has it converted into an Infrared digital SLR. No filters, no long exposures, no worries - Infrared photography made easy!

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Infrared photography is one specialist shooting method that many photographers have tried in some shape or form. In the old film days, we only had one option - to use infrared sensitive film that had to be loaded in the dark. It's difficult to expose correctly and process well, and focusing is at a different point to normal visible spectrum photography, so getting good results is almost a black art.

But good infrared results certainly make the effort worthwhile, and they're often quite unique, which is why some photographers, such as Simon Marsden, still shoot film. And it's also why many have attempted infrared using digital cameras or Photoshop simulations.

Shooting with an opaque infrared filter in front of your digital camera lens has the same technical problems to consider and the same limitations that film had. The filter is almost black, so focusing and composition has to be done before the filter is attached. This reduces the chance of grab shots and candids, while making it impossible to watch a scene through-the-lens and shoot at the decisive moment.

Your digital camera has an IR Cut Filter (ICF) fitted over the sensor which blocks infrared light significantly. As a result exposures are usually into several seconds, resulting in the need of a very sturdy tripod. Infrared conversion

It's not all bad though. The advantage of digital infrared is you no longer have to rely on guess work as you can see the result on screen immediately after you've taken the shot so you can overcome the exposure and focusing problems. If only the negative points could be reduced. Well, you'll be pleased to know they can!

There is an alternative approach of using a specially modified camera that is set up and calibrated for infrared photography. You have three options to modify a camera: take the DIY route, buy one that's been modified already or send your own camera off for conversion.

We decided to use the safer specialist approach and sent our camera off to have some infrared surgery. Here's what happened.

We chose Advanced Camera Services in Norfolk who claim to employ trained technicians with many years experience in camera and camcorder repairs. The company have now set themselves up as camera modifying specialists with services to customise your digital SLR camera with Infrared, UV or Quartz filter conversions. They also supply cameras that have already been converted.

I decided to book my old Pentax *ist D in for a makeover, rather than sell it on eBay. Nearly two months passed before the camera was returned (they quote three to four weeks so I must have hit a busy patch) and it looked just like it did when I sent it, but under the hood was where the transformation lay.

For just over £200, ACS carefully strip your camera down, detach the ICF filter and replace it with an infrared glass that's the equivalent of the R72 filter. They use 720nm filter and should be offering an 830nm version in the near future. They also adjust the sensor position so the focusing point is shifted to correct for the infrared wavelength. At the same time they clean and service your camera as well as making exposure meter and shutter speed checks and adjustments. I had a problem with the mode dial not connecting to the correct modes and that problem was fixed, the mode dial is also now more positive to adjust. And the camera is returned with a six month guarantee.

So why go to this length and cost when you can shoot with a filter? As soon as I started using the camera the benefit is clear. I've used the *ist D with an R72 filter occasionally in the past and the exposure times of around 2- 6 seconds for a daylight scene are a real bind. Not only is it virtually impossible to shoot a subject with no movement, but it's also a pain waiting for the *ist D to process each shot as the buffer is slow on this camera, and you always have to carry a tripod. With this newly converted SLR the exposure times in similar conditions are up to 1/250sec.

The reason for this is that the ICF, also known as a hot mirror filter, blocks the IR part of the spectrum. To get a suitable exposure the camera's shutter needs to be held open long enough which, as mentioned, can be several seconds. With the ICF filter removed the infrared light is unblocked from the CCD and enables a fast shutter speed duration.

Another advantage is that the Anti-Aliasing Filter can also be removed, so the camera will take slightly sharper pictures although as this is in place to reduce moiré patterns you will see these present on subjects with close straight lines, such as a person's stripy suit or a ventilator grid.

The key benefit to in infrared conversion is that you can see through the lens just like a normal digital camera as the IR filter is on the CCD. So there's no guessing where the subject is. No prefocus. No constantly taking the filter off to compose the next shot. Just usual point & shoot methods.

Die-hard film photographers may be wonder about focus. Using infrared on film cameras meant you had to adjust the focusing using an IR mark on the lens This was because lenses are designed to bring blue, green and red (400nm to 700nm) colours into focus in the same spot, but Infrared light focuses at a slightly different point which results in a loss of sharp focus using a conventionally positioned sensors. As part of the modification ACS move the camera's sensor backwards to compensate for the infrared focusing point.

While on the subject of lenses it's worth noting a few characteristics of lenses. The sensor adjustment is made for a typical lens, usually the standard 50mm. Some lenses perform better or worse than this. Wider angle lenses may have out of focus corners and brightspots can occur where light has bounced off the image sensor and on the internal lens elements. These infrared hotspots are exaggerated at small apertures and on poorly coated lenses. You will usually find that two stops down is about the optimum setting, but it will vary. So if you have a range of optics, do a few trials to find the best lens and optimum aperture for the job.

ACS report that they have found the Sigma 10-20mm causes hotspots on Canon and Nikon cameras. I had no problem with the Sigma on my Pentax.

Use our article comments box at the bottom to add your favourite digital infrared lens and any other information you feel adds value to this article.

Finally infrared light records mostly in the red channel, so the camera will sometimes overexpose in this channel. You will see this on the camera's LCD at preview stage, so you can adjust the settings manually or shoot using the exposure compensation feature. Bear in mind that the amount of infrared light varies from scene to scene, even when the overall brightness is similar.

To get as close as possible to black & white try setting the camera's white balance to custom and taking a reading off white paper in the same light as the subject. Make sure the paper fills the frame when you take the reading.

It's adviseable to shoot in RAW mode as it provides a much better conversion to black & white when you process the shots.

Pete with IR cameraI was considering selling my ist D but instead I now have a second body that can be used for my creative infrared work. I expect there will be less cameras for sale on eBay as this technique becomes more widely discussed

Infrared photo

The camera was returned from ACS well wrapped in bubble wrap

IR Conversion cost
Canon EOS 10D, EOS 20D, EOS 30D, EOS 60D, EOS 40D, EOS 300D, EOS 350D, EOS 450D & EOS 450D
£250.00 plus postage and packing plus VAT

£295.00 plus postage and packing plus VAT

Nikon D40, D40X, D50, D60, D70, D80, D100, £250.00 plus postage and packing plus VAT

Nikon D200, D2X, D1X, D2H, D700, D3, D90 £295.00 plus postage and packing plus VAT

Fuji S3 PRO AND Pentax IST £250.00 plus postage and packing plus VAT

Sony Alpha Range £250.00 plus postage and packing plus VAT

Infrared photo
A shot of Slatburn Pier and Tram car using the Sigma 10-20mm on the Pentax *ist D.

Infrared photo

Saltwick Bay and Black Nab using the Sigma 10-20mm at 18mm on the Pentax *ist D.

Infrared photo

Steam train at Pickering using the Sigma 10-20mm at 18mm on the Pentax *ist D

Infrared photo

Sculpture at Clumber Park taken using a LensBaby 3G on the Pentax *ist D

Infrared photo

Flesh goes whiter and eyes darker when shooting people. Taken using a LensBaby 3G on the Pentax *ist D

Infrared photo

Old cable reel at Clumber Park taken using a LensBaby 3G on the Pentax *ist D.

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Great Article, I had focusing problems with the 10-20mm (More so than any other lens), but found this article on the subject and the manual-focus @ 1m works for me ...

"...The notable exception to the above is the Sigma 10-20mm super-wide lens, With the autofocus on, the image with the infrared camera is totally out of focus, but if I pre-focus to 1m, almsot regardless of the distance between the camera and the subject, the image is sharp (I find this optically very odd, as it should be important to focus for each image, but I suppose at 10mm, there is so much depth of field, that even at f/4, there is enough depth of field to cover most subject distances when pre-focused)..."
Paul Morgan 21 19.7k 6 England
A good artical, been toying on the idea of getting my pro 1 converted, a camera and lens that works well converted.
There a link from Matt's URL that show you how to ' DIY ' on the D70 and then compares results with the 10D. Not for the feint-hearted...

This site is also very informative and offer conversions on many different makes and models.
Richsr 15 91 223 England
Thanks for the article Pete - have been considering getting a camera converted for a while but was put off by having to send the camera to the USA.
Regards Richard
Thanks for your article. I've had a Canon EOS400D converted by Lifepixel - costs roughly the same as doing it in the UK with the current exchange rate, but the turn around time was a little slow. I've used it with a Sigma 10-20 and did get the hotspots you talked about.
Thanks, Mia
I had my 10D converted in Feb 08. It was back within 10days and havent looked back since. Service was excellent and glad I parted with the 215 for its opened up a whole new wold see for images taken.

After getting my Canon converted I told Will Chang of Photography Monthly, showed him images & he had his converted by ACS. I know his over the moon with it.

I have found the 2 best lens are the Sigma 12-35, Canon 16-35, 24-70 mm L series lens
Kim Walton 18 145 30 United Kingdom
Got a d70 that i`ve converted----don`t advise doing it yourself ,camera parts tend to be fragile in the box,anyway,reason for comment is to say ,be altra carefull with dust,the filters are soft and can scratch easier than the normal ones---and they really seem to pick up the dust!!

Needed to send mine off to Nikon for cleaning (38 including post) which was well worth it.
Piks 14 6 2 United Kingdom
Good article but different results to you, I had a Nikon D70 converted in America by LP, great job superb results, when I came to sell my D200 I decided to have that converted to IR and sell the D70 which I did, the D200 was converted at ACS,I sent it back because of poor results when using the Sigma 10 to 20, they checked my camera out and said it was the lens but no lense work well with it , I am very disappointed with it, although I have had it converted for a while now I will either send it to LP in America or bin it and have a D300 converted. I wouldn't sell the 200 to anybody in the state its in.
I would not recommend any one to send there camera to ACS especially a Nikon.

I am considerig having my camera converted, but I have seen articles where it is suggested that you can have a 720nm or 830nm filter fitted. What is the difference to the image between the 2 filters?

Thanks for that report, very useful indeed!! Smile)
User_Removed 18 17.9k 8 Norway
Just an update (21st November 2011) - Life Pixel in the US have dropped their pricing significantly and now offer focus correction too. They can now do my D70 with a Super-Colour filter (additional cost Wink), focus-corrected for the 18-70mm DX Nikkor, including shipping and handling for 330.00

User_Removed 18 17.9k 8 Norway
Correction to the above - 225.00!! - exchange rate around 1.57 USD/GBP at time of posting.

At MShepherd - I have just bought a 10d and have a sigma 10-20 and also found that focussing towards infinity resulted in sharper subject focus of object only a foot away. I have the opportunity to return this camera but interested to know ur thoughts. Did you get hotspots and did you manage to many sharp pictures or was it just very hit and miss. Is it a setup you would bother using? Can u or anyone shed some (IR) light on this subject?!? Thanks
Can I add that I'm not near my main computer to see my pictures and I'm used to using a canon 60d so not used to the old 10d!

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