Shooting Real Infra-Red With Digital Cameras

All digital cameras can shoot infrared shots with the use of a filter.

Infra-red film has been (and still is) quite widely used both in
scientific photography and in more creative forms of photography, where
both areas make use of the very different tonalities (and colours)
produced. What is not widely known is that most, if not all, digital
cameras are also sensitive to IR and can be used to produce monochrome
IR shots. This was not something I had really thought about until a
combination of things happened. Firstly I saw an ad for a Phase One
digital back containing a shot by New York based photographer Les
Jorgensen done with an IR filter. Secondly, there was a discussion in
the internet news group about shooting IR with
hobbiest level digital cameras. Both got me thinking.

Armed with the knowledge that it was possible, I set out to test it. Of
the three digital cameras I had access to at the time (we are talking
some time back), a Kodak DC210, an Agfa ePhoto 1280 and the then new
Kodak DCS520/Canon EOS 2000, all were IR sensitive. I tested this first
with the Kodak DC210 by shooting the little light emitting diode on the
end of my TV remote control while I had a button pressed. Since remotes
use IR this is a good, easy test. It worked, so I grabbed my Hoya R72
Infrared filter, camera and tripod and headed to the local park. What I
found was that the DC210 produced good results if some overexposure
compensation was dialed in. With the other two cameras mentioned the
autoexposure did not need adjustment.

The results will look shocking. It has a strong magenta shift and is
very flat. But that’s where the beauty of digital comes in, drag the
image into Photoshop or some similar program, change the image to
monochrome or grey scale mode and then do an Autolevel adjustment or
play with the curve to stretch the contrast. Depending on the camera
used, the result is either a grainy looking, arty image or a smooth and
fine grained image suitable for many purposes. Since most consumer
level cameras do not have filter threads just hold the filter over the
lens, including any exposure-metering window if there is one.

Since this first start I have tried it with every digital camera that I
have been testing, and all can produce IR images. With some cameras it
is better to use a strong red filter rather than one that blocks all
visible light but most work with an infrared filter. Note that
professional level cameras often have an IR filter installed in front
of the CCD to obtain better colour. Even with this installed you can
still shoot IR. Removing this filter simply allows you to shoot further
into the IR part of the spectrum, and with shorter exposures.

Shooting IR with a digital camera certainly beats doing it with film.
No loading and unloading the camera in the dark and guessing what your
results are. You can also happily mix IR with normal shots as needed.
Because it is so convenient it is surprising that little if anything
has been written about it. One possible source of confusion may be
that, I remember, when Kodak brought out their first DCS camera it was
available in Mono, colour and IR models, implying that only the IR
model was IR sensitive. Since I have yet to find a digital I couldn’t
shoot IR with, this is obviously a fallacy.

Shooting digital IR is a fun and very easy option to explore. Get out there and do it.

The straight, unmanipulated image shot with a Kodak DC210 camera and a Hoya IR filter. Doesn’t look much does it.

After conversion to monochrome and a contrast stretch the image is much more interesting.

A raw image taken with the Kodak DCS520 professional camera and the
Hoya IR filter. This was shot at an ISO setting of 200, f2.8 and 1/8
second exposure, which is +1 stop overexposed.

After conversion to mono and the application of Autolevels.

The Nikon Coolpix 950 can produce very lovely IR images. This was shot in mono mode and autolevels applied.

This is a straight, unmanipulated shot from the Nikon 950.

After autolevels the contrast range is much better.

The tonal range you can get is great, and it’s a lot easier than using IR film.

Here we have the shot straight from the camera which tends to be a bit flat.

The application of autolevels, as here, or using curves or contrast controls an improve the image significantly.

You don’t have to convert the images to monochrome.  Here we have
removed some of the colour cast so that the bright parts of the clouds
are white.  We then punched up the saturation using the
Image>Adjust>Hue/Saturation command to get an interesting,
false-colour image.

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