I’ve had my converted-infrared camera for a year now, and I feel like I’m slowly coming to understand how to process the photos from it. It seems that most people swap the channels, but since Lightroom doesn’t have this option and I’m too lazy to get up to speed on any new software, I decided to work around that.
When I was asked to do a zombie-esque photo á la “28 Days Later,” I decided that the infrared camera coupled with my 35mm macro lens was just what I needed. I had the subject stand in a stairwell during the day,where his face was fully lit by reflected sunlight but the background was dark. I put the camera in Av and pushed the EV compensation to +1.3 and took this:
Doesn’t seem like much to go on, but I knew if I spent enough time, I could make this look like I imagined it should look.
The first step, as always, was to tweak the white balance. When I do that, I’m looking for a value that makes features or colors pop out or a nice balance of the colors or textures. For me, the colors don’t have to remotely match what they looked like or will look like – almost all the colors can be tweaked later. I ended up with a much bluer white balance than what I started with:
My subject has brown eyes in real life, but I knew from experience that dark-eyed people could be made to look as though they have light eyes with infrared, so I really wanted his eyes to appear blue. I played around with the color calibration at the bottom of the edit window in Lightroom until I had a happy marriage of colors and contrasts:
So already, we’re off to a running start. Next is to tweak the Basic Tone elements, so I pushed the exposure to +.19, added some recovery, threw in some fill light, and pushed the blacks all the way to 100. Because my infrared photos lack contrast, I pushed it all the way to +100 as well. Also, infrared photos tend to look a bit soft, so I maxed out the clarity as well.
For the tone curve, I pulled the highlights back to -33, pulled the lights back to -5, made the darks -17, and made the shadows -50. All in all, a very boring curve that’s more like a gentle slope.
For the colors, I did a general desaturation and then played with each color on its own. I didn’t want to fully desaturate all that blue because manipulating the luminance of the blues really made some areas, like the nose and cheeks pop:
The t-shirt in the bottom was really kind of killing the mood for me, so a vignette pushed all the way helped take care of that:
And then finally, I decided to use the split-toning to help create some of the skin tones I wanted the final version to have:
Now to the nitty-gritty. We’ll start with a graduated mask over the entire photo to increase the contrast and clarity even more:
Now on the brushes. I warn you, this part is pretty boring, but as you’ll see, the brushes are what make this photo.
First, I wanted to deal with the overall skin-tone.
The red on the left indicates where I “brushed” over the original photo and the values on the right indicate just what I was “brushing.” This brush was to desaturate that blue that was left over. Desaturating this way – with a brush – helps leave that luminance we adjusted back in the color section.
This brush was to darken some parts of the skin very slightly (exposure was decreased by -.2) and to soften the gradation between the brightest and darkest parts of the skin by reducing the contrast to -60. Once again, the clarity was increased to further emphasize those pores and crags in the face.
This third brush was used for one purpose only – to overlay a slight peach-colored tint for the skin. If you notice on the right, I changed the “color” of the brush to a very light tan.
Now it’s time to get into the eyes. There was STILL some blue left, so I desaturated the eyebrows and eyelashes once again.
The left eye was pretty heavily shadowed, originally, so I wanted to make it brighter but to still look realistic. I upped the exposure a half-stop and added a bit of contrast. Once again, I desaturated and pumped the clarity.
I ended up using the same exposure value for the right eye, but slightly more contrast and slightly less clarity.
The lips really looked dead before, so I tried to add a life-like color (actually, I originally made them blood-red, but the subject thought it looked more like lipstick that like blood, so I backed off). I also decreased the clarity here because I wanted the eye to draw attention more than the lips.
It’s probably difficult to tell at this size, but the hairs of the goatee really popped in the original, and since this was going to be printed at a pretty decent size (12″x18″), I increased the clarity of that area.
Finally, I got rid of any remnants of that t-shirt.
And so we ended up with a zombie: