Snow at Midnight, on an August Afternoon
By Tim Rahto
4 Sep 2009
One of the best things to ever happen to the photographer on a budget is the invention of the digital SLR. While you may not be able to drop a grand or two on the latest and greatest model, the used market is full of great digital cameras that have plenty of life left in them for pennies on the dollar. A couple of years ago, I took advantage of this situation and bought another Canon 10D with battery grip for the princely sum of around $300. Yes, I already had one sitting in a bag at home for use as a backup, but I had something special in mind for this one.
I have had a soft spot for infrared photography since I first read about it in some photography magazine way back in the day. Those white leaves on the black tree trunks, underneath midnight skies and white clouds really intrigued me. Unfortunately, it isn't that easy to get into. In fact, whether you shoot digital or film, infrared photography can be a real pain in the tuckus. Infrared film is hard to find, difficult to get developed, and miserable to work with. Digital IR is better, but not by much. In the case of the Canons, you will need a tripod, a filter that's so dark you can't see through it, and a lot of patience for those 30 second exposure times. Canon users also have to deal with "hot spots", these weird discolorations that come from some sort of interaction between the filter and your Canon lenses. That's not to say that it can't be a lot of fun, but lugging around a tripod on a hot, humid August afternoon gets old real quick.
Enter in Lifepixel, a company based out of Mukilteo, Washington that specializes in converting digital cameras, including the Canon 10D, into full time infrared shooters. They do this by taking the camera apart, removing the factory standard hot mirror filter, and replacing it with an infrared filter of their own design. It sounds simple enough, and they do offer a do it yourself version, but it requires some connections to be desoldered, so it isn't for the faint of heart. I chose their standard IR option, boxed up the camera, and sent it across the country for its date with the camera surgeon. Total price of conversion: $350
What they sent me back was a full time infrared digital camera that I could shoot handheld. No more super dark filters on my DSLR, lugging around a tripod, or putting a 3M factory forth of electrical tape on the back of my film camera, just a digital shooter that takes the hassle out of IR photography. And what a shooter it is. This camera not only gives you the ability to capture the world of the infrared, it also gives you these crystal clear, amazingly sharp images. The amount of detail this camera can capture is very surprising, especially considering the 10D's somewhat limited (by today's standards) 6.4 megapixel sensor. Needless to say, enlarging shots is not a problem. I've blown some of these images up to in excess of 14x20 with no problems.
Since I went with the standard option, I still need to do a black and white conversion in Photoshop after the fact. I thought about going with the deep black and white filter option, but went with the standard so I could keep those surreal and apocalyptic looking colors that come directly out of the camera if I wanted to. They aren't everyone's cup of tea, but they are certainly interesting... and creepy.
While we are on the subject of post processing, I find that I have to tinker with these images a little more than I normally would. Some of it is just the nature of the beast, as the tutorial section of the Lifepixel website explains, but some of it may be on the shooter's part as well. A little experimentation with the white balance and the color settings will get you a lot closer to your desired end product. In my case, I found that a white balance somewhere around 2000K gives me a more accurate exposure and much less noise.
All in all, I am having a blast with my full time IR converted 10D. The camera that I thought was going to be a novel diversion from my usual photography has become a permanent fixture in my bag. It's given me an opportunity to revisit all of my favorite photographic haunts and shoot them all over again from a totally new perspective. If you're looking for a new way to look at the world around you, check out your local camera shop for a deal on a used DSLR and take the IR plunge. You'll find it's an awful lot of fun.