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IR photos in total darkness

My Secret Camera Vault in an Undisclosed Motel
inspired by No Country for Old Man
monitored closely in total darkness with infrared Canon XS at 20 feet
Zeiss 85 mm Planar @ f 1.4, ISO 800, 1/60 s
March, 2009 © Jim Chen

See in Total Darkness: Sony HLV-IRM Review

Sony IRM in IR
Sony HVL-IRM Portrait (with Nikon D60)
March, 2009 © Jim Chen

IR photos in total darkness
airduct, 100% crop from the top photo,
actual linear size is 4 times larger
curve and sharpness adjusted in photoshop

Well, I did not put my cameras in the airduct when I was in the motel, only because no one was after it. But I do treat the cameras like a million dollars, because when I need them on the trip, I need them better than they are.

The photo was actually taken in total darkness in a motel during a solo flower photo-outing to the California Central Valley. The only light source is the Sony HVL-IRM IR light. The distance is about 20 feet (6 meters). The camera was on a tripod (for positioning), and manual focused using the Live View.

Compared to my homebrew IR light, this one made by sony is much easier to use. Originally, it was designed by Sony for their "mightshot" camcorders. It is about the height of Nikon MH-18a charger for D90 (or Canon CG-580 for 5D), 20% narrower and 20% deeper. The above portrait photo with D60 was taken with an IR camera. The dark glossy plastic cover (not shown), like your TV remote tips, is transparent in IR, so the inside IR LED and wire reveals. Some sunglass is also transparent in IR, but clothes are not (at least none of mine), contrary to some website.

Battery: 2 AA (60 min), or Sony rechargable battery.
Dimensions: 1 13/16" x 4 1/18" x 1 3/4" (46 x 102 x 43 mm)
Weight: 3 oz (90 g)
Street price: $45-$50

Simply mount it on a hotshoe, as if it is your favorite speedlight! (there is no talk between the camera and the IR light.) Flip a switch on the side to "Batt-A" (for AA battery), and the darkness in front the lens is plowed. There is even a volume dial in the front to adjust the intensity. I left it at the maximum, and a pair of Lenmar 2300 mA AA battery last for at least 1 hour.

IR photos in total darkness
Cat Eyes in Total Darkness
photo of the running IR LED
ISO 100, 1/4000 s, f 16

There are total 8 IR LEDs. When they are on, they emit weak dark red (visible). I put some 720 nm filter, as well as 830 nm filter on it, I still see some visible dark red light, after my eye adjust to the darkness. The visible emission is much less intensive than in the IR. I really need a fast shutter to catch the details in the IR LED with an IR-modified camera. And it can cause flare if shoot right into it.

I did not have any instrument to measure the emission of the IR wavelength, but I suspect that it is around 850 nm. The IR images look monochrome, which is very similar to IR photos taken with a 830 nm IR filter.

The output angle of the IR light is fixed. For lens shorter than 100 mm (on a APS-C sensor), it will give vignette.

IR photos in total darkness
closely monitored entrance in total darkenss
by infrared Canon XS from 24 feet
ISO 800, 1/60 s, 85 mm, f 1.4

Overal, the IR light outputs decent IR light. I can get a very good images in total darkness 20 feet (7.3 meter) away with a fast lens at a shutter speed that can hand-hold. For slower zoom lens, the distance will be shorter. In that case, we can jack up the ISO or mount on tripod for longer exposure time.

Since the IR camera relies on the visible to do the autofocus, in total darkness, it will not work without emitting assistance light. For Nikons, normally it will be a bright spot light casting from between the handgrip and the lens, while Canon Rebels tend to pop up the flash and buzz out some lighting. I would prefer the dark red light, similar to the one from speedlight. Since the IR camera may not be specificaly optimized for the specific lens at that focal length, the auto focus might be off, if shoot wide open. So I would suggest to check the LCD and make some focus adjustments. Fortunately, I was using a camera with a Live View. And I could walk on the wire of depth of field.

(updated April 19: Since there are two entry level cameras with LiveView and HD video coming, it will be more affordable to shoot in total darkness, with video! For landscape, I like to freeze the moment with all the pixels/grains; for wildlife, I do not want to miss them dancing! I had some D90IR videos of 10,000 snow-white snowgeese taking off against total black afternoon sky at Bosque del Apache. Man, that is dramatic!)

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