High Output Infrared Lighting

A "How To..."

                               by Chuck Thurston


OK, I'll have to admit I have a rather unusual hobby.  I'm a Paranormal Investigator, aka a Ghost Hunter, and have been for many years.  Due to the need to document and analyze what is experienced during an investigation, it helps to be a bit of a gadget freak as well.

In performing many paranormal investigations, it's pretty common to video record in the dark, or "zero lux".  The tool of the trade is a Sony Camcorder with infrared "Night Shot" capability.  Which means it can record a scene using infrared light, and has a light sensitivity in the range of 850 nm (nanometers).

In using one of these camcorders, the first thing you'll realize is the standard IR lighting source internal to the camcorder is all but useless.  Consisting of only one infrared light emitting diode (IR LED),  it only has an effective range of a few feet.  The attachable IR Illuminators Sony sells for around $100 has a better range, consisting of 7 or so IR LEDs, but also represents a significant battery drain on the camcorder, shortening your recording time.

The basic idea here, of course, is the more IR LEDs, the brighter the beam.  But you have to weight your options considering the cost and the operating time.  Some recording sessions could be several hours of endless recording in the dark.  So a longer battery time and the ease of battery replacement are a factor to be considered. The best solution is to use an external infrared light source with a lot of LEDs and a good operating time on either replaceable or interchangeable batteries.  But good luck finding one to buy.  There are a few illuminators produced generally for security monitoring applications, but they tend to be bulky and required a AC power adapter.  The manufacturers don't worry about running such a light on batteries, since their purpose is for extremely long duration use.

Camcorder's Internal IR

( 1 IR Diode )
IR Source

( 36 IR Diodes )
The easiest way to solve this is to make one yourself.  And it's not that hard to do, or that expensive. Here's a few examples of IR "Flood Lights" I've made.
            72 IR LEDs 144 IR LEDs
Oh Ya!  This was overkill,
with both a wide and narrow beam

Power Source

Before we get into building one, there's a few things to consider.  The first concern is the power source.  Even though I'm concerned about alkaline batteries ending up in landfills and harming the environment, this is one time were it makes better sense to use alkaline batteries instead of rechargeable batteries.

Alkaline AA size batteries are 1.5 volts each, whereas rechargeable AA batteries are 1.2 to 1.25 volts.  It's a small difference, but can quickly add up to a significant one as you place more batteries together to produce the needed 15 Volts (10 alkaline vs. 13 rechargeable batteries). 

There's also a problem with the way the IR modules discharge the batteries, which results in the module running out of power actually before the batteries will be totally depleted.  Long term use of rechargeable batteries, without being fully depleted and charged will damage the batteries to the point they will no longer hold a good charge.

Plus rechargeable batteries have been known to burst open or explode under a very heavy current drain.  Alkaline batteries just get hot, but rarely do anything dangerous.

So it really makes sense to use the alkaline batteries.  They are cheaper, and you'll need fewer of them.

The IR modules I like to use are spec'd to operate between 12 and 13.8Vdc, with a maximum efficiency at 13.2Vdc and a forward diode current of around 40 mA.  But they will really work over a much wider range of between 11 to 17 volts, the unit becoming very hot at the upper 17 volts, and the output getting dim at 11 volts.  If it's going to be connected to a regulated power source, like for a DVR camera system, 12 volts is perfect.  For use with a battery pack of AA size batteries, 15 volts is great using ten batteries in series.  That will give it a longer operating time and a good depletion of the batteries, without overheating the unit or the batteries.

Voltage to Diode Current

Beam Angle
Another consideration is the angle of the light's coverage.  The construction inside an LED contains a built in lens that forms the light into a beam.  IR LEDs come in two basic beam angles, a 20 degree "narrow angle" and a wider 50 degree.  Here's an example of what the difference looks like:

(36 IR Diodes)

(36 IR Diodes)

The narrow beam is more defined and stronger, able to illuminate over a greater distance.  The wider beam has a less intense beam, and therefore a shorter range, but complete coverage of the camcorder's view.  I've built and used both types.  But for use in Paranormal Investigations, I find the wide angle more useful, since I'm monitoring areas that are close by, and I want to illuminate everything within the camera view.  The narrow one is better for the odd occasion you need to monitor something farther away, requiring the camcorder to be zoomed into the subject, or to be aimed down a long hallway.

OK, now for the fun stuff...

How To Build One Yourself
The first thing is the IR LEDs themselves.  They come in two basic wavelengths, 850 nm and 940 nm.

The 850 nm wavelength is a good match for the light sensitivity of the Sony "Night Shot" feature or "Full Spectrum" modified camcorders.  These diodes have a slight red glow from the back of the diode when they are operating.

The 940 nm wavelength is primarily used in covert surveillance security systems, where no telltale visible glow is desired.  However, at that wavelength, they are almost outside the operating sensitivity of the Sony "Night Shot", so of no real use in this application.

I use two module configurations from an on-line supplier I found, BGmicro, depending on how many LEDs I want.  A 36 and a 72 LED version.  I've used many of them and had very good luck with this supplier.  You can either get the assembled or unassembled module.  Either one will work fine, it only depends on your soldering and assembly skills.  For the extra $10, I'd recommend getting the assembled and tested module.  Diodes can be a little tricky to insert into a board in the right orientation and not overheat them when soldering.

36 IR LED Module
This version makes a very good light when used in conjunction with static camcorders or as supplemental lighting for a DVR system.

On-line order from BGmicro
850nm IR Illuminator Assembled - LED1093 - 20 deg angle

850nm IR Illuminator Assembled - LED1097 - 50 deg angle

Parts List
$36.00 - IR 36 LED Module (BGmicro LED1097)
$35.00 - Decoy CCD Camera (by Q-See) package of two
$1.00 - Red LED with 12v internal resistor  (Linrose 4302F1-12)
 $1.50 - Slide switch
$1.60 - Battery holder 8 AA
$1.20 - Battery holder 2 AA
$0.50 - 1/4-20 capture nut

Estimated Cost $60 per unit

Here's the staring point.

The container for this light is actually a fake security camera made by Q-see.  Since it's the perfect size and can hold the battery pack.

You'll also want a red LED on the back of the thing, so you can know it's on or off without looking into the light itself.  These things are very bright, and it can harm you eyes.

Then you we also need an on/off switch and AA battery holders (8 and a 2 battery version)
Take the fake camera apart.
 You really only want the guts of the thing, so the cover and mounting bracket you can get rid of.
There's a couple thin plastic ribs that are just enough to get in the way of the battery pack, so carefully break them off.
Make sure the combined batter pack will fit.
Solder a couple long wires to the IR module.  These will run power to the module.
Assemble the module with the back side of the fake LED head from the camera.  Since this thing can get very hot, it's a good idea to add some automotive heat resistant gasket material between the two.
And now screw the new head into the camera's faceplate where the fake one was.
Attach the faceplate assembly to the top half of the camera body. 

Make sure the battery pack still fits.
Now you have to cut off the plastic tabs on the bottom of the camera body, so it will make a flat mounting surface.
Sand it smooth.
Dill a 1/4 inch hole.
And using a block of wood, epoxy into place a 1/4-20 capturer nut plate.  This will allow the assembly to be screwed onto tripods, which all use a 1/4-20 bolt.
Install the red LED into the back of the back plate.
And install the on/off switch as well.
Back plate is finished
Connect the two battery holders so all ten AA batteries will be in series.
Wire up the switch, battery pack and the LED module.
Screw on the top cover.
Stuff the battery pack inside, and screw on the back plate.
All done!!


72 IR LED Module
There are other options of course.

For instance, BGmicro also has a
850 nm IR LED assembly with 72 LEDs.

This module operates on the same voltages as the 36 LED version, so again it'll run on ten AA batteries very well.  Since this unit is double the power and double the resulting heat on the unit and the batteries, you can also run it on eight AA's (12v) and it won't run as hot.   I have made several camcorder mounted lights out of one of these as well.  The more LEDs, the brighter the beam, and this little baby is bright.  Since I regularly use this light when moving around a location in the dark, I sometimes include a couple bright white light LEDs that shine downward, so I can see where I'm walking.  With a small cut of a copper trace on the board, the light can also easily be separated into two sections, allowing for a switch to turn on and off one half as a High/Low feature.

This is an image from an actual investigation using this IR light. It's an excellent choice for making some pretty simple Illuminators to work with the IR Camera on a DVR surveillance system as well, which operates on the same light wavelength as the Sony camcorder does (850 nm).The design shown below has proven to be one of my best so far.  It is simple to make, doesn't weigh too much, and runs on a battery pack of 8 alkaline AA size batteries for around 8 hours.  Giving you plenty of recording time before the need to change out the batteries. Another nice thing about this module is the layout.  If you carefully cut the trace of the +12 volt side of the circuit board, creating two halves with 36 LEDs a piece and wire them to a switch, you can create a version with a High/Low selection.  Most of the time 36 IR LEDs is sufficient and will have a longer run time.  But if you need the extra light, you have the full 72 LEDs as an option.

Parts List
$68.50 - IR 72 LED Module (BGmicro LED1099)
$8.50 - Philmore 1590B Diecast Aluminum Box 4.3 x 2.3 x 1.0
$10.00 - Coiled power cord for a cheap 12 volt cell phone charger
$12.00 - Small camera pouch
 $3.00 - Mini On/Off switch (2)
$1.60 - Battery holder 8 AA
$1.20 - Battery holder 2 AA
$2.00 - #6-32 Nylon 1" bolts and locknuts

Estimated Cost $110 per unit

I've also simply mounted this same module in a metal project box with a plastic lens cover, a tripod mounting nut (1/4-20 insert nut), and wired it to plug directly into the 12 volt source that runs all my DVR cameras.  This gives me unlimited run time and supports extra lighting wherever I may need it.

That's about it for now.  Have Fun :)

** A Final Word Of Caution **

When an infrared light modules is operating,
all that can be seen is a slight red glow from inside the LED.
However, keep in mind...

The light intensity out of these modules is extreme, and
long term or close exposure may cause permanent damage to the eye.

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