Digital infrared photography: the best settings to use on your converted camera

Digital infrared photography: the best settings to use with your converted camera

There are a few things to be aware of when shooting digital infrared photography. The first and foremost is you can’t shoot a digital infrared image with a normal camera unless you use a filter. However shooting with a filter means you’re going to need to use a very long shutter speed and Hot Spots can also be problematic.

The best solution is to get your camera professionally converted so it can see infrared light. Many photographers convert their old DSLRs once they have upgraded. Be warned though: once you convert you can’t go back!

So what is infrared light? The colours that most of our eyes can see starts at about 400nm (1nm = one billionth of a metre = 10-9) at the short end of the electromagnetic spectrum (violet) and goes down through the colours of the rainbow to about 700nm on the long end (red wavelengths). This is just about where infrared starts, and it goes down through and beyond one millimetre.

What other subjects lend themselves to digital infrared photography? Some photographers think it’s an effective technique for portraits or fine art nude photography. It produces light, milky, smooth skin tones and removes most skin blemishes while giving hair a fine, silky appearance.

In addition, lakes, rivers, streams and the sea look dark and rich because water normally gets its blue colour from reflecting the sky. We like the infrared effect best when it contrasts something old, dark and man-made with healthy green trees.

Canon digital infrared image final

Once you’ve converted your camera here are the steps you need to take to shoot a digital infrared image…


1. Infrared setup
Strange as it may seem, infrared is the same as your average landscape setup – apart from the very specially modified Canon 50D body.

Since there was a fence in the way, this scene required a really wide lens. Enter the Canon EF-S 10 to 22mm f/3.5/4.5 USM lens set to 10mm – with a lens hood, a tripod, ball head, remote release and bubble level.


Canon digital infrared image step 1

2. No filter required
This is the beauty of a modified camera – it looks and acts like a normal DSLR. You can frame and compose the image with a bright colourful viewfinder, and exposure times are in line with a normal body (just slightly faster).

When you capture an image, however, it looks red on the rear display.


Canon digital infrared image step 2

3. White Balance customisation
This is a very important step for a modified camera. You need to use a custom White Balance on healthy green vegetation that’s lit from your main light source.

In this case, the sun and the grass lawn worked well; we filled the frame with the sun-drenched grass and manually defocused the lens (either to infinity or to the closest focus).

You don’t have to worry about the White Balance settings for this image, just make sure it’s not overexposed or significantly underexposed. Use the button on top to select White balance > Custom, then Menu > Custom WB and confirm the image.


Canon digital infrared image step 3

4. Focus in Live View
In our experience, focus is a critical step. You can’t, for example, manually focus by looking through the viewfinder and adjusting the focus ring, because we can only see visible light.

You can trust the camera to autofocus correctly, depending on the quality of the camera conversion and the manner in which it was calibrated.

If the scene’s not lit by the sun, however, you won’t know the ratio of visible light to invisible light – or if there is any infrared light at all. The safe money is on Live View focusing, because then you know the subject is sharp.


Canon digital infrared image step 4

5. Not just for infrared
A modified camera isn’t just for greenery, trees and summertime – after it’s converted to infrared, you’ll have an outstanding black-and-white camera.

The anti-aliasing filter, or anti-Moiré filter, has been removed too; this filter softens the image to prevent the colour banding issues you can get with patterns.

Camera flashguns and most streetlights have infrared light in them, so there’s lots of light available.


Canon digital infrared image step 5

6. Issues with flaring
In this case the fly in the ointment is the dreaded Hot Spot! Modern zoom lenses and lens coatings aren’t designed for handling infrared light, but film camera lenses were – they had a red spot on them to shift focus onto.

Depending on the amount of infrared light around, the aperture and focal length used (a smaller aperture is normally worse), conditions such as flare can produce a round lighter ring in the centre of your image.

This isn’t usually an issue for black-and-white shots, but it’s distressing for false colour. You can buy an old lens on eBay or look for one with a red focus spot on it; we’re lucky that most of our zoom lenses work quite well.

Canon digital infrared image step 6


Digital camera effects from A-Z
49 awesome photography tips and time savers
Creative focus: camera tips for static to spontaneous subjects
Light trails: what you need to know to master this night photography favourite