How (not) to convert a digital point and shoot camera to full spectrum

[NOTE: This is an old uncompleted post that described how I made my first conversion of a Canon Powershot A1400 point and shoot camera to full spectrum camera for infrared photography. It is nly intended as a guide for anyone who might want to convert a Powershot A1400. Since then I have made a second conversion of a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ8 camera which was much more successful.]

I recently converted an old Canon Powershot A1400 from 2013 to a full-spectrum camera so that I could take hand held infrared photographs, and someone asked for instructions. So I thought that I would outline my method, how it went a little awry, and what the results were from my little experiment.

But first a little background. I’ve been trying lots of different analogue and digital techniques, with varying degrees of success, and one of the things I have been wanting to try for a while is digital infrared photography. However, I have always been put off by the need to modify a digital camera and although I own a few digital cameras, but I was reluctant to open up any of them.

I came across several users on YouTube who had either converted their own point and shoot camera or had bought a ready converted camera or got their own camera converted by a third party. Buoyed by these videos, I searched online and found a Canon Powershot A1400 for about 18€. This is a simple point and shoot camera from around 2013 with 16MP resolution and a variety of program modes, and it seemed an ideal camera to take apart and try to make it full-spectrum.

So what does it mean to make a camera full-spectrum? Quite simply, camera sensors will ‘see’ wavelengths of light across the spectrum, from ultraviolet to infrared, but manufacturers put a small filter in front of it to limit the amount of light hitting the sensor, including the infrared wavelengths. If you remove this filter the camera will see all wavelengths again, and by placing a different filter in front of the sensor light can be blocked at various wavelengths.

I was understandably a little nervous to break open a camera, even if it was a cheap little machine that I had bought specifically for the purpose. My ‘research’ (mainly from YouTube videos and blog posts) suggested that removing the filter from in front of the sensor was fiddly but quite straightforward, but one common thread was that you needed to be very organised and meticulous when performing the procedure.

The screws in these cameras are very small, and if one is lost then it’s probably gone forever. There are also thin ribbons between the various parts of the camera and these need to be treated with respect, since if they are broken the odds are the camera will be ruined.

The second thing is that with most of these cameras the sensor is buried in the middle of the camera and to reach it you will have to go through several layers electrical equipment to get to them. It is therefore essential, in my opinion that you document each step that you make, the position of screws and so forth, so that once you have removed the filter you can retrace your steps in the reassembly of the camera.

Lastly, before you start make sure that you have everything required to perform the procedure in one place. After a few failed attempts I was fortunate enough to find online a set of tools for working on mobile phones. Containing a range of screwdrivers and tweezers, this contained all of the equipment needed for opening and working on the camera. Alongside this I had a roll of tape and a large piece of paper to which I taped every screw as it was removed and marked on the paper its position in the camera.

I had planned to video and photograph each step, but thanks to my phone running out of battery this was not possible. However, I would encourage everyone to do this as it would have made reassembly much simpler. Also, before making a start on disassembling the camera remove the batteries and the memory card.

The first thing was to take out the screws around the outside. There were several on the bottom and on each side. Each was removed, taped to the paper and labelled. Be careful because there are also a couple of screws underneath the USB connector and inside the battery compartment.

The case can then be gently prised apart. In my kit was a small spatula that was ideal, but hopefully a thin-bladed knife would do the same. Underneath the rear cover is the LCD screen and a black pad which is the controller for the menu buttons. Both are connected to the camera’s circuit board with thin ribbons and these need to be handled very gently.

It’s a good idea to photograph the whole back so you can see where the screws are. I missed this step out. On the A1400, to the right of the screen underneath the black pad, is a metal plate the needs to be removed before the LCD can be moved. When this is unscrewed (photograph, photograph, photograph) this will come off and the LCD screen can be moved aside once two screws, top and bottom, are removed.

Upon lifting the screen I expected to find the sensor nestling snugly behind the lens, but I was wrong. There was a large metal plate in the way. I nearly gave up then, but I struggled on and removed the four screws from around the plate and lifted it off. There was the sensor!

I removed two of the screws quite easily, but the third proved impossible to budge. Looking closely it appeared there were little dabs of something around the screws holding the sensor in place. Someone on Twitter astutely observed later that this was probably glue, and now I think that was correct, but at the time I was just slightly frustrated that I was being thwarted at the last hurdle. I picked out what I could of the stuff, but could still not move the third screw.

I WOULD NOT RECOMMEND DOING WHAT I DID NEXT: Lifting the sensor plate slightly I could see the off-pink IR filter under the sensor. It was held in place with a little rubber seal, and gingerly holding the sensor up I pulled out the seal, turned over the camera and the filter dropped out.

There was no way I could replace the seal, so I pushed the sensor back into place and screwed it down. I did not screw it too hard, because I feared that not having the seal in place might affect the focussing of the image later. After that it was simply a matter of reassembling the camera. Here is where marking where every screw came from and taping everything down was invaluable. Normally I would want to refer to the photos taken during disassembly, but as the battery in the phone had died it was left to my notes and memory. Thankfully everything went smoothly.

With some trepidation I reinserted the batteries and memory card and powered up the camera. As the Canon logo appeared on the little screen I breathed a sigh of relief. Success!

The first images, without the 720nm filter, were interesting, with a lovely hue, but frustratingly out of focus.

Using the 720nm IR filter, the images were the ‘normal’ pink colour for infrared and the focus was improved. I wondered if the removal of the filter, especially my botched replacement of the sensor without the little rubber seal, had affected the focus slightly.

Setting the camera to monochrome improved the appearance of the photographs to the ‘normal’ infrared appearance but still the focussing was an issue.

Later, with a little practice I learned that setting the focal range for ‘normal’ for reasonably close subjects or ‘infinity’ for distant subjects and would improve the image quality, but it still didn’t have the sharpness I had hoped for and I knew that I would have to try again with another cheap point and shoot from back in the day.

Published by Keith Devereux

'Let me close my eyes and sense the beauty around me. And take that breath under the dark sky full of stars.' Mira Furlan

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