UV photography  

Quite a few sites on UV photography seem to link to this page. They are welcome to do so, but for several years I did not update the contents of this page. Other pages of my site contain much more relevant information. Therefore, I decided to partly update the contents of this page, and to provide links to other pages on this site. However, if you want to make sure that you did not miss any subsequent additions on UV photography, always check the main index of the photography section.

What is UV

In addition to visible light (i.e., wavelengths ranging from 400 to 750 nm) and infrared, sunlight at ground level contains UV-A (or near ultraviolet, NUV, 400-320 nm), UV-B (320-280 nm) and small amounts of UV-C (280-200 nm) light. Above the atmosphere, UV-D, or vacuum UV, is an important part of the solar spectrum. Virtually no UV-D passes through the atmosphere. At even shorter wavelengths, the UV range grades into the soft-X-ray range.

UV-B is absorbed by most materials normally used to manufacture lenses, and digital camera sensors also possess low sensitivities in these ranges. UV-C is rapidly absorbed by atmospheric oxygen, and at ground level is largely irrelevant to photography. UV-D is very rapidly absorbed by atmospheric gases, including nitrogen.

How I arrived to UV photography

My early trials with near-UV photography, almost a decade ago, were not much successful, because of very large technical problems that stack up to make the odds almost impossible. Unlike IR photography, which basically requires only a cheap, easy-to-find filter and using a long exposure time, getting the proper equipment for UV photography is both expensive and time-consuming. Essentially, cameras, digital sensors, lenses and ordinary filters are all designed to cut out UV light, and you have to swim upstream in order to obtain odd bits and pieces that, by accident or design, work in the opposite way of what is normally desired. Things are now much easier than a few years ago, thanks to current web sites like http://www.ultravioletphotography.com that freely distribute and discuss technical information. Nonetheless, UV photography requires a considerable determination, time and money to obtain the necessary equipment, and additional determination and time to learn how to properly use this equipment. At the risk of repeating myself:

  • UV photography is not an occasional pursuit that you can start practicing in an afternoon. Nor can you do so in a week. You might be ready to start after a few weeks or (more likely) months of preparations, if you have enough financial resources, luck, and the right sources of information. Initial mistakes in purchasing the equipment are frequent, and can be very costly.
  • UV photography cannot be done with simple, cheap and easily procured equipment. The financial cost of good equipment for UV photography is significantly higher than for general-purpose photographic equipment.
  • The equipment for UV photography is largely not dual-purpose equipment. It can be used mostly, or only, for a single purpose: UV photography (or sometimes, for IR photography and multispectral photography). Most items for UV photography are of no practical use, or too expensive, for more common types of photography.

The reward is that we can get a glimpse on a world otherwise invisible to us. In addition to its visual appeal, UV photography has numerous uses in science, technology and forensics. However, not too many scientists have used UV photography to document macroscopic objects (aside for flowers and birds plumage, which have been the subject of dozens of papers). As an example, when I decided to look at the shells of land snails in UV (and IR) and did not quite understand what I was looking at, I found out that apparently no other scientist had thought of doing the same thing, and I was able to put to good use what I learned about UV photography in the following paper:

Savazzi, E. & Sasaki, T. 2013: Observations on land snail shells in near-ultraviolet, visible and near-infrared radiation. Journal of Molluscan Studies 79: 95-111. doi: 10.1093/mollus/eys039

A realistic time- and action plan goes as follows:

  • Start slowly and read a lot in the initial phase, before you buy anything. Ask questions on bulletin boards. Do make your best to understand the technical aspects. In a relatively short time (weeks or months) you will be able to distinguish knowledgeable sources from unreliable ones and/or sources with vested interests.
  • Do not become dependent on a single source of information, and especially on a source that has a commercial interest in "locking you in" with specific equipment they sell. Good criteria to apply in this evaluation are:

    • How open is a specific information source in providing actual information (including information on competitor's products or other sellers)?
    • Are they trying to sell you a "black box" filter/lens/camera with no information on which company actually made it? For example, use of "fantasy names" for UV-pass filters or UV lenses is an early giveaway. Google the names of anything they propose to sell you. If you find nothing, ask them why. If they are not forthcoming with real, verifiable information, let them go and turn somewhere else. Reputable companies like Tochigi Nikon, CoastalOpt, Thorlabs, Edmund Optics, Asahi Spectra etc. can be trusted even when they are the exclusive maker or distributor of a specific product, and typically provide extremely detailed technical information on their products.
    • Does this source recommend equipment that is well documented but only available from them? This could be a warning flag, although not necessarily a sign to avoid them. Many of the filters most useful in UV photography are only made by a single company. However, these filters are often available from multiple distributors, in addition to the maker itself, and other companies may be making slightly different but largely equivalent filters.
    • Does the information from a commercial source agree with information available from open sources like bulletin boards and web sites that do not sell equipment? If the latter sources are verifiably independent from the commercial one, this is an encouraging sign. If they are only parroting the information given out by the commercial source, be cautious (in this case, 1+1=1, i.e., in reality you only have one information source, no matter how often it has been repeated).
  • Continue to seek multiple sources of information. The more you learn, the more you will become capable of separating wheat from chaff. A specific piece of equipment for UV photography is very rarely available just from one person. Multiple sources usually exist.
  • Build up your initial kit gradually in six months to one year, and spread your purchases over this time. "Deals of a lifetime" sometimes do occur, but often they turn out to be a good deal only for the seller. Good deals are sometimes available on eBay, but a deal that is too good to be true is an obvious giveaway. A UV Nikkor 105 mm at 2,000 US $ stinks like July's prawn leftovers in August, especially if coming from a seller who registered on eBay only last week, has a user feedback of two, or until now has been selling old postcards and used kitchenware (hijacked eBay accounts are commonly used by fraudsters).
  • Continue to keep yourself updated. A lot has changed in UV photography during the last five years, and a lot more can change in the next few years. Much of the generally accepted wisdom of a few years ago is still known to be true, but some of it is not.
  • Do not skimp on the camera. Start with a good UV camera because you will likely use it for many years. If the camera is not suitable for UV photography, you will never know what else, if anything, you are doing wrong.
  • Do start with relatively cheap UV lenses, but only one or two of them. There are enough pretty good ones to choose from. Do not start with very expensive ones, unless you already have them available for other reasons. Do not buy old lenses at random, hoping to chance on one that is good for UV photography but has remained undiscovered until now. The large majority of lenses, old and new alike, are no good for UV photography, and you may need to buy a hundred before you find a usable one.
  • Do not skimp on the filter. Start with just a single proven one, the Baader U. It is not cheap, but it will work (or rather: If you cannot get good results, the fault is somewhere else). Only after some time and practice (and enough investigation) try more exotic ones. Buy a filter that you can use on your UV lens(es) and camera. In many cases, with the right adapters, you can use a 25mm/28mm/1.25" mm filter. Especially on small sensors, you can use a 52mm/48mm/2" filter, but in most cases this large diameter is not really necessary, and more expensive. You can test a given filter size for vignetting in the visible range (e.g. with a circular hole cut in a black cardboard sheet) on a given camera and lens, before ordering a UV filter.
  • Begin your trials of UV photography on subjects in full sunlight and use a tripod. Once you have debugged the initial problems, get a not-too-expensive, suitable electronic flash with uncoated tube (see www.ultravioletphotography.com, or some of the links below), or if you already have a studio flash and are interested in indoors subjects, consider investing in an uncoated tube and dome. You will eventually need an artificial UV source, but do start with direct sunlight.

Cameras and camera sensors

Camera sensors are moderately sensitive to UV-A, albeit to a lesser degree than to the visible range (400-750 nm). At shorter wavelengths than UV-A, the sensitivity of ordinary camera sensors quickly decreases with decreasing wavelength. This is due to a combination of factors, of which the most important is probably absorption by the Bayer color filters and microlenses built on top of the sensor chip. Depending on its thickness and composition, the glass window covering the chip and sealing it within its ceramic package can be an obstacle to transmission or UV-B and UV-C, but usually it is fairly well to very transparent to UV-A. Anti-reflection coatings of this window are typically designed to be most effective in the visible range, and some of them may reflect UV to varying degrees.

Videocamera sensors without microlenses and Bayer filters can be used in the UV-A and UV-B ranges. The window protecting the sensor is sometimes devoid of coatings, or treated with coatings optimized for UV transmission. The same type of videocamera sensor is sometimes completely devoid of a protective window, and completely exposed to whatever radiation passes through the lens. In this case, the sensor is extremely vulnerable to damage (e.g., atmospheric humidity may corrode the vacuum-deposited aluminium electrical pathways, thus requiring the use of gold for this purpose, and any dust particles are impossible to remove without damaging the sensor), and the lens should never be removed from the camera. This equipment is expensive and has specific technical uses, but it is simply the wrong type of equipment to start out in UV photography.

Fujifilm used to make DSLR models for UV (officially, only down to 380 nm) and multispectral photography. They are no longer available, and it is much more practical to modify a general-purpose DSLR or mirrorless camera that to try and get one of these special cameras.

UV and multispectral conversion

Virtually all sensors in general-purpose digital cameras are covered with a separate UV- and IR-blocking filter. In the large majority of cases, and especially in modern cameras, this filter is very effective for its intended purpose, and must be removed to allow imaging in the UV (and IR) range. Often, this filter also carries two thin layers of birefringent material, which provide anti-aliasing. Increasingly often, this anti-aliasing filter is absent, and aliasing and the related color moiré artifacts are corrected by the camera software.

In DSLRs, this filter is usually replaced with a window of optical glass transparent to the wavelengths of interest. This is necessary because simply removing the filter changes the optical distance between lens mount and sensor, while the optical distance between lens mount and the ground glass of the optical viewfinder is unchanged. This results in two separate problems:

  • The camera can no longer focus at infinity with ordinary lenses.
  • An image correctly focused in the viewfinder is out of focus on the sensor, and vice versa. It is still possible to use a DSLR modified in this way, if one uses only live view to focus.

In so-called multispectral conversions, a window transparent to most or all wavelengths that can be recorded by the sensor is used to replace the built-in filter. In UV conversions, a UV-pass filter is used instead. A variety of IR-pass filters are also used to allow IR photography. This modification is essentially permanent. Therefore, the most versatile conversion is the multispectral type, which requires a filter to be mounted in front (or at the rear) of the camera lens to isolate a subset of the light spectrum.

Most DSLRs allow the distance between ground glass and lens mount to be adjusted, and in some camera models the adjustment range may be large enough to allow viewfinder focus to be corrected after removal of the UV and IR filter, without needing a replacement window. The thickness of the original UV- and IR-cut filter is very variable among camera makes and models, and this also plays a role in the availability of this solution. There is no simple way, instead, to correct the problem of lenses no longer focusing at infinity. For this reason, DSLR conversions usually replace the built-in filter with a transparent window or filter. On the other hand, when using a mirrorless camera and lenses mounted on an adapter, it is possible to use a slightly shorter adapter to restore infinity focus.

The infinity focusing position of many lenses can be recalibrated, and in some cases the adjustment range is large enough to allow focusing at infinity on cameras where the built-in filter has been removed but not replaced. This is the case, for instance, of the Novoflex Noflexar 35 mm.

Among Nikon DSLRs, the old D70 and D70s are frequently reported to be particularly suitable for UV photography. Many other models are also suitable, albeit not all. Several Micro 4/3 cameras also work well. I discuss here a Panasonic G3 that I modified for multispectral (including UV) photography with very good results. In the past, it was often stated that Canon DSLRs were unsuitable. It was also stated in the past that CCD sensors were more suitable that CMOS sensors, but this is not supported by the current knowledge. Very capable UV cameras like the Panasonic G3 and GH series have CMOS sensors. It is stated on some sites that some of these cameras are suitable for UV photography even without modification. I prefer to qualify this statement by saying that some of these unmodified cameras allow imaging in the (very) near UV range at the price of extremely long exposure times, even in the presence of abundant UV radiation, but certainly cannot be called optimal for this application.

Links to cameras for UV photography on this site:

Panasonic G3 (modified for IR+VIS+UV)
Nikon D70s (modified for IR+VIS+UV) (also used for test and other test), and its performance

Lenses

Special lenses can be designed for UV-A and UV-B photography. This includes, for instance, the Nikon UV Nikkor 105 mm (and the apparently identical Tochigi Nikon UV Nikkor 105 mm), CoastalOpt Apo Macro 60 mm and UV Rodagon 60 mm. None of these lenses are cheap, and most of them are no longer manufactured. Several of these lenses also have relatively long focal lengths that limit their usefulness for landscape photography.

At least some of the general-purpose photographic lenses also transmit rather low amounts of these wavelengths (see links below).Therefore, it is possible to use modified general-purpose digital cameras and general-purpose lenses to take pictures in the near UV range, at least for static subjects that allow relatively long exposures.

Nikon EL-Nikkor enlarger lenses are often used for UV photography (see links below). Once regarded as the best general-purpose lenses for UV photography, they transmit less deeply into the UV than the lenses mentioned above. Nonetheless, they provide good alternatives for wavelengths down to approximately 365 -380 nm. The EL-Nikkor 63 mm f/3.5 was once regarded as singularly good for this purpose, but several other models (especially the older series in metal barrels) are just as suitable.

A problem with many general-purpose lenses used in UV photography is a so-called focus shift between the visible and UV ranges (strictly speaking, this is not focus shift, which is a different phenomenon, but a type of chromatic aberration). This problem is much less serious when focusing with live view in UV-only imaging, but must still be taken into account in multispectral photography, when superposing images recorded at widely different wavelengths.

Links to lenses for UV photography on this site:

CoastalOpt 60 mm f/4 Apo (also here)
EL-Nikkor lenses for UV photography
35 mm lenses for UV photography
UV Rodagon 60mm f/5.6 (visible+UV lens) (also: test 1, test 2, mounted for Micro 4/3 and test 3)
Novoflex Noflexar 35 mm f/3.5 (also: UV test and detailed discussion )
Petri/Kuribayashi/Kyoei/Acall 35 mm f/3.5
Soligor 35 mm f/3.5
Photax/Paragon/Prinzgalaxy/Unistar/Access 35 mm f/3.5
Prinz Galaxy 35 mm f/3.5
Galaxy 35 mm f/3.5
Hanimex 35 mm f/3.5
Optomax 35 mm f/3.5

Filters

UV photography normally requires a filter that blocks longer wavelengths than UV, so that they do not contribute to pictures. When photographers talk about UV filters, usually they mean filters that are opaque to UV and transmit longer wavelengths. These filters are more properly called UV-cut filters. This is the opposite of what we need for UV photography. What we want is UV-pass filters. A special problem with digital cameras is that their sensors are very sensitive to near infrared (NIR), and any NIR that leaks through a UV-pass filter will usually spoil the recorded image.

Links to filters for UV photography on this site:

UV-pass filters for UV photography
Schuler UV filter
Baader U filter
Hoya U-360 filter

My current kit for UV photography

In the end, my current, satisfactorily working solution for UV photography involves a few unusual pieces of equipment (not counting UV light sources, and various adapters, bits and pieces needed to make this equipment work together):

The UV Rodagon and Schuler filter were used, for example, in the above pictures, which show the UV nectar tracks (darker areas of the petals) that attract insects to flowers. These features are completely absent in the visible and infrared ranges. The picture at the left was recorded with a long exposure and UV fluorescent tube (see below). The second picture was shot in sunlight.

Things that I attempted but did not work

I attempted several of the commonly discussed "fixes" for near-ultraviolet photography, (i.e., attempts at using and/or modifying lenses not designed for this purpose), with scarce success. Not being able to afford a UV Nikkor 105mm, which would have removed most problems, I tried, for instance:

  • Removing the coating on the front lens element in a Nikkor E 35mm f/2.5 and a Nikkor E 100mm f/2.8. These lenses are described as the subject of a similar treatment on another web site. I did this by rubbing the lens surface with a damp cotton cloth dusted with cerium oxide polishing powder. This substance is very hard, and used for polishing gemstones. Also the lens coating is very hard, but rubbing by hand for a couple of hours did remove most of the coating. An unexpected problem was that the lens material is much softer than the coating, so the lens surface turned slightly bumpy on a microscopical scale. The polished lenses did transmit fair amounts of UV (see example here), but also turned into interesting examples of soft focus lenses (the effect is slight, but interesting for portraits, and subtly different from using a soft filter). However, a soft focus lens is not what I wanted. Removing the coating by chemical treatments has been attempted by other photographers, albeit with no reports of success.
  • Using some enlarger lenses that are color-corrected into the near-UV. The EL-Nikkor 63mm f/3.5 is often recommended for this purpose. Perhaps because of this fame, it seems to be hoarded by collectors, and is much scarcer and more expensive than other EL-Nikkor models and focal lengths. However, my tests show that eight other EL-Nikkor models are roughly as good for near-UV photography. (see also my comparison of 63 mm EL-Nikkor models in near-UV and photomacrography). Probably, all EL-Nikkors are approximately as good for this purpose (see also independent information here, or the whole blog here).
  • Using normal lenses with a UV-pass filter and enormous exposure times. Eventually, some UV becomes detectable, but usually buried in noise.

Sources of UV radiation

Warning. UV damages the eyes and skin (especially UV-B and UV-C, but UV-A is by no means safe), so you should not stare into UV light sources and avoid skin exposure. Even if the sources are not powerful, exposure to UV is compounded by the fact that the eye's iris does not contract in the presence of UV, thus increasing the effective irradiation of the eye. It is also a good idea to switch off the UV sources when not in use and to wear protecting goggles that cut UV radiation (e.g., made by UVEX and specifically classified for UV protection, not just ski or fashion goggles), to prevent long-term exposure to indirect UV during photography sessions. Some prescription glasses do not cut UV, and many cheap sunglasses are transparent to UV.

As UV-only sources, initially I tried both "black light" fluorescent tubes (of the type that can be screwed into an ordinary socket for a light bulb) and UV LED banks (which can be mounted in 12 V sockets for halogen lights). The latter seem to produce more blue and indigo light and less UV than fluorescent tubes (at least in the models I tried). LED banks can be battery-powered or fed with a 12V DC power supply, but they draw so little current that the 12 V solid-state transformers used for halogen lights sometimes are fooled into thinking that no lamp is present, and refuse to provide a current. Ordinary incandescent light bulbs (especially those of higher power and higher Kelvin temperatures) do emit potentially usable amounts of UV, but they also emit a lot more IR. I tested additional UV sources here and here.

There are specialist continuous light sources capable of producing copious amounts of UV (e.g., for adhesive curing and fluorescence microscopy). The tube of electronic flashes does produce a lot of UV, which normally is filtered out by a yellowish coating on the outer surface of the tube (sometimes the filter is colored glass used to make the tube, and therefore is not removable). The plastic exit window of flashes also cuts UV, and sometimes has a distinct yellowish color that indicates the presence of UV-absorbing materials. There are a few specialist electronic flashes designed to provide unfiltered UV, but they are scarce, and probably mostly discontinued (this includes the Nikon SB-140). In principle, one might attempt to convert a general-purpose electronic flash for UV-use by removing the plastic exit window. This is effective only if the flash tube is uncoated. Among old (and usually cheap) battery-operated flash models known to have been modified with success are the Vivitar 285 (and its more recent and more expensive revival, the 285HC) and the Metz Mecablits 45 CT-1. Removing the flash window of the Vivitar 285 is difficult and messy, while doing it with the Metz 45 is easy.

Studio strobes can be modified bu replacing a UV-coated tube with an uncoated one. Uncoated replacement tubes for studio strobes are cheaper than the ones coated with a UV-cut layer. Cheap, amateur-level studio strobes made in the Far East sometimes use uncoated tubes. These cheap strobes are neither durable, nor reliable, nor especially powerful, but they may be an acceptable compromise for studio UV photography. (See here and here for an updated discussion of studio flash units for UV photography.)

A word of caution when modifying electronic flashes: their capacitors store a potentially deadly high-voltage charge even when the power is turned off and power cords are removed. The capacitor may remain charged for hours or days. There may be a dangerous charge left in the capacitor even after manually triggering the flash. This applies also to battery powered units. Make sure you know what you are doing.

In my personal experience, flash units with uncoated tubes are by far the most practical sources of radiation for UV photography (above examples). With powerful ones, I can record radiation down to about 300 nm (imaged as blue in the picture at the right; see details here).

Fluorescence is not UV photography

This is not UV photography This is not UV photography

UV photography is very different from photographing UV-excited fluorescence in the visible range. Fluorescence is the emission of longer wavelengths than those of incident light. Thus, illumination with UV radiation can cause the subject to fluoresce by emitting visible light. This is, for all practical purposes, photography in the visible range, and in fact it does not require special lenses and may even be carried out with a UV-cut filter on the lens. The above pictures are an example of UV-excited visible fluorescence. Some of the markings on a banknote, which are almost invisible in ordinary light (left), fluoresce strongly when illuminated with near-UV light (right). Visible light illumination was used in both pictures (in addition to UV illumination in the second picture).

The above picture shows visible fluorescence of a white cardboard sheet illuminated by the UV fluorescent tube visible in the picture. The fluorescence in the picture is much brighter that the surface of the UV bulb. This picture was taken without additional light sources. This example shows that, even with a UV-only light source, often it is necessary to use a UV-pass, visible-cut filter on the camera, in order to eliminate visible fluorescence of the subject that may overwhelm its actual UV reflectance. Some UV fluorescent tubes do emit also large amounts of IR.

Some people report "seeing" UV light. Most of these people do not possess unusual capabilities. There are documented genetic traits in humans that produce minor differences in spectral response of the eye photo-pigments, and some people are indeed slightly tetra-chromatic, but they do not include UV vision. Instead, those who report seeing UV at improbably short wavelengths may be experiencing UV-induced fluorescence of parts of their eyes, which causes a stimulation of the retina in the visible range. The most common result is a perception of "haziness" in the presence of UV. In other cases, reports of people "seeing" the UV output of a monochromator are simply the result of the equipment leaking radiation in the visible range.

More links to UV photography on this site:

UV-B photography
Multispectral photography
Continuous sources of near-UV
Building a UV LED lamp
Using lenses, special filters and lens shades of different sizes
Filter strip for testing UV lenses

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