Let’s Talk Tech – 1) The IR Camera

To complement the Ghost in the Machines Show, I’m going to share an insight into the tech in question. It’s my hope that inquisitive people will make some of this stuff themselves. As I insist in the show, I couldn’t discourage people from doing ghost hunting if they are set on doing it. However, there is much to be learned and huge satisfaction gained in creating your own technology, and I’m not talking about dowsing rods, or how to tie string to a crystal, things prone to the ideomotor effect.1 Neither am I advocating you rush off and start playing with Ouija boards or things like that. If you do, that’s your look out; good luck.

Let’s start with the simplest to achieve – the Infrared camera.

Why do ghost hunters use Infrared cameras? Well, they operate in the dark quite a bit, so seeing where you are walking is a practical consideration in itself. Further, ghost hunters believe that ghosts may appear in those parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that humans can see. I’m not sure why ghosts would want to operate in a sphere that they have likely never experienced, and I find it mildly amusing. Maybe it’s just because they love the flashing lights of your telly remote control.

To make your own infrared camera you’ll need a few tools and obviously a camera (more on this in a minute). You’ll also need some safety kit, like goggles and gloves, plus somewhere safe to work. If you’re unsure what to do, ask someone for help. This project contains things that are sharp, so make sure you are competent and careful.

So what did I get and how do you out it all together? Before you all rush off and spend the rent, you do not need all this stuff! There are reasons why I got the exact kit I did, specifically that tripod. I’ll show you the set up I use on stage, where I stream from an old iPhone to an Apple TV box. It’s a workaround to enable the whole audience to see what I can see on a big screen. On a vigil, obviously you don’t need that ability, so you may be able to cut out the ‘cold shoe bar’ and ‘ball head’, utilising the attachment that comes with the tripod. However, on a vigil, I’d also record audio on a second, standard GoPro camera that captures normal visible light, without IR capability, but that allows me to attach an external microphone. closer to me. I just don’t want to keep dismantling my kit for each purpose, so this is what my full set up looks like:

The kit itself? First up is the tripod, a cheap action camera, then an adjustable ball attachment, a cold shoe extension bar, finally simply sticking it all together. Ignore the iPhone and second camera for now. That’s just for me.

So this IR camera thing? You’ll notice that I didn’t suggest going to a specialist paranormal investigator shop to buy one. People charge a premium for doing the thing I’m now going to detail. Firstly, don’t pay a lot for your camera; you may break it if you’re not careful. That said, I’ve converted a few and never had one ruined yet. You may get lucky that someone has described how to do this with the very camera you have, and bear in mind that sometimes, it cannot be done as the glass, IR filter you are going to remove may occasionally fixed somewhere else in the lens-sensor array. Might be worth googling it to see what others have used.

With the one above, I prised off the blue panel from the front. (Note, I added the lens holder later, but rarely use it.) From there, you can remove the black element surrounding the lens itself. It may be glued in a touch, but you can handle that. Now you are unscrewing the lens unit itself. It’s a fine thread, and mine was ‘lefty-loosey’ like normal. It will likely have been glued in too, so maybe try a decent grip to get it moving. Be careful not to damage the thread or the lens. Once freed, the barrel will unscrew nicely.

The next part is the dangerous bit. You are going to remove the coloured glass element of the lens. If you find it is fixed to the sensor of the camera, put it all back together nicely and pretend it never happened. Ideally, you want the IR-cut filter to be at the back of the lens array, like below.

USING EYE PROTECTION AND GLOVES (!) you are going to remove that coloured glass element. It may shatter, produce glass dust, or fly off somewhere else. Make sure you are not doing this near food, pets, children, or any thing that can be damaged by this stuff, including you. I used a small screwdriver to prise it out and then cleaned out the lens carefully so dust didn’t stay in the camera. Don’t blow into it, you’ll get a face full of nasty glass dust.

Once you are happy, you should start to reassemble it. Start by rescrewing the lens back into its holder of the camera body. Once it is reasonably tight, I’d recommend connecting your camera via its HDMI out to a television, or reasonably big monitor. Firstly you will notice that the colour is off. That’s normal, it’s now registering the IR light that was being filtered out. Secondly, the picture is likely not very sharp. Using soft grips, continue to tighten the lens back into place while observing the live feed on your monitor. Only when the picture is back to being pin-sharp should you be happy. Judging this in the tiny screen of the camera isn’t good enough to get it right. Finally, reattach the lens surround, and clip the cover back into place. Now you can go and play with it.

However, your IR camera is still not brilliant in a pitch black room, so you will inevitably also want an IR light. Think of the combination of the two pieces being near each other, a strong light next to a camera. You will start to see dust and even tiny flying beasties, attracted to the light you cannot see without your newly setup camera. Consider this before you start scream about ‘orbs’ or ‘light anomalies’. Always remember the caveat that ‘great claims require great evidence’. Anyway, I got one of these IR lights.

Now you’ll find that your hands are full. You have a camera and a light, and you probably want to hold some other tech too. That is why I went to the trouble of mounting mine on a single mount. As I explained, there are several reasons why I went with the specific equipment I chose. You may be able to simplify your kit. Certainly the light and camera can both be held on the tripod I’ve shown above. It’s your kit, you design how you need it to be.

If this is the first piece of kit you build, bask in the nice satisfaction of your first engineering project successfully completed. You can know see in the dark, almost like a superpower. Of course, you may just set one up outside at night to see who visits your garden, hedgehogs, foxes, badgers, etc. Just one caveat: whether you see ghosts or not is purely coincidental. Enjoy.

  1. If you’re interested in that, I can recommend a few resources – Wikipedia, Wellcome. If you’re more open to the science aspects of anomalistic psychology, you can do no better than reading the latest book by Chris French, The Science of Weird Shit:Why Our Minds Conjure the Paranormal. ↩︎