What Camera Should You Convert to Infrared?
Here are some considerations and recommendations for selecting a camera to convert to infrared (IR) or full-spectrum. When selecting a camera to convert, you have all of the normal factors involved in selecting a camera, the permanent modification of the camera, and the limitations of infrared photography. This can be challenging, especially if you’ve never converted a camera before or if you obsess over such decisions like I do. I’ve converted two cameras to infrared and purchased an already converted camera. Here is what I’ve learned.
SLR focusing is calibrated for visible light and is inaccurate for infrared, which can result in out-of-focus images. To effectively use SLR focusing, the camera’s focus needs to be calibrated for infrared with a specific lens, which would limit you to using only that lens. Mirrorless cameras and the live-view on DSLRs, which both focus via the sensor, do not have this issue, allowing you to use any lens. I recommend converting a mirrorless camera or a DSLR with live-view and a good rear screen or digital viewfinder.
New or Used?
If you purchase a new camera, be sure to test the camera before sending it off for conversion. Conversions will void the warranty, so you want to ensure that the camera works properly.
If you purchase a used camera, you may wish to purchase from a reputable source that inspects and tests used equipment. You should also test the camera yourself before converting.
Purchasing a converted camera from a conversion company is also a great option. It saves you from multiple rounds of shipping and ensures that you will get a tested camera.
Many photographers will convert a camera that they already own, such as a second camera or an older camera after upgrading your primary camera.
If you are converting an interchangable lens camera, I would recommend sticking with an ecosystem that you already use. That will allow you to share equipment between multiple systems, such as lenses, batteries, battery chargers, and other accessories.
Using a brand of camera you are already familiar with will also make it easier to learn infrared, since you are already familiar with the camera’s features and settings.
Lens Hot Spots
Lenses are designed by manufacturers for optimal performance in visible light. Some lenses produce a bright spot in the center of the image when used in infrared, referred to as a hot spot. Some lenses will have hot spots starting at a specific aperture or higher. Zoom lenses may show hot spots at different focal lengths. There are a variety of resources for determining which lenses do not have hot spots. Search for your camera model to find these resources, such as “canon infrared lens hot spots”.
One converted camera can shoot many styles of infrared. With a full-spectrum camera, in addition to shooting full-spectrum, you can add external filters to shoot other styles of infrared, such as UV, Ektachrome-style, 590 nm, 720 nm, 830 nm, etc. With a camera converted to 590 nm, you can add external filters of higher numbers to get additional infrared looks.
External filters offer great flexibility. If you shoot a single lens, selecting external filters is simply a matter of matching the thread size of the lens. If you shoot multiple lenses with different filter thread sizes, then you will need step-up rings to allow filter to fit on multiple size lenses. If the thread size if different enough, then you might need different filters for different lenses.
Some wide-angle lenses and point-and-shoot cameras do not support lens filters. Keep this in mind when selecting cameras or lenses.
Sensor Size, Image Quality, Weight, and Cost
Sensor size impacts weight, image quality, and cost. Typically, the smaller the sensor, the lower the weight, image quality, and cost. The larger the sensor, the higher the weight, image quality and cost.
The smallest sensors are found in point-and-shoot cameras. These also make the lightest weight cameras. Point-and-shoot cameras are best for those on a tight budget or for those exploring infrared at the least cost. Converting point-and-shoot cameras may only cost 50-75% the cost of converting larger cameras. Point-and-shoot cameras can produce great images for social media.
Micro-four thirds (MFT) are the smallest size commonly supporting interchangeable lenses. APS-C sensors are larger than MFT. Mirrorless MFT and APS-C cameras are very popular among infrared photographers due to their great image quality, light weight and moderate cost. These systems are good for travel and hiking. They produce great images for social media and great prints up to 13x19”. MFT cameras have a slightly higher cost compared the APS-C.
Full-frame (FF) sensors are equal to the size of 35mm film. Medium format sensors are the largest available in digital cameras. Both will produce excellent quality if you are comfortable with the heavier bodies, heavier lenses, and higher cost. Converting a medium format camera will cost 2-3 times the cost of other interchangeable lens cameras. FF and medium format cameras can product prints of any size.
Things You Don’t Need
- High ISO or low light performance - You will be shooting in broad daylight.
- Weather resistance or weather sealing - These are certainly nice to have, but not required when shooting on sunny days.
- High frame rates - This depends on your subject. Most common infrared subjects are not moving, giving you the time to get your shot.
- Flash - Since most of your shooting will be in broad daylight, a flash won’t help much, and probably won’t output much light in the IR portion of the spectrum.
- Video - Many forms of IR photography require false color processing which could be much harder for video. Unless you have a specific need, you shouldn’t select a camera to convert to IR for it’s video capabilities.
There are point-and-shoot cameras from many manufacturers which can be converted to infrared. Check with the conversion companies in your area to see if the point-and-shoot you are interested in can be converted. Many of these conversions are less expensive than converting a mirrorless or DSLR camera. If a conversion is offered, then it’s most likely that the included lens won’t have hot spots.
- Under $1k APS-C DSLR: new or used SL series (best budget option with an interchangeable lens), T series, great flip screen for live-view and many affordable lenses
- Under $1k APS-C Mirrorless: M series, fewer native lens choices
- Over $1k FF Mirrorless: R or RP series
- Under $1k APS-C: used X-T1, XT-2, X-T20, X-H1, or new XT-200, X-T30, X-A7. I have been extremely happy with my X-T20 converted to 590 nm and am considering an X-T30 for my next conversion to full-spectrum. (Update: I converted my Fujifilm X-T2 to full spectrum and replaced it with a X-S10 for visible light photography and video.)
- Over $1k APS-C: X-T3, XT-4. These are great cameras, but for IR don’t offer much benefit over an X-T2 or X-T30.
- Over $5k medium format: GFX 50R. This is my dream IR camera. (Update: I bought a used and already full spectrum converted GFX 50S. It is a little bulkier than the 50R, but the image quality is still fantastic.)
- Under $1k APS-C: a6000 series, lots of lens choices
- Over $1k FF: a7, a7R series, small bodies, large lenses
- Under $1k APS-C DSLR: D (four digit) series, such as D3500, D5600
- Over $1k FF Mirrorless : Z series
Cameras from Olympus and Panasonic are very small, lightweight, offer good quality, and can make great IR cameras.
There are many choices when it comes to selecting a camera for infrared conversion. Some of these are personal choices, based on your needs and budget, and some are imposed by the limits of IR. Be sure to research all of the elements in order to avoid purchasing gear that won’t work.
If you have comments, questions or feedback, use the comment section for this video.