Infrared Camera Conversion by LifePixel Review

Do you want your photos of popular destinations to stand out from the pack? Do you want to jump start your own creativity? Infrared photography may be just what you've been looking for.

Infrared Primer: The Light Spectrum

The oh-so-familiar visible light spectrum includes wavelengths from 400nm to 700nm (ROY G. BIV, anyone?). The spectrum just below visible light contains the ultraviolet spectrum; the range just above contains near infrared light (700nm to 1400nm) which converted/modified cameras can utilize. Beyond the near infrared range is the far infrared spectrum which contains wavelengths which are detected by infrared thermal imaging devices. For review purposes, we're only concerned with the IR light we can actually capture in a photograph – near infrared – so anytime you see the words "infrared" or "IR" in the following paragraphs, assume we are talking about near infrared light.

How to Capture Infrared Images

There are two fairly common techniques for capturing infrared images with your DSLR. As you would probably expect, both have their advantages and disadvantages.

Option 1: Use an Infrared Filter

First of all, I should explain something: the term "infrared filter" is a misnomer. If a UV filter blocks ultraviolet light, then an "IR filter" should block infrared light. Instead, an IR filter actually blocks visible light while allowing infrared light to pass through to the sensor. That sounds like a simple and elegant solution for caputring infrared photographs, but there are three major drawbacks that make shooting with an IR filter quite inconvenient.

The first is that because the filter blocks all visible light, you cannot frame your composition and/or focus with the filter in place. Instead, you must compose your shot and focus before you place the filter on the lens. If you want to try a different framing, you'll be forced to remove the filter, recompose and then replace the filter before shooting again.

Second, autofocus and metering do not work with the filter in place. In fact, focusing in regards to infrared light is a little different than visible light. Infrared wavelengths do not focus at the same points as visible light, so if you focus the camera using visible light, your focus will not be exactly the same when infrared image is captured. One way to deal with this is to use a wide angle lens and a narrow aperture to ensure a moderate focus shift won't ruin your image. Metering could work if it weren't for the fact that your DSLR camera is designed to block infrared light.

Wait, what?

Unfortunately for the purposes of infrared photography (but advantageous for those creating pictures with visible light), camera manufacturers implement a hot mirror filter which is designed to block infrared light from hitting the sensor. The good news is that the hot mirror doesn't block all of the infrared light, just most of it. Which brings us to the next point...

Third, your exposure times are going to be very long when using an IR filter. If shooting in full, bright sunlight, your exposure time can go from a fraction of a second with visible light to several minutes at the same exposure settings (especially when using narrower apertures). A tripod or similar support and static subjects are required for creating sharp images.

Option 2: Use an IR Sensitive Camera

Fortunately, using a camera that has been modified to record IR light will allow you to avoid many of the pitfalls of using an IR filter. With an IR converted camera, you can actually see the scene in front of your camera through the viewfinder and via the camera's Live View (if available). The shutter speeds required are comparable to visible light exposures meaning that a tripod (or other type of support) is not an absolute necessity. And if using using a camera featuring Live View (which I highly recommended), focusing will be much easier as you are focusing your image using the wavelengths of light that are actually being recorded by the camera's sensor. Utilizing Live View at 10x magnification makes precise selective focus using wide apertures very easy.

However, there are a few drawbacks associated with an IR conversion. Probably the most minor drawback is the reduced battery life you can experience while using an IR converted DSLR if constantly using Live View. Pack a couple of extra batteries for any lengthy excursion and that issue is easily dealt with.

Two major drawbacks of converting a DSLR for IR sensitivity provide the greatest stumbling blocks for those who might otherwise enjoy exploring IR photography to its fullest – cost and permanence.

While it is possible to purchase a the components to convert your camera to an IR sensitive camera yourself, the do-it-yourself option is extremely risky. LifePixel actually sells the hot mirror replacement filters that they use for IR conversions directly to consumers. However, they provide a very strong warning:

"The mere act of removing the sensor from within the camera could potentially ruin the original factory calibration and render your camera completely incapable of achieving proper focus. If this happens we will be unable to help you and even the manufacturer may refuse to service your camera. This is very serious stuff folks.
 
Focus and dust are in fact the most difficult parts of the conversion process. We highly recommend you send your camera in for conversion instead of attempting to do this yourself."
Indeed, most people will prefer to send their cameras to a competent third party to complete the conversion process. Unfortunately, the conversion process is not necessarily inexpensive. The cost will vary depending on the specific camera model being modified and the type of IR sensor being installed. In my particular case, the cost of modifying my original EOS 7D with the Super Color Infrared option was a little less than $300.00 including shipping.

The other major downside is that once a camera is converted to IR, you can no longer use it for visible light photography. For For this reason, an IR conversion may be best suited for those who are upgrading cameras and do not need a second (or third?) DSLR for backup purposes. One might also consider purchasing a used, older generation DSLR to dedicate to IR photography through conversion. Of course, buying a new DSLR and converting it is another option, albeit with the highest investment required. Note that an IR conversion will definitely void your camera's warranty, so choosing a body that's past its warranty period tends to make the most sense.

My LifePixel IR Conversion Experience

With the EOS 7D Mark II being used as my backup camera, my older backup camera – the original EOS 7D – was simply gathering dust on the shelf. Having thoroughly enjoyed a summer using my IR filter, I decided to take my IR photography to the next level and convert my rarely-used EOS 7D to IR. After quite a bit of research I decided to send my camera to LifePixel for an IR conversion using their Super Color IR (590nm) filter option.

Why the Super Color IR filter option? Because with a little post-processing, the Super Color IR filter's images can be made to look very similar to images created with the other filters they offer. Sound crazy? Check out the video below to see just how it's possible (the narrorator begins describing the Super Color IR filter at the 2:20 mark).

After my filter choice was set in stone, I had to determine what kind of Focus Calibration Type I desired. Options included:

  • Standard 50mm f/1.8 Lens (Don't send lens)
  • Universal (For Live View cameras)
  • Custom (Send Canon brand lens with camera)
  • Custom (Send non-Canon brand lens)
If your camera features Live View, and you don't mind using the LCD full-time when composing and focusing, choosing the Universal option will allow for the utmost versatility. As I wanted to use the wide variety of lenses I have at my disposal, and my EOS 7D featured Live View, the choice was easy – Universal was the right option for me (and will likely be for most people).

Next you must enter your camera's serial number and choose a Processing Time option. I chose the "Normal Processing Time – 10 Business Days" option. However, note that the "10 Business Days" mentioned is only a guideline. Because LifePixel was backlogged when I sent my camera in for conversion, the turnaround time for my order was a full month (including shipping both ways). Thankfully, the camera finally arrived – protectively packaged – and proved to be well worth the wait.

I have seen a few reports of people complaining of dust on their sensors after an IR conversion (a complaint not limited to LifePixel), but close inspection with a Movo LCT7X SLR Sensor Loupe showed my EOS 7D's sensor was spotless upon return. And speaking of the sensor, you might notice that it looks a little different after the IR conversion. For example, you can see a portion of the sensor through the sensor loupe I mentioned:

DSLR Sensor after Infrared Conversion

There's no need to adjust your monitor; the sensor is now unmistakably red.

Scenes Ideally Suited for an IR Converted Camera

Photographers have long known that the golden hour (shortly after sunrise or just before sunset) is often the optimal time to shoot landscape photos. Typically speaking, landscapes do not look their best in the middle of the day. I say "typically," because shooting in IR introduces an exception to this rule. When the sun is at its highest (and brightest) and the sky is very blue, shooting in IR allows for capturing bright yellow or white (depending on type of IR sensor and post-processing choices) foliage against a beautiful blue/dark toned sky. In this way, having an IR camera at hand can greatly increase the times during which captivating photographs can be taken.

For example, the following image was taken at approximately 1:45 ET:

The Talmadge Memorial Bridge and River Street in IR

Another benefit of using a converted IR camera is that capturing portraits is very easy. Because of the long exposure times necessary with IR filters, shooting portraiture requires that the subject remain absolutely motionless for long periods of time in order to create sharp imagery. However, the shutter speeds required to obtain proper exposures when using IR converted cameras are comparable to the shutter speeds required to obtain proper exposures with "normal" DSLRs.

Infrared Portrait

Infrared portraits have a very unique look to them. Note that I didn't swap the red and blue channels for the portrait above (more on that later). I don't think many families will want their portraits taken in IR, but… kids, high school seniors and artists may enjoy an infrared portrait in addition to their already-scheduled [visible light] photo session (for a small additional fee, perhaps?)

Post Processing Infrared Photos

Note that the type of IR sensor chosen and the desired final look will determine one's post-procesing workflow. Following are the steps I generally take while editing images taken with LifePixel's Super Color IR sensor.

You might assume that Photoshop is the best program for editing RAW IR images. However, Adobe Camera RAW does not have the White Balance lattitude to correctly color balance IR images. Thankfully, Canon's Digital Photo Professional is able to color correct IR images without any problems. While shooting IR, I generally set a custom white balance using a large white object that is in the same type of light as my subject or scene (I have used a white car, white house paint/siding, and even a white tractor trailer). After white balance has been set and other settings chosen, press ALT-P (on Windows) to send a TIFF of your IR image to Photoshop (if applicable).

Vermont Guilford Welcome Center in IR SOOC

Now that the image is in Photoshop, we need to flip the Red and Blue color channels in the image. Here are the steps:

  1. Click Image -->Adjustments-->Channel Mixer
  2. With Red selected as the Output Channel, change the Red Source Channel from +100% to 0 and the Blue Source Channel from 0 to +100%.
  3. Select the Blue Output Channel from the drop down menu and change the Blue Source Channel from +100% to 0 and the Red Source Channel from 0 to 100%.

Photoshop Red and Blue Channel Swap

You will also likely also want to adjust levels at this point because IR-captured images generally lack contrast. I find "Auto" Levels tends to work well.

After the Red/Blue channel swap, the sky becomes blue and foliage takes on golden yellow hues with the Super Color IR sensor option.

Vermont Guilford Welcome Center in IR Channel Swap Auto Levels

If you prefer that your foliage look white instead of yellow, simply add a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer, setting yellow's Saturation to -100 and Lightness to +100. This will give the image a more classic IR look except that the blue sky will be preserved. If you find some yellow still remains in your image, use the "+" eyedropper tool to select the yellow hues that remain.

Photoshop Channel Swap and Desaturated Yellow

Summary

Converting a DSLR to infrared is a great way to expand your imaging capability while providing an excellent excuse to get out and enjoy bright, sunny days ahead. As the photography market grows, increasing creativity is needed to get your images noticed, and infrared is a sure way to set your images apart while simulatenously expanding your creative imaging options. LifePixel did a great job with my conversion, and as such has earned my highest recommendation.

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My Recommended Infrared Camera Conversion by LifePixel Retailers

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