As photographers, we are always looking for unique angles and perspectives, exceptional light, and compelling compositions. In a world full of photos, it's not easy to show something commonplace in a different way. A way that people have never seen before. Infrared photography shows people how the world looks in a spectrum of light that isn't even visible to the naked eye, and that changes everything.
When you upgrade your camera body, your first instinct is to trade in or sell your old one and recoup some of the costs. That is totally understandable, but what if that obsolete tool could be transformed into something completely different? Would it stay in your bag? Before you list that old camera body on Craigslist, here are 9 reasons to convert a camera to infrared.
Infrared photos are special.
They glow, with surprising contrasts and unusual colors. Infrared photos can add an eerie, otherworldly mood to scenes we had become bored with seeing every day. They will make you start looking at the world and the light differently, and as such, you can show others the world in a different light – literally.
Converting a camera to capture light in the infrared spectrum isn't a do-it-yourself project, but it is as easy as sending your camera away to an expert. Right now, your camera's sensor is capable of recording a much wider spectrum of light than you can see. A filter has been placed over that sensor, to allow only visible light through. The conversion process involves removing that filter and replacing it with one that eliminates visible light, letting in infrared light only.
In reality, most consumer camera conversions are allowing in light that is mostly beyond the visible spectrum, and in the “near infrared spectrum” (NIR). For the purposes of this article, I'm not going to go into the different types of filters, and when I refer to infrared, I technically mean NIR.
If you begin looking into infrared conversion, you will find two names coming up again and again: Kolarivision, and Lifepixel (who did my conversion). I was very pleased with the price, speed, and service I received from Lifepixel, but from looking at reviews, I don't think you can go wrong with either company.
If you're not completely sure you want to permanently alter a camera in this way, you can try out infrared photography right now, simply by using a filter in front of your lens. Although technically, infrared light is supposed to be filtered out, it is a sneaky kind of light and a little bit still gets through. The disadvantage to using this technique is that you will have very long exposure times (a sturdy tripod is mandatory). It will be difficult or impossible to focus through the very dark filter, so you will have to keep removing the filter, every time you move or change compositions. Though not ideal, this is a great way to experiment with infrared photography, with minimal commitment. Once you are using a camera that has been converted to infrared, your exposure times will be similar to those you would use on a regular camera.
Now, this is subjective, of course. It will cost an amount of money that I used to think was a lot before I took up the hobby of photography. Now, it is a drop in the ocean of dollars I have spent on gear. If using Lifepixel or Kolarivision, then U.S. residents get free domestic shipping – a big advantage over their neighbors to the north (like me). At the time I'm writing this, most conversions seem to cost around $275 USD, from either of those companies.
Keep in mind that it doesn't have to be a DSLR (or mirrorless) camera that you convert, either. The same process can be performed on an old point and shoot. Another option is to buy a new camera that has already been converted, from either one of these companies. No need to wait until you have an old camera lying around!
Lifepixel offers a 1-year warranty on all of their conversion services, and risk-free money back guarantees on their brand new converted cameras. They also offer lifetime telephone support, a one on one live online training session and tons of educational materials and tutorials on their website. They are not just going to break your camera and abandon you. They are highly invested in ensuring that you have a great experience. I am not being compensated in any way for saying this. I paid full price for my conversion and I owe them nothing. The truth is, I am just extremely impressed with their professionalism. The amount of support they offer their customers is extraordinary. Believe me, I know how hard it is to bundle up one of your precious babies and drop it off at the post office, but having made it through the eye of the storm and come out on the other side, camera unscathed (and so much cooler than it was!), I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Rekindle Your Passion For Photography
If you've been in a creative slump, one of those periods when you can't even bother to pick up your camera (and we've ALL been there), an infrared converted camera may be the cure for what ails you. Boredom is the death of creativity, by introducing a whole new set of rules and challenges, you just might breathe new life into a passion that is beginning to fade. Everything looks so awesome and cool through my old Nikon D7100 these days, I just have to point it at stuff to see the results. There is a learning curve, for sure – but that's what makes it so much fun. We are not inspired by things we already know inside and out.
Fall Back In Love With Sunny Days
As landscape photographers, we love dramatic, stormy weather, golden hour, sunsets, the Milky Way and the Aurora Borealis. We seek the extreme and extraordinary light that most people miss, safe and comfortable indoors. We dread bright sunlight and clear blue skies to a degree that is practically vampiric.
One of the reasons for this is that contrasts in light and color are two of the main ingredients in a photo that is visually interesting. There is not a lot of contrast between green and blue, making for boring photos of medium green foliage against a medium blue sky. When recording infrared light, foliage appears bright white. This happens because leaves reflect infrared light, it is happening all the time, but we can't normally see it. (We see leaves as green because that is the wavelength of light that they reflect in the visible spectrum, absorbing the red and blue light). The sky doesn't reflect much infrared light, making it appear much darker. Now we have dark skies with bright white foliage, providing dramatic contrast and a novel perspective, even at midday.
It's A Different Way To Capture The Same Scene
Have you ever been somewhere beautiful, but been disappointed because your photos were just…meh? It's a stupid question because of course, you have. If you've ever taken a photo, you've probably been disappointed in how it failed to do the scene before you justice. That same scene, when photographed in infrared may go from “yawn” to “Yowzah”! It won't always work. Many of the scenes that we seek for our visible light photography will not be impressive for infrared photography. For example, a vivid sunset is not going to yield spectacular results in infrared, which is technically colorless. The point is, with an infrared camera, you now have another tool in your kit. Sometimes it will be just the tool you need. When you are in a popular location that has been photographed by thousands (or millions) before you, there will be exponentially fewer infrared photos of that scene floating around in the world and online.
Capture “Snowy” Scenes In The Summer
The white foliage that is characteristic of infrared photos looks like a snow covered scene, at least at first glance. My infrared photos have received many comments along the lines of “beautiful winter scene” when posted on social media. I don't know about you, but I personally consider it a bonus if I get credit for taking spectacular winter photos when I was in fact out in shorts and a tank top!
Cheap Kit Lenses May Outperform Pro Lenses
This is an interesting one. An infrared conversion can not only breathe new life into an outdated camera body, it might give you a new appreciation for your kit lenses, too. Some lenses are not ideal for infrared photography because they cause a big, bright hot spot in the center of the photo. This usually occurs when stopped down to smaller apertures (higher f/stop numbers), as we so often are for landscape photography.
The thing is, this is in no way related to the quality of the lens. Your expensive “pro lenses” will often perform poorly compared to cheaper kit lenses. You can see a list of lenses and their relative performances for infrared photography here. In my own, personal experience, my 24-70 f/2.8 is practically unusable, the hotspot is so prominent. Meanwhile, my inferior 16-35 f/4 yields much better results.
Photography is, at its core, about the study of light. I've learned more about light since I recently started dipping my toes into the infrared spectrum than I did in the preceding 5 years since I purchased my first DSLR. Once you start exploring the unseen world around you, it becomes quite addictive and very exciting.