Sunday, May 23, 2010

The fun is back for Infrared photography

I started making infrared photographs quite a while ago, using Kodak H1E infrared film.  I shot black-and-white photographs while I was young, and I really liked the dramatic contrast and unusual look of IR photographs.

The whole process from storing and loading the film, to taking the photograph, and developing it was difficult, frustrating, and very often disappointing.  Storing the film in the fridge wasn't new to me, but loading the film in the dark and having to use a virtually opaque 720nm filter was quite difficult.  Framing the photography involved setting up the photograph without the filter, and then carefully screwing the filter on, trying not to move the focus or zoom rings.  Not only that, but determining the correct exposure needed a lot of guesswork and bracketing.  I normally had to overexpose by 2 or 3 stops, but it was not consistent.  Even with bracketing by a couple of stops, I missed quite often.

Forest Scene, Shot using Kodak H1E film

When it all worked, the results were fascinating, and made all of the frustration worth the effort.  

When I switched to digital with a Nikon D100, infrared photography became much easier.  The D100 is quite sensitive to infrared light, as opposed to later generations of DSLRs.  I no longer had to deal with H1E film, or with guessing the exposure. I could check the exposure right away, and adjust on the fly.  My exposures (using f/11 or f/16) was on the order of a few seconds, which was okay unless there was a strong wind.  I took quite a bit more photographs using this setup, and learned how to introduce colour to IR by taking an identical colour image, and blending the two images.

Mer Bleue Boardwalk, Nikon D100, Hoya R72 filter

The situation went downhill with my current camera, a Nikon D200 which is much less sensitive to IR light.  The exposures now were over 30 seconds, and it was hard to find a good photograph with that long an exposure.  I virtually stopped taking IR photographs after I purchased the D200.

The latest change in infrared photography is the ability to convert a digital camera to infrared.  The IR blocking filter over the sensor can be removed, and a 720nm or similar filter can be fitted over the sensor to block visible light..  The sensor itself is quite sensitive to IR light, and so the converted camera lets you take photographs at normal exposures, and without any external filter.  This is a huge improvement over anything available in the past.

Oxtongue River, Nikon D40x IR converted

The main problem now (for my limited budget) is the price.  There are a number of companies that offer conversion services (LifePixel and MaxMax are two of the high profile companies) and the prices range from $300 to $450 for most cameras.   To be honest, this is about the same price of an "external" infrared filter.  A Hoya R72 filter costs around $350 for a 77mm filter in Canada.  However, you also have to have a camera body to convert.

The Minto Bridge to Green Island, Nikon D40x IR converted

The price point is dropping, especially if you are willing to by a used entry-level DSLR.  The market for these cameras is quite competitive, and the models seem to last only a year or two.  I've seen Nikon D3000 camera bodies selling for about $250 on eBay.  I recently bought an IR-converted, used Nikon D40x, and although it is not a sophisticated camera (only 3 autofocus points!), it is great as an infrared camera.  It's a very light body as well, so it doesn't add much weight to my camera pack.

All of the barriers to infrared photography have been removed, and  it's fun again to photograph in infrared.

. . . Rob Williams