Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Introducing Matt Murphy and His IR Event Portraits

My featured guest for this post is Boston photographer Matt Murphy.  If you have paged ahead, you will notice that Matt has been capturing some unusual infrared portraits at conventions and events.  I first saw Matt’s work in the Infrared and Ultraviolet forum at the Nikonians website.  

DW: Matt, these portraits are very creative and so much fun. How long have you been taking IR photos at events?
MM: Thanks Dan. Your interest in my IR portrait work is flattering, especially since yours were some of the IR images that convinced me to buy a converted body several years ago. My interest in IR portraiture came first, mostly from seeing some intriguing examples in the Nikonians IR forum site, and it occurred to me that conventions and other events would present particularly target rich environments. I went to my first event, a Steampunk Festival, early this spring.
DW:  Many photographers feel awkward asking strangers to pose for a photo. How do you approach someone at an event and ask them to pose for a photo?
MM: As do I in many situations, but asking someone to pose for a picture who has spent the last several hours assembling a costume and/or putting on elaborate make-up, etc.  is a pretty sure bet. These folks are, by definition, extroverts who are surrounded by fellow travelers and in their “happy place” so to speak and are often very enthusiastic about posing, especially when I tell them it’s for an infrared photo.

The Mad Hatter
Mad Hatter - Infrared - from Flickr
DW:  Let’s take a look at the Mad Hatter photo.  Can you tell us where this was taken and why you thought she would be a good IR subject? 
MM: You mean apart from the fact that she’s a beautiful young woman? (with jet black hair in the visible spectrum btw)  Seriously though, I liked her costume a lot and thought I could do something with the various textures (leather coat and hat, silk cravat, feathers, brass accents, etc.) that could set off the typical porcelain skin effect IR captures so well. She was a Steampunker and, like nearly everyone I asked, was very happy to pose for an IR picture or two.
DW:  It looks like you did a channel swap on this one.  Did you do any special post-processing on this photo?
MM: I did what passes for channel swapping in CNX2 on this one but, like most of my post effects, I did so selectively, swapping everything but the skin on her face which I found more appealing in the original configuration. One of the things I like most about IR in general is that you start off, out of the camera, with something that looks somewhat otherworldly, which I find frees me to do pretty much whatever I please to an image until I think it looks as good as I think I can get it and not give a thought to whether it looks “real” or not.
I went back to my RAW file on this one and saw that I had made 21 separate edits, almost all of them to only selected areas of the shot. I’ll spare you the details but for this one I brightened around her eyes, used a vignette filter (one of my favorite filters in CEP2), tamed blown out clouds, brass accents, etc. and, a must for any portrait, IR or otherwise, added some unsharp mask to her eyes.

Boston Comic-Con - IR - from Flickr
DW:  The next photo is processed differently. I really like the tone-on-tone approach. It really makes the blues stand out.  Can you tell us something about this photo?
MM: These two women were at the Boston Comic-Con Festival last summer. I was working the line outside as the light was pretty even and I could control my backgrounds much better than inside.  As you noted, I didn’t do a channel swap on this one, probably because of the great blue hair on the woman on the right and what the original settings did for the skin tones of the woman on the left whose skin, in the visible spectrum, was distinctly copper colored. I added some skylight filter from Color Effex Pro2 to warm things up a bit then did my usual selective tonal contrast enhancements to bring out the clothes, accents and the like.I always keep any tonal contrast tweaks to a minimum on the faces as it tends to diminish that lovely effect IR captures give to skin.
DW:  Taking an IR photo is usually not a fast process because we use the JPG image and histogram on the back of the camera to verify the exposure and contrast.  Given these limitations, how do you efficiently capture this type of photo?
MM: After getting the initial permission, I usually start off by telling my subjects that IR does amazing things to skin and eyes but that, because different items reflect IR wavelengths differently and somewhat randomly as compared to the visible spectrum, it may take me three or four shots just to dial in the proper exposure. I typically do this via the exposure compensation dial while in aperture priority mode which, in effect, is altering the shutter speed. This lets them know that I’ll be taking a number of shots and tweaking my exposure as I go along so they know what to expect.

Boston Comic-Con2 - IR - from Flickr
DW:  Boston Comic-Con2 is another great photo.  I love the sharpness of the leaves and the subtle coloration.  Can you tell us something about where this photo was taken?  Did this photo present any post-processing challenges?
MM: This is another from the lines waiting to get in to Comic-Con. Pretty standard post-processing treatment for me, meaning selective channel swap (excluded the face), a little skylight filter, vignetting, various selective tonal contrast boosts as well as the usual brightening and sharpening of the eyes. I was tempted to clone out the make-up on her right cheek but thought better of it when I realized it might have some significance to the character she was dressed as.

DW:  Skin tones and colors are so different in IR.  Do you let your subjects see the IR images on the back of the camera?  What do they say?
MM: I make it a point to show them the first decent exposure on the back of the camera to confirm that IR portraits are, indeed, like nothing they’ve likely seen before which also tends to pump them up a bit for the “keeper” shots to come. Maybe it’s because the folks who go to things like Steampunk Festivals and Comic-Cons are primed for it but they are almost always excited about how different the photos look and eager for me to take some more. You can’t really ask for much more than that when you’re taking portraits of strangers!

Mercury's Minions
Mercury's Minions - IR - from Flickr
DW:  This photo of Mercury’s Minions is striking.  I like this IR version much better than the visible light version in your Flickr gallery (I must admit to an IR prejudice).  Can you tell us something about this photo?
MM: Well, first of all I should tell you that I titled the photo before some friends who are “graphic novel” fans pointed out that this was clearly Hawkman and his trusty partner, Hawkwoman. Silly me.
This couple was at the Steampunk Festival and had one of the most elaborate costumes of the day. Their copper wings are folded away in this shot but were pretty impressive when I asked them to spread them for some visible spectrum shots. While they probably have too much covering their faces to be true portraits, I was again going for the different textures I was seeing in the costumes, knowing that IR would likely accentuate such details.
DW:  I noticed that your IR convention photos are taken outdoors rather than inside the venue.  Is there any special reason for that?

MM: Truth be told, I could say it’s the light, which is invariably better outside than the mixed, artificial sources you’ll likely find inside (pray for a cloudy day or find some open shade), or the ability to minimize background clutter which is nearly impossible indoors, but for events like Comic-Con which can get pretty pricey, it’s also about not having to pay for a ticket! In addition, working the lines of people waiting to get in allows you to tap into that excited, anticipatory vibe that can really animate a photo.
DW:  What type camera/lens combination do you use for your IR portraits?   Which filter did you have installed in your camera?
MM: I bought a converted D70s about two years ago and haven’t looked back. Standard 720nm conversion and I find the Nikon 18-200 VRI has the fewest issues with hot spots which, unfortunately, are a fact of life in IR photography.

Blue Eyes
Blue Eyes - IR - from Flickr
DW:  This photo of Blue Eyes is particularly endearing.  Can you tell us something about this photo? 
MM: She’s from the HONK! Festival in Somerville MA. It’s a self-described Lefty March Band convention/ festival with a big parade at the end. She was with her mother and sister in the marshaling area before the parade as part of the Free Tibet group, thus the native dress. With children, of course, you always ask the permission of the parent(s) but once secured, she had the same demure smile that I had noticed from afar. The blue eyes were a selective channel swap artifact but once I saw it I pumped it as much as I could without looking too artificial for my taste. Btw, her mother had the same, dreamlike look but for some reason I have none of her in IR.

One other piece of advice for shooting parades is to arrive early and work the area where the participants gather before the start. It gives you much more flexibility in choosing backgrounds and the like and allows some personal interaction that would not be possible if the subject was just marching by.
DW:  Can you tell us a little more about the selective channel swap you use with the Nikon Capture NX2 (CNX2) software?  

MM: I almost always try a red/blue channel swap in CNX2 just to see what I'll get. I'll often play with the Hue slider while focusing on different parts of the image to see what the swap does for skin tones, backgrounds, foliage, etc. Sometimes I like what it does to the whole image and other times I like the original look.  I often find I like the change in some areas but not others. In those situations I'll apply it selectively while still in the swap mode (LCH step) by using a + or - control point or, less often, the selection brush tool. The control point usually takes less work and seems to blend better than the selection brush when the area selected is markedly different from the surrounding areas such as the skin tones on a face.

If the control point leaves me with noticeable "spill over" in areas I don't want (hair, clothing, etc.) I'll often toggle on the "show overlay" effect in the selection section of the LCH step and then turn to the selection brush to clean up the edges by adding back what I took away with the control point (or vice versa).

I always make sure I start off with a correctly white balanced image before attempting the swap. As this can be a pain in the neck to get right in camera, I use the Set Gray Point/Marquee Sample tool in the Develop/Camera Settings section of NX2 to get a good base WB, then move on to the swap step.

DW:  This has been great.  Do you have any closing thoughts you would like to share?
MM: I’ve enjoyed it as well Dan. I guess the only thought I would leave you with is that the old saying, “it never hurts to ask”, is very true. I found it a hard lesson to learn but it has rewarded me on many occasions.
DW:  Matt, thank you for taking the time to share your infrared photo experience. These photos have inspired me to get to some of these conventions with my IR camera. 
You can find more of Matt Murphy’s infrared portraits at

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