• Ed Dozier

Kolari Vision Infrared Camera Conversion Review

I finally ‘bit the bullet’ and had a camera converted to have an infrared sensor. The main reason I did it was to see what’s going on through my viewfinder. I got really tired of having to compose the shot, screw the opaque IR filter onto the lens, and then take the shot. I wasn’t enamored with 2 or 3 minute exposures, either. And I was not pleased with how the wind always blurred the tree branches and leaves.


I chose to get my old Nikon D7000 converted, which was mostly relegated to collecting dust. Now, this camera is “new” again.


I decided to use Kolari Vision , mostly based upon their IR filter specifications. Their filters are glass, thick enough to (mostly) shift focus to match your lens focus scale, and they provide an upgrade to have the IR filter coated with anti-reflection materials in the IR wavelengths. Additionally, the IR filter coating is supposed to be easier to clean and it’s scratch-resistant.


Kolari Vision provides factory white-balance, assuming you get a camera converted that allows it. Their website has a list of cameras that allow custom white balance. If you don’t use an IR white balance, then you’ll only see red when you review your shots on your camera’s screen. You should still be shooting in Raw format, if you want to get the maximum quality from your camera.


You can buy a camera from them directly, if you wish, and avoid having to send them your camera. If you send them your camera, they have an option to send you a well-padded, insured box to protect your camera for shipment to them (I selected this option, too).


Kolari Vision replaces your IR-blocking filter with their IR-passing filter under a filtered clean bench to keep things dust-free. Even so, my sensor had a couple of specks on its surface after I got my camera back from them. I’m well-versed in sensor cleaning, so it was easy to quickly fix that issue. The main thing is to NOT get dust between the camera sensor and the new IR-passing filter; Kolari Vision made sure that didn’t happen.



590nm IR spectrum (with red-blue channel swap) 105mm f/2.8




White-balanced 590nm shot, using cloud for neutral color




590nm as black and white


Kolari Vision (similar to other vendors such as LifePixel) offers many filter options. I chose the 590mn option, since it includes part of the visible spectrum (deep orange and red) in addition to infrared. This option allows you to get fairly vibrant colors, and you can get realistic sky colors if you process your shots to use a red/blue channel swap. Converting the shots into black and white can still capture the classic infrared ‘glow’ off of chlorophyll in plants (the ‘Wood’ effect named after Robert W. Wood), even though it’s not as dramatic as the 850nm filtering.


I need to mention that you shouldn’t even consider getting an infrared camera conversion unless you’re willing to do plenty of post-processing in a photo editor. Many editors aren’t very suitable for IR editing, including Lightroom. You need a photo editor that is able to handle white-balance in the more extreme red end of the spectrum. You should also use a photo editor that allows red/blue channel swapping, unless you want to stick with black and white. I’m finding that my Zoner Photo Studio works very well for IR, since it has great white-balancing capabilities (the eyedropper tool) and it supports the plug-ins that I use for color channel-swapping. I’ll have to work on an article detailing the special kinds of tools and activities that you need to do for editing infrared photos, compared to regular photos.


Kolari Vision offers IR conversions of 590nm, 665nm, 720nm, 850nm, and some mixed-spectrum options, too. The 850nm conversion will only produce black-and-white results, because there’s no human-visible-light left to apply color. If you get a conversion like my 590nm one, then you can still put IR filters such as the 850nm onto your lens and shoot long-wavelength IR. It won’t work to shoot short-wavelength filters over a long-wavelength conversion, though.


Exposure times are just as short with IR-converted cameras as normal cameras, so you don’t need to use a tripod if you don’t want to. In fact, you can even do infrared video if you’re so inclined.


I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that most people won’t thank you for photographing them in infrared. Skin looks pasty and ghost-like. People that go for the ‘Goth look’ might really like this effect, however.




Visible light: about 400nm through 700nm


The chart above (thanks to Wikipedia) shows what portion of the light spectrum that most humans can see. The 590nm filter conversion eliminates the blue and most of the green spectrum. Infrared light starts at about 700nm and goes to about 1 millimeter. About half of the energy from our Sun is in infrared.


IR Compatible Lenses


Many lenses aren’t compatible with infrared photography, mostly because of internal reflections that cause the dreaded “hot spot” in the middle of your photographs. You can consult many web-based databases to try to find out which of your lenses will work. These databases are pretty sketchy, and only mention a fraction of the available lenses. Here’s the link to the lens database by Kolari Vision: https://kolarivision.com/articles/lens-hotspot-list/.


An issue with the IR lens databases I’ve seen is that the filter wavelength-cutoff being used isn’t mentioned. The 590nm lens response won’t match the 850nm lens response, for instance. Also, there’s no mention of the Kolari coated/non-coated anti-reflection IR filter upgrade. Kolari Vision states that all lens hotspots will be reduced with their anti-reflection coating, but it won’t cure bad lenses.


You’ll probably not even notice most lens “hot spots” unless you have a large expanse of cloudless sky in your shots, because they’re often subtle. If people judge hot spots while photographing trees or buildings, they’ll draw a very different conclusion than shooting a clear sky instead.


There are also lenses (mostly super-wide lenses) that cannot focus far enough beyond infinity to achieve correct focus in infrared. My Rokinon 8mm fisheye is one of these, although stopping down to about f/11 still gets infinity into focus for it.


I’m working on my own IR-compatible lens database for a future article, but it will take quite a bit of effort to finish it.


Many lenses work okay for infrared as long as their apertures are wide-open through roughly f/5.6 or f/8. Most lenses start to develop a noticeable “hot spot” between f/11 and f/16 or beyond. If you care about sharpness, you shouldn’t be using f/16 anyway.


All of my old Nikkor AI-converted manual-focus lenses are excellent with infrared. I think that Nikon used to consider IR in their lens designs (IR anti-reflection coatings and focus scale shift markings).


I have found that placing my 850nm IR filter on my lenses can usually reduce or rid mild hot spots. For instance, my Tokina 11-16 f/2.8 has fairly poor performance with the camera’s 590nm, but it’s excellent when adding my BCI 850nm filter. This may be due to the 850nm shots being black and white, so that sky hotspot discoloration disappears. Some web sites report the opposite result, that the 850nm creates more hotspots than shorter cutoff filters. Every different lens may be a new and unique adventure in what works.



Focus Calibration


You’ll probably need to recalibrate focus, even with Kolari Vision’s thick glass filter. Every lens is a new and unique adventure with IR focus shift. With my D7000 camera, the focus calibration was typically shifted by +10 (out of the total range of +- 20).


I noted that my old Nikkor 20mm f/4 AI-converted lens now focuses perfectly, using its normal “visible light” focus scale. With an IR filter on an un-converted camera, I’d have to use its little infrared ‘red dot’ focus scale shift. This tends to validate Kolari Vision’s claim that their thick IR filter glass does indeed shift IR focus to that of visible light (depending upon the lens).


You can of course avoid focus calibration by using Live View and contrast-detect focus. This works fine, but you’ll probably need to invest in an LCD screen viewfinder when shooting in daylight. You can find decent viewfinder magnifiers for pretty cheap these days, such as my Xit finder.




LCD viewfinder magnifier to use with Live View


The other obvious choice to avoid focus calibration is to get a mirrorless camera converted, but only if your camera uses pure contrast-detect focus off of the sensor.


Deep IR Filters


As I mentioned earlier, you can still use IR filters on your IR-converted camera. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that deep IR filters, combined with Live View, let me shoot long-wave IR (850nm) hand-held. I just can’t use my optical viewfinder for this combination.




850nm IR lens filter with my 590nm IR camera


When I want to explore the look of long-wave IR, I can do it much more easily than I used to. I got accustomed to making 3-minute exposures with other cameras, and now I can do them hand-held! The shot above was 1/100s f/5.6 at ISO 100 on my 85mm lens. I like to use my Silver Efex Pro plug-in to fine-tune my monochrome IR shots.


My BCI 850nm IR filter drops the light levels by about 3 stops, as opposed to about 15 stops when shooting with a visible-spectrum camera. If I want to do really long exposures, I can always just add a strong neutral density filter to my lens.


If you’re certain you won’t ever want to shoot color IR, you could just get Kolari Vision’s 850nm conversion instead. I’d recommend you invest in the Nik plug-in Silver Efex Pro if you get this type of conversion. You’ll be amazed at how long-wave infrared eliminates distant haze in your landscapes. LifePixel also offers an 850nm IR conversion.


Samples

Distant hill with all haze removed


The hill shown above was quite hard to see, due to atmospheric haze. The haze was utterly removed by shooting in infrared. Note that infrared doesn't see through water vapor, however, such as clouds and fog.




Polarized light


Summary


I’m very pleased with having my camera converted to infrared. I just love the unique look that you can get using IR light, particularly in black and white. I chose a conversion filter that lets me explore both color and black and white, so that I’m not limited in what I can do.


I don’t want to forget to mention that Kolari Vision also sent me a camera neck strap (with their name on it, of course). It’s actually a quite nice one, to entice their customers to actually use it and therefore advertise for them. It’s a sort of symbiotic relationship.


IR photography generally works best around noon on sunny days, which is exactly the opposite of regular photography. This way, you can keep shooting landscapes all day long instead of just during the ‘golden hours’, assuming you didn’t just convert your only camera.


I don’t get any money from Kolari Vision, so I’m not trying to sell you anything here. I just thought you might like to know about what to expect if you decide to convert your camera into infrared. I didn’t research what IR conversion companies are available outside of the United States, so you’ll have to do that legwork yourself.


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