(First of an indeterminate number of parts)
This week's column by Ctein
As I mentioned in last week's column, I've done some good art in the past with digital IR. All of that's been done with "brute force" configurations. That is to say, I used a conventional IR-blocking-filtered digital camera with a visible-light blocking filter over the lens and made my photographs with the minuscule amount of infrared light that would leak past the blocking filter.
The advantage of such an arrangement is that one can use one's existing camera. The disadvantage is that those IR-blocking filters are extremely effective. On my old Fuji cameras, vis figure 4 last week, it was still possible to make infrared photographs. But, that photograph had an exposure of 1/5 second at ƒ/2.8 with the camera set to ISO 100, and the only reason it was even that short was I was photographing almost directly into the sun. Three-fold longer exposure times are more common, even in direct sunlight.
On my two Olympus cameras, this brute force method won't even work; the IR-blocking filters are simply too good. I gave up infrared photography for the time being when I got my Olympus Pen three years ago.
A while back, TOP reader Dave Polaschek lent me his hard-converted DSLR, where the IR-blocking filter had been removed and replaced with a visible-light-blocking filter. Unsurprisingly, the results were immensely better. I could work at hand-holdable shutter speeds and apertures even under less-than-direct-sunlight conditions, and the photographs had much nicer tonality and less noise.
I found myself not using Dave's camera very much, though. It was a different make and format than my Olympus, which meant there was no common hardware. It was also quite bulky compared to the kit I was using. Too much trouble to haul along. Since 99% (conservatively) of my work is still traditional color photography, Dave's camera languished on the shelf. Eventually I returned it to him.
I started thinking about getting my old Olympus Pen converted to IR, since it was not getting any use at all since my OM-D purchase. The body is so small and light that adding it to my kit wouldn't present an annoying burden, and I wouldn't have to buy lenses for it. I did some casual looking into the companies that had IR-photography products, but there was such a wide range of prices and services available, spanning more than an order of magnitude, that I put it aside as something that was going to require far more energy and time to research that I felt like putting in. I did bookmark that Life Pixel had an off-the-shelf Olympus conversion at the exceedingly reasonable price of $275, but that's as far as it went. I didn't know anything about the company, and if you attempt to research this subject online by looking at user threads in various forums, you'll find a most notable set of partisan flame wars. It's almost as if you were to ask the question, "Gee, I want to be a computer user. I hear those things are cool. So, should I get a Mac or Windows machine?" hoping to get something approaching a dispassionately informative answer.
Then a friend, Josh More, who does truly exquisite animal photography, asked me if I had an opinion on which company he should go with for a camera conversion. Well, having none, and rather liking the camera David loaned me (and besides it was of the same brand as Josh's camera) I asked Dave who had done his conversion. And, what do you know, it turned out to be Life Pixel. David been pleased with his dealings with them, and I had been pleased with his camera, so that settled the matter.
I'm not saying they are the only people who offer good service and reasonable prices; I am sure there are others. But me, I need only one. I'm not even saying they're better than anybody else. Don't know, don't care. In this case, better is the enemy of good. I will say they treated me just fine, and I don't think they thought I was anyone special (the "world-famous Ctein" only exists in some alternate reality [yes, but it's a cool alternate reality —Ed.]). I had a modest number of hand-holding questions for them that their website didn't answer (although it answers quite a few) and I received prompt and useful answers.
After too much procrastination (I was dealing with a rather large print sale; you might've heard) I sent off my camera to them with payment. I opted for the "deep IR" (830 nm cutoff) over the "standard IR" (720 nm cutoff) conversion. They cost the same, and I figured since I was most interested in pure IR, I would go for the purest experience. Deep IR conversion loses an additional stop of camera sensitivity over the regular conversion—two stops instead of one. In other words, a camera setting of ISO 100 becomes an effective setting of ISO 25 (assuming you think ISO applies to IR, but we won't go there). Still, for a great deal of work ISO 25 is plenty, so I decided that would be more than sufficient. Turns out it's not quite so "plenty" as I thought, which I'll get to in future columns, but it's still pretty great.
Since their estimated delivery date was after I'd be leaving for Minneapolis, I asked them if there'd be any problem contacting me on completion to see if I wanted it shipped to a different address. Nope, no problem.
Two days before I was due to fly out, and nearly a week earlier than they had estimated, they were done with my conversion and sent me an e-mail asking where I'd like the camera sent. I fired one back saying that since I would be leaving town in two days, was there any chance they could get the package shipped out that same day via UPS for overnight delivery?
Before I was done telling Paula that she might need to keep an eye out for delivery in the morning, I got a phone call from Life Pixel. Yes, they could get the package out the same day, and the reason they were calling me is so that I could make the payment for the faster shipping with no unnecessary delays. Great! That meant I didn't have to have the camera shipped to Minneapolis and I could check it out before I left.
UPS screwed up and the package didn't arrive the next day but the day following, the day I was going to leave. That still gave me time to run some quickie tests to make sure the camera performed OK, and it did. And, pleasant surprise, it came back with a custom white balance programmed in, so the photographs come up on the back screen and in ACR looking almost perfectly neutral with no futzing about on my part. I've got Mike's beloved black-and-white camera (not counting the IR business) [this alternate reality is no fair —Ed.].
While waiting to board at the airport, I sent a short e-mail off to Life Pixel letting them know that UPS screwed up and asked them to check into whether I'm due for some kind of a refund on shipping. No problem, they said, and they went and smacked UPS around a bit and the next morning there was an e-mail saying it's done and they've credited me back with all my shipping charges.
And that's how I got my camera: flawless conversion, ready to use out-of-the-box, finished a week before I expect, and an appropriate amount of handholding the whole way through the process. Complaints? None.
Next week I'll start to tell you what it's like working with this camera and the image characteristics of the photographs it produces. Then, probably, tea, and after that, probably, some reports on lens performance with this camera (Yeah, I rearranged my upcoming writing schedule since I spelled it out a week ago. Anyone truly surprised?)
©2013 by Ctein, all rights reserved
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Harold Merklinger: "A cameras once criticized for its high IR sensitivity but seldom seen recommended for IR photography is indeed the Leica M8. Hand-held IR images are quite possible with typical exposures such as 1/60 sec at ƒ/5.6 with ISO set to 320. The filter offering the best hand-held opportunities is the B&W 092. The bright foliage effect is present with this filter, although skies may not be as dark as with stronger filters. The on-screen review image is quite purple, flarey, and may seem to indicate a hot-spot problem, and yet the final image will be fine.
"A near-unique feature of the M8 is that it meters correctly in the IR spectrum! I have learned to trust the meter and not the screen. Of course the appropriate focus off-set for each lens needs to be known. ISO settings higher than 320 are certainly possible, but I find that definition suffers. Better results are obtained at ISO 160 although this often entails shutter speeds of 1/15 sec and a tripod becomes a near necessity. (The M9 will offer even better definition, but requires 30 to 60 times the exposure—depending upon the filter used.)
"Some cameras—like the Nikon D800—are almost entirely unsuitable for IR photography unless modified. In my brief tests with a D800, 100 to 300 times the exposure was required (compared to the M8) and the bright foliage effect was weak to non-existent. This implies that the net effect of the IR passing filter and the IR blocking filter is essentially a neutral density visible light filter. And even live-view metering was way off. (I never use the in-camera JPEG files from the M8; I only use the DNG files.)"
Ctein replies: That is indeed a remarkable amount of IR leakage in the M8. But what a great way to turn a bug into a feature. And you get to use your Leica lenses, yet!
Your D800 performed a lot like my Olympus Pen, pre-conversion.