Saturday, 15 March 2014

Cameras - Canon 40D (Converted to infra-red only - 700nm)

Nine Springs, Yeovil - Canon 40D (IR), Pentax 50mm - 1/500th, f/1.2, iso100

I was getting on so well with infra-red photography on the Canon G9 that I was starting to crave a more serious camera. At this point the idea of combining IR with a fast shutter response, a large optical viewfinder and the higher image quality of a digital SLR was just too tempting. I did some research and decided to sell the G9 to fund the purchase of a Canon 40D and conversion. This would be the next step in my infra-red project.

Shortly before this I managed to swap some old equipment for a Canon 5D. This was my first experience with a full-frame DSLR and using a 50mm f/1.2 lens was making me quite addicted to bokeh (shallow depth of field blur). This was partly responsible for pushing me away from Nikon and towards Canon for conversion to IR as I was more tempted to put money into Canon glass at this point.

Unlike the G9 I didn't buy the 40D already converted, although I did choose it with conversion in mind from the start. I took some 'normal' colour images with it for a couple of weeks before sending it to Germany for conversion, in mid 2008.

The Pentax MX film camera next to the cropped sensor Canon 40D with Pentax adapter

Another aspect that pushed me towards Canon when choosing an SLR to convert to infra-red was the lens options. Despite being a bit of a Nikon fan-boy at this time I moved to Canon for a couple of reasons. The first was that Canon have wider aperture prime lenses available (albeit at a cost), but perhaps an even better reason was that the Canon mount can take lenses from almost any other manufacturer. This is made possible by simple, small and very cheap adapters that don't require any optics to degrade image quality.

The first image in this post was taken using a Pentax 50mm f/1.2 lens on the Canon 40D. This is shown in the above photo next to an old Pentax film camera for scale. Although you're stuck with manual focus on third-party lenses, this is actually quite useful for infra-red photography anyway. As an extra bonus there are some good bargains to be had with older manual focus lenses and this is equally true of low-light prime lenses (like these).

Canon 5D, 50mm - 1/60th, f/4.5, iso100

Perhaps my second biggest reason for choosing the Canon 40D for IR conversion was a new feature it had: Live-view (LV). I like high contrast black & white filters, but I also like colour infra-red (like the Hoya R72). I didn't want to be stuck shooting only one filter type after conversion and live-view made this possible. It would allow me to shoot fast shutter speeds using IR filters in front of the lens, but I could also shoot with the optical filter on the lowest wavelength I chose for conversion. The plan was to convert the camera to the lowest wavelength of IR that I liked to shoot (700nm). I could then add a more aggressive filter to the lens and use live-view to continue shooting (see above). This worked brilliantly mostly because of how intuitive the 40D's live view was.

I have tried live-view on several Nikon cameras (D3, D600) since and I'm not sure I would recommend them as much as I would a Canon for this single feature. Nikon's LV experience was less usable and rather frustrating for general use thus far. This was the first thing to put me off converting one of the Nikon cameras (listed above) to infra-red as a new project.

Cameras (especially DSLRs) have gotten smaller, lighter and cheaper since the 40D, but now that electronic viewfinders (EVF) are getting so good I'm not sure I can keep recommending DSLRs over mirrorless cameras for infra-red conversion. If you like the idea of shooting various IR filters on a converted digital camera I would recommend one of these EVF cameras (higher is better):

  • Sony A7
  • Fuji X-T1
  • Fuji X-E1/2
  • Sony NEX 6/7
  • Olympus OM-D
  • Panasonic GX7

Essentially this is my personal preference of interchangeable lens cameras (ILC) that have an EVF. This order is based on sensor size, handling and lens potential. I hope to talk more about these in future posts. I could rant the list and its order for ages, but for now I will get back to the converted 40D.

The 40D made a fantastic infra-red camera for it's day. I really enjoyed shooting with it as an SLR and the live-view was not just a gimmick, it made the camera infinitely better at shooting IR. Here are some pictures while I continue to babble about my experiences shooting with the 40D (post-conversion):

Central Amsterdam - Canon 40D, 24-120mm - 1/50th, f/8, iso100

This shot has had very little processing done to it, especially in the colours. The white balance's colour temperature slider is lower than it would be with a colour image, but it's not at the bottom (2000), where I'd normally put it. Very rarely do I find the default colours from an infra-red image to be pleasing. If I do keep the colours about 90% of the time I will use the false-colour technique to process the image.

Paradise Wood, Dorset - Canon 40D, 10-22mm - 1/200th, f/8, iso100

With it's much larger sensor the 40D's improved sharpness and dynamic range really helped false colour to remain relatively free of banding and noise. Compared to the compact G9 this was a huge step up in visual quality. Although the 40D was a much heavier camera it enable me to capture moments more reliably and made for a more pleasant shooting experience overall.

Montacute - Canon 40D, 10-22mm - 1/80th, f/5.6, iso100

At some point while shooting with the converted DSLR it occurred to me that I mostly took landscape images and this might better suit a wide angle lens. I chose the Canon 10-22mm. Being relatively cheap, light and not too big it was good for a walk-around lens. Sharpness and maximum aperture were poor, but it did an OK job overall. The main thing that made me regret buying this lens was that I used it fully zoomed in almost all the time. 22mm (on the 1.6x cropped 40D) was very close to 35mm lens on full-frame. 35mm prime lenses are often available with nice wide apertures and are still very small and light. This makes great for general use and available-light photography and this realization was ultimately what drove me to buy the Fuji X100 later on (more on that soon).

Lens options in general were simply stunning on the Canon mount. Canon's own lens options are great already, add to that 3rd party options (from Sigma and Tamron etc.) things get very interesting, but the real benefit to me was the ability to use manual focus lenses from almost any manufacturer's own catalogue (Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, Minolta, Zeiss, Leica etc.). The only down side for the 40D was its cropped sensor, which made wider lenses focal lengths not so ideal.

Canon 40D, 50mm - 1/5000th, f/1.2, iso100

The ability to change lenses with infra-red really amp'd up my passion for the project again. First stuck on a tripod and then limited to a mediocre lens on a tiny sensor, but no longer. If I wasn't completely hooked infra-red photography before I was now.

This image of my parent's cat (Marmite) shows how bad his camouflage is when surrounded by infra-red bushes. If only birds could see in IR huh? Well don't worry, he's a rubbish hunter anyway.

Focusing on his eye with the very shallow depth of field was only possible due to manually focusing using live-view. Since infra-red light focuses at a different distance to colour (and every lens is different) live-view really helped capture images more successfully (zooming into 1:1 pixels at the push of a button). This was a great feature for infra-red and so good was the functionality of live-view on the 40D that I often used it when there was no filter attached to the lens. A feature that I chose to act as a backup for when the optical viewfinder was unusable was now becoming a preferred way of using the camera.

Canon 40D, 50mm - 1/6th, f/1.2, iso100

After observing the effects that infra-red photography had on people's skin I was extra curious to try out studio photography. In hind sight I wish I had tried a lot more than I did, but I am glad that I got the chance to try a few. These images were all thanks to Rob Hargreves of Nimbus Photographic, for letting me join in on some of his photo shoots.

The way infra-red smooths out skin tones makes for a flattering black and white image. Colour infra-red photos are much trickier because the require a lot of tweaking to make the colours do anything useful. This is especially true when used with the false colour technique, which tends to make people look like smurfs.

Britany, France - Canon 40D, 50mm - 1/1600th, f/1.2, iso100

I do wish that I'd used the converted 40D more as a travel camera. I found this image of Mont Saint Michel hiding in one of my folders. This is the only image that I took from this camera during the entire holiday. I had defaulted to using a normal colour camera for the holiday because I was worried the IR images would come out horrible for some reason. This was probably the only time that I took the camera out of the bag. Well, at least I have this one I guess.

Central Amsterdam - Canon 40D, 10-22mm - 1/60th, f/4, iso100

I sometimes wonder if my three year move to Amsterdam (with all that water, nature and cool buildings) wasn't somewhat responsible for encouraging me into converted infra-red photography. If it was I'm sure glad that it was part of my life, but you certainly don't need this kind of landscape to appreciate IR.

I'm not sure I really need this section, but yes I really loved this camera in infra-red. It probably didn't quite get the attention of my main DSLR at the time (which later became the Nikon D3, oh yeah I returned to Nikon btw), but part of me loved the 40D even more. The fun of shooting older manual lenses really quite was therapeutic and reminded me of . The IR camera forced me down a route there that I may not have otherwise returned to and I love it even more for that. This combined with ethereal images and the exploration of processing techniques rekindled a love of photography for me on many occasions that colour just wasn't cutting it. 

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