Sony cameras and infrared

While I never shot infrared in the film days, I know that with any camera it was possible to get started shooting infrared just as simply as buying infrared film and an IR filter. With digital things have changed a bit, while most digital sensors are perfectly suited to capturing infrared light, there is very little support for it from camera manufacturers. Nearly all digital cameras have powerful IR-blocking filters installed over the imaging sensor preventing IR photography with anything other than very long exposures. Sure, Sony has the Nightshot mode, but daytime IR photography is at best very difficult and the results are really quite limited as its real purpose is shooting at night, and then there were a few offerings from Fuji which never seemed to take off. Infrared is definitely a niche and perhaps the fact that only a relative few are into it is for the best.

So then, what do you need to get started in infrared? The short answer is any digital camera – since nearly all digital sensors are very sensitive to IR light, even with the blocking filters most of them have, its still possible with 30 second exposures to get started. If you are really serious about infrared, then a converted digital camera is the way to go. There are currently a handful of companies offering infrared conversions which I will talk more about in a later post. What I do want to point out now are features that make particular cameras better candidates for IR conversion – there are only two features I consider “must have”:

1. Custom White Balance – because IR cameras are essentially responding to infrared light and creating visible light images, it is necessary to use a pretty extreme white balance if you are interested in doing false color infrared. Note that the camera should have both a custom WB feature which attempts to automatically set the WB as well as a manual white balance. If your only interest is in black and white infrared, then this feature is unnecessary. Without a custom white balance feature it is typically near impossible to achieve an acceptable IR white balance.

2. RAW file support – in order to get the most from your custom white balanced files it really helps to have a camera that supports RAW. As a personal rule I shoot all photos in RAW, be it “normal color” or infrared, because it allows me to get the most out of every picture, this is a preference that I know some will disagree with. For infrared its mostly the same rule, it also allows me to create custom color profiles to use with Adobe Camera Raw allowing even better false colors IR.

In addition, there are some features that while non-essential can certainly make things a lot easier:
1. Main sensor live view – this allows you to compose the image exactly as the camera sees it, so you can adjust white balance as well as judge the exposure without taking a shot first.

2. Main sensor manual focus check – this is a feature where the camera can enlarge a live view image in the LCD so that you can verify the focus is correct. It is important that the camera uses its primary image sensor for live view (example – Sony a550/a580) as some cameras have a dedicated live view sensor (example – Sony a350). The reason is that IR light focuses differently than visible light and in a converted camera the infrared pass filter is installed over the sensor where the IR-blocking filter was.

3. Main sensor Contrast Autofocus – this allows the primary sensor to autofocus making accurate AF possible with nearly any AF lens and focal length. The main disadvantage is that Contrast AF is not as fast as the traditional Phase Detect AF used on nearly all DSLR’s.

4. Mirrorless cameras – while this is more an entire class of cameras rather than a feature, I consider these an advantage for IR photography. Since the OVF of a traditionally DSLR cannot offer much help other than composing the photo in visible light, in addition the phase detect AF sensors cannot accurately autofocus in IR, it’s best just to get rid of these items. Mirrorless cameras lack these things making them smaller and lighter – in addition to being able to adapt a huge range of lenses for other camera mounts.

Since I am a Sony user, I will provide a short list of features offered in current camera models that are helpful to IR. Note that I do not recommend any current model of Cybershot camera as none of them offer a manual custom white balance or RAW support (eventually I may do another post on Cybershot models for infrared). All current Sony NEX and Alpha’s offer both manual custom white balance and RAW support.

a500/a550:
-Main sensor live view – allows manual focus and composition in IR through LCD

a560/a580
-Main sensor live view – allows manual focus and composition in IR through LCD
-Main sensor contrast AF – means AF is possible with a-mount lenses

NEX3/NEX5
-Main sensor live view – allows manual focus and composition in IR through LCD
-Main sensor contrast AF – means AF is possible with e-mount and SAM/SSM a-mount lenses using the LA-EA1 adapter
-Can adapt a huge range of other lenses with third party adapters
-OVF is removed which is an advantage for IR since it isn’t very useful

This is not to say other cameras offered by Sony cannot be used for IR, the features and cameras listed above are specifically beneficial to infrared photography. My first DSLR converted was a Sony a350 and it has performed excellently as an infrared camera. My second is a mirrorless Sony NEX-5 and I have yet to take pictures that I feel are really better than my a350, its mainly just an easier camera to use with infrared for the reason’s listed above. Plus, it takes up a lot less room in my camera bag which is a great.

As a final note, you may also be wondering about the new SLT (a33 and a55 models) technology from Sony. At this time no one to my knowledge has converted an SLT for infrared photography. My concern would be that the fixed mirror may not respond favorably to infrared light, it may block light or add glare to every image. Features wise the a55 does not offer any advantage for IR over its a580 counterpart, in fact it is less useful because it lacks the Contrast based AF. I would shy away from SLT’s for infrared work, though I do use an a55 for regular photography and it is an excellent everyday camera.

4 Comments

  1. nan swan
    April 23, 2011 at 6:31 am — Reply

    hi … i havae an 35 mil film camera made by Minolta it is a Minolta Maxium
    and i have a 300 telaphoto lense for it that i could use on a Sony

    should i stick with Sony ? or change to a Cannon that i saw at Sears that don’t have to change lenses to
    use a telaphoto up to 800 … and why would any one wnat awan want a DSLR camera when cANNON HAS
    this new camera with lense attached permenatly that zooms telaphoto up to 800 ?

    whats the diff?

  2. roman
    December 20, 2011 at 4:25 pm — Reply

    Hello,
    sorry for my english im from slovakia, i have sony nex 5, 18-55mm lens, i have planning to buy Hoya R72 49mm filter to try some IR photo shotting. Could you help with some your experience with setting up white ballance with ir filter on lenses or some more info and create some post on your site about it ?
    thanks, great site !

    • Greg
      December 25, 2011 at 11:38 pm — Reply

      Hello, I have not tried shooting infrared with an un-converted NEX, however, I typically shoot with the WB set to around 2700K G9. Thats what the WB set usually guesses, and just from visually judging the images, that works quite well to get foliage to appear white.

    • steiner
      February 29, 2012 at 11:18 pm — Reply

      Hi roman, have you successfully done it? I am also planning to buy that same filter for my sony nex-5n but I am still unsure if it is possible to get ir photos without modifications on my camera..

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