Exploring the World of Infrared Flash Photography

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We photographers are always searching for that new camera, lens, accessory, project, or technique that will take our photography someplace special. Most of us have ideas incubating in the backs of our minds just waiting for the right time to spring forth. One of mine was a fascination with shooting candid black-and-white street photography at night with infrared flash that was inspired by the iconic photos Weegee produced with infrared film in the 1940s.

In my quest, I researched, amassed, and tested vintage GE 5R flashbulbs that feature a dark purple coating designed for use with infrared film. Unfortunately, I soon learned that the low output of the flashbulbs, in combination with the low sensitivity of available infrared film, would not yield the results I was after. Eventually, I found what seemed to be the answer to my problems—a Sunpak 622 Super Pro Flash Body, and a modular IR Head. While these items were discontinued more than a dozen years ago, they can still be sourced in select camera stores and on eBay.

Photographs © Dan Wagner

With a powerful guide number of around 200' at ISO 100, I had high hopes that the Sunpak 622 would do the trick. To optimize my chances, and to make testing easier, I decided to have LifePixel convert my Sony a7 to deep black-and-white infrared. After conversion, the camera sensor was receptive to 830nm light, which was a perfect match to the 840nm produced by the Sunpak IR Head. All that’s required is for the sensor to be sensitive to light below 840nm. During initial testing, I was amazed at how sensitive the camera was to infrared flash. At ISO 400, f/16, focus set to 10', and with the flash set to its lowest power, I could shoot in complete darkness.

One of the drawbacks of the deep black-and-white conversion was slower autofocus. So, if I had it to do over again, I probably would have gone with the Standard IR conversion, because the 720nm infrared filter placed over the sensor isn’t as dark and, therefore, makes it easier for the camera to focus in low light. I also could have converted a DSLR instead of using a mirrorless camera. With a DSLR, focusing would be easier in terms of the amount of light required, but it would also be limiting due to the need to calibrate the camera/lens combination for infrared. Mirrorless cameras don’t have this issue because focusing occurs at the image sensor.

By the way, before using any non-OEM flash unit, make sure the trigger voltage is safe for the camera with which you’re shooting. To avoid frying the electronics in my camera, I attached the sync cord from my Sunpak to a Wein Safe-Sync Hot Shoe to Hot Shoe with PC mounted on my camera.

Over a period of several months, I experimented with my new infrared rig. I found that the flash was powerful enough to shoot infrared flash-fill, and even overpower the sun in bright daylight if I stayed within 15 feet of my subject. Not content to stop there, I combined the infrared flash with a Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA lens and an SLR Magic Anamorphot-50 2.0x Anamorphic Adapter. I shot in raw and did my processing and adjustments with Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop. When shooting with a 2.0x anamorphic, the image is compressed horizontally by a factor of 2, and requires multiplying the length by 2 during resizing.

The 55mm lens and 2.0x anamorphic lens produced corner vignetting with my full-frame Sony a7. If I had wanted to eliminate the vignettes, I could have shot with a longer lens, cropped the image, used a small sensor, or shot in a cropped mode. The thing was, I really liked the images with the vignetting—both compressed and uncompressed. To further explore the photographic possibilities, I shot around New York City and put the results of my efforts into a Blurb book titled, NYC SQUEEZED.

I never know where my photographic adventures will lead me. I do know there is plenty of unexplored territory in the world of infrared flash photography. One application that I hope to see others explore is shooting music concerts where flash photography is prohibited because it distracts the performers. With infrared flash, this would no longer be an issue. Other subject matter that could put this technique to great use would be urban landscapes, fashion, and even still life. Please feel free to share your thoughts, questions, and experiences with infrared in the Comment box, below. More examples of my photographic wanderings may be viewed on my website.

39 Comments

Thanks Mike. Yeah, it took me a few years of thinking about it and researching it before finally giving it a try. Glad I did!

Great work and great article. I've always thought about the possibilities of infrared flash. It seems like something that should be much more popular, but then again I've never tried it myself so I guess most of us are stuck in "It would be cool to do" mode. Congrats on actually doing it!

These photos are fantastic, hit me in the heart and the brain. I envision them 4 ft wide on a gallery wall. Well done Dan

Hi Bruce,

Thank you. Glad you liked the photos.The shots taken with the anamorphic lens and "streched" by doubling the width in Photoshop have file sizes large enough for a 4' print. Funny you should mentions "a gallery wall," because the Duncan Miller Gallery in Santa Monica California selected the photo of the jumping polar bear at Coney Island for one of their Your Daily Photograph ( http://www.yourdailyphotograph.com/ ) promos to photographers, collectors, and museums. It's worth checking out. Anyway, experimenting with different techniques can be fun and rewarding. Larry Colen - one of the photographers who replied to this article has done some cool shots by mixing infrared flash, black and white, color, and zooming -- all in one exposure. 

Cheers,

Dan

Oh, forgot to mention--you can see more photos from the infrared flash series here: http://www.blurb.com/b/7268696-nyc-squeezed

Hi Dan,

Great article! I've been looking for some hands-on info for IR night photography and your timing is perfect. I've got a Quantum Trio with Turbo3 battery and the Quantum QF80 reflector that allows me to thread a filter in front of the bulb. As I'm not familiar with the Sunpak to which you refer, I need to ask: if I put a 720nm IR filter on my Trio and then a 720nm IR filter on my camera, will this accomplish the same thing? I'm assuming yes, but would appreciate your expert opinion.

Thanks
Will

Hi Will - Thanks for the feedback! I too own Quantum flashes, and love them.The Turbo3 battery is fantastic. I tried finding a QF80 reflector, but was unsuccessful. I wonder how it would compare with my Sunpack IR set-up. Good luck with your IR night photo explorations.

Hi Dan,

Thanks for the quick reply. So I'm assuming that you're confirming my setup will work? I'll talk to my Quantum contact and see what's going on with the QF80 and let you know.

Best,
Will

Hi Will,

It makes sense, but I can't confirm it would work because I never had a QF80 or the appropriate 72mm filters that go with it for experimentation. I wonder if there would be a heat issue - the powerful Quantum light, and the bulb very close to an opaque filter. That might not be good for the bulb or electronics. Anyway, please let me know - I'm curious.

Best, Dan

Back in 1972 I took a course with Prof Harold "Doc" Edgerton at MIT. One project was to come up with an IR strobe for very low light photojournalism.  We used Kodak High Speed Infrared Film 4143, taped a Wratten #87 filter over the flash head of a Honeywell Strobonar 770 (cobra) unit and attached it to a Leica M3.  I think the Wratten #87 peaks somewhere around 780nm.  Used a GN of 70 with the filter. The M3's rangefinder was easy to focus in very dim light and the fact that it did not use felt as a light seal. Felt strips are transparent to IR.  The lens had a second IR index mark to correct for the Infrared Focus Shift.  We tested it in a student coffeehouse.  The only light in the room was a tinted spot on the performer, everything else was really dark.  It worked great.  You could photograph the singer without disturbing anyone and even turn around and directly photograph the audience.  No one noticed.  But, the film was very grainy and hot spots in the foreground were always a problem.  Your shots a great. Thanks for bringing this kind of IR photography into the 21st century.

1972! That's around the time I shot my first rolls of Kodak infrared at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens -- got some cool shots (in color) that I still have. You're so fortunate to have taken a class with Prof Edgerton at MIT. Wow! I'm jealous. Now if I had the money, I'd get a Leica Monochrom converted to infrared - what a set-up that would be! Good points about a rangefinder's low light focusing advantages - and especially the IR index mark - that's one of the things I love about vintage lenses. If you send the lens you most often shoot with to LifePixel, they can adjust DSLR camera body focus for infrared. 

Thanks for mentioning the issue with foam seals in vintage cameras being transparent to infrared light. I had forgotten about that -- and it makes sense for the need to load infrared film in darkness -- obviously :) the foam seal in a 35mm film cassette would let infrared light fog/expose the film inside. Doh!

Would be cool to see some of the shots you took in that 1972 coffeehouse!

As a past IQ shooter., I liked your thoughts and especially liked the photos.  Thanks for sharing.

Thanks, Howard. I wish it were possible to see some of your work, too.

Dan, Thanks for this food-for-thought article. I’ve got a Nikon D300 that Lifepixel converted to the Standard IR 720nm filter. I use Live View to focus and while tripod mounted is optimal, I’ve gotten some pretty decent shots handheld. I like the idea of an “invisible” flash setup though. Hmmm.

One thing I notice in the images you posted was a hot spot in the center area on quite a few of your photos. When I first started shooting IR I mounted a Carl Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Distagon lens and got results similar to what I see in your shots only more pronounced. Dan Wampler at LifePixel told me some lens have that issue. I switched to an old manual focus Nikkor 20mm. Problem solved. Also no hot spots with a standard 50mm Nikkor lens either. Not sure if the hot spot I see on your images is a similar issue or the result of the flash setup. Wondering what a different lens might produce. 

Hey Peter, 

Thanks for mentioning the hot spot issue. Very true. Some lenses, especially zooms seem to produce hot spots in the center. I tried a D300, too -- and agree about the 50mm and 20mm working better for infrared. The 35mm 1.8G works well, too. Funny thing, but for my black and white infrared street shots, I didn't mind some hot spots (in the center) or any of the funkiness of noise at higher ISO's -- made it grittier. :) Gritty-City. And I'm sure the addition of an anamorphic lens adapter contributed to this as well.

I appreciate your comments, as they're food for tought as well. Thanks!

I simply use my sony alpha a850 to take raw color images and convert to b&w infrared in phohotoshop.

works for me

thanks for the comparison article

Hi Richard,

As they say, whatever works :)

I like the Nik Collection of filters -- Plug-Ins available for free after Google bought them. They have infrared simulations, and great vintage film effect simulations, too. Lots of fun to play with. You can even take a infrared film shot, scan it and take it to new places with this software - which is another thing I love -- combining analog with digital -- kind of like buying a classic car and installing disk brakes and other modern amenities.

Anyway, the method you use might not work as well as having an infrared converted camera with infrared flash in nighttime situations -- the flash look is unique.

I just came across this and as a shooter of a converted DSLR I was totally intriqued.  I've had some very interesting results using NIK's Infrared Thermal Camera filter on shots from a converted camera. I think I'm going to try Larry's IR pass filter for flashes before I go searching for a dedicaed Sunpak.  Thanks for the ideas and some great photography.

Hi Ralph,

Thaks for the comments and I'm glad this article has been food for thought. I'm still thinking about what I want to shoot next with infrared and how. I have the NIK filter collection, but haven't played with the Infrared Thermal Camera filter yet -- sounds interesting. 

Best,

Dan

Thanks for the interesting article.  I have been a fan of IR photography for years and have two converted DSLRs.  Both were done by Lifepixel and I can't say enough good things about them. 

Thanks, jeffsters - yeah Lifepixel was great to work with. They do very clean conversions - my camera came back in immaculate condition. Which infrared filters did you select for your conversions? I wish I had a camera with each infrared filter flavor for comparison. I'm especially interested in playing with a UV conversion someday.

You can rig an infrared Wratten gel filter over a normal flash and save the expense of a new unit that you won't be using all that often. 

Hey Ken,

A friend of mine did something similar and was happy with the result. He also has a Sunpak infrared set-up and shoots with that when he needs more power. And of course, with a more powerful unit you could experiment with infrared bounce flash techniques.

Respectfully: I liked the set up for the article and was looking forward to some unique images, but the shots look like regular on-camera flash. Nothing that can't be done with a pop-up flash and some manipulation in RAW converter. Where's the magic?

Covering an electronic flash with a 25A Red filter and then using an 87c on a camera with the infrared filter removed from the sensor produces some really dramatic results. Especially when the flash is off camera.

I haven't done any infrared photography but I think that some of the magic is in being able to photograph in what our eyes preceive as complete darkness. There is a bright flash that the camera can see but no person can see so you can get more surreptitious results.

Hi Jeffrey, 

As Votagrapher replied, to you some of the magic is in being able to get more than one candid shot. And of course it opens up many opportunies for music and scenic photography (at night). As for unique images, that's subjective. These shots were done with a handle-mounted infrared flash. I didn't intend for this article to be the definitive study of all that's possible, just what the title states -- an exploration. I'd love to see some of the shots you created with the off camera flash and 25A + 87c filters.

Cheers.

I too have explored IR flash photography. I have an old Lumix fz20 that was converted to IR, and briefly had a Pentax K-5 with the IR filter removed. 

The most cost effective IR pass filter for flashes I found was from eplastics:
http://www.eplastics.com/Plexiglass_Acrylic_Sheet_Infrared_Transmitting

I found that when using an EVF (my lumix) it worked a lot better after I cobbled together a panel of IREDs (Infra Red Emitting Diodes) at which point the camera worked even better as an IR video camera than it did as a still.  When photographing with a full band conversion, the IR only comes in on the red and blue channels, so color balancing on something illuminated by IR will cause everything illuminated by the flash to be in black and white, while visible spectrum will come through in color. 

Unfortunately the repair that I had initially sent my DSLR in for did not last, and I haven't yet converted another camera.

Here is a small example of my IR work, some of it using the flash:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/ellarsee/sets/72157659850152524/

Hi Larry,

Checked out your IR work -- fantastic. You're really combined some great techniques.And great idea regarding the IR emitting diodes.

Thanks for the super reply!

Best regards,

Dan

So I am curious about using an IR FLash  with non-converted cameras with weak IR filters.    Theoretically it would still work right?  Especially if the image is converted to B&W 

Hi Mick O, 

I think it should work. However, the infrared filters, such as one we have for 720 nm, are very dark. On a DSLR it would be very hard to view what you're shooting, and AF focusing might not be possible. I think most people use the filter for shooting brightly lit landscapes with a tripod. The procedure would be to compose, focus, and then attach the filter and shoot. The beauty of the IR flash with an IR converted camera is to spontaneously shoot at night without a tripod. On a mirrorless camera with an EVF or rangefinder it would be less of a problem. Hopefully someone with experience using an IR flash and IR filter with a standard camera will comment. Thanks.

Thanks Dan, 

Using this on a standard camera *without* a front-of-the-lens IR filter is what I meant -- for night or concert photography is what I would be interested in.    "The beauty of the IR flash with an IR converted camera is to spontaneously shoot at night without a tripod."  - I think when shooting at night, having an IR converted camera may not be necessary since visible light will be minimal anyway.  (As long as the standard camera has a weak IR filter)  The only way to know is for me to get one...   I appreciate the info you have delivered.  Thank you very much! 

Hey Mick O,

The infrared flash produces 840 nm light. A camera that has not been converted to IR, with an IR filter placed over the sensor will not be able to to capture light from an infrared flash.

It would be great if it could. Or perhaps I'm misunderstanding the question.

However, we have one in stock: One in Stock!

So give it a try and report back :)

Best regards

For photographers who just want to experiment with night photography using an infrared converted camera, a regular flash produces enough infrared to take properly exposed photos. 

Good point, but then that kind of defeats the purpose of shooting without a visible flash. Also, a visible flash wouldn't work well for wildlife photography of deer and such.

I want to get that flash, but the heads are difficult to find. It's rare that they go on sale. I have the 522 that I use on my Canon A-1; I won't use it on my 5D III.

Well, you could alway get the flash after locating the head.One nice feature about the flash is that it takes inexpensive C size batteries. Another useful feature is the large camera mounting bracket included with the flash. The bracket comes off for easy travel.

Ralph, you're in luck we have one in stock: Sunpak with IR Head

Also, you may want to check out all the infrared conversion filters and how they affect your photography: LifePixel Infrared Filter Choices! It's really cool to see what can be accomplished.

I have a lifepixel converted Canon 80D and IR sensitivity is lower that I was expecting. My Canon 10D is more versital but only 6.3 megapixels. What I would like to know is of this Sunpak 622 setup would work with these DSLR models?

Hi Mathew,

I'm sure it would work great. The flash provides a lot of IR light. 

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