Skin tones. Everyone wants to master them. Why are they so difficult to get right? For many reasons really. First, there’s some basic things that need to be addressed regarding capturing and creating great creamy skin tones that are smooth and even.
1. Perhaps the number one thing you can do to get better skin tones is this…. expose the image well. That means, shoot as bright as you can without blowing out your highlights. Many people slightly (or more than slightly) underexpose to be sure that nothing in the image gets blown out. I try very hard to expose my images as far to the right (pixels on the right hand side of the histogram should stop at the end of the histogram or close anyway). Starting with an image that is bright for the skin will do wonders for your skin tones. Master a brightly exposed, pleasing image out of camera. Then, work on your editing. I promise, your skin tones will thank you!
Here, my histogram shows my image pixels bumped clear to the right, giving me nice bright, light skin. That’s what you want.
2. Shoot with your camera in NEUTRAL picture style. If you shoot JPG, you’ll have to do this in camera. If you shoot RAW, you can change this after the fact in Lightroom or ACR. Do this only if your images seem to have an overly rich color straight out of camera; usually magentas and reds. Neutral is especially important when shooting newborns to keep their skin tones toned down. If you don’t experience overly rich colors and pigments to skin on your SOOC images, at least make sure you are not shooting on Vivid, Portrait or other similar settings. Standard is a much safer bet.
3. Be more cognizant of HOW you are placing your subjects in regards to the light. This is absolutely crucial for good skin tones. Most photographers are afraid of shooting in full sun. I know I’m no master at full sun shooting. So we look for shade. But not all shade is created equal. Instead of just picking any old shaded area, place your subjects on the edge of the shade. You stand in the sun, with the sun to your back and they face the sun’s direction, just barely in the shade. That puts nice reflective light in their faces, and a darker background behind them. If it’s an overcast day, place your subject facing where the light source would normally be hitting them straight on if it weren’t cloudy. The same is true for shooting downtown with tall buildings that obscure the light. Place your subjects facing the obstructed light.
4. Avoid dappled light. Dappled light is a killer. Arrange your subject so there is no direct light hitting a portion of their skin or clothes. Uneven light like this will be a huge challenge to deal with in post production. Again, it’s all about HOW you place your subject. If you are working with a moving child that is all over the place and you are basically chasing them for the shot, think about how you are interacting with them. Coax them into the location that is going to provide you with the best light. Get creative on how you talk to them, the suggestions that you make to them. Always be one step ahead of them in your placement. Keep the sun to your back as you play with them and shoot them.
5. Look for natural reflective surfaces. Maybe it’s a sidewalk that’s shinning reflected light back in their face. Maybe it’s a white wall or pillar that’s reflective. Maybe it’s your white shirt you’re wearing. Yes, I always wear white or cream on overcast days or for sessions I know I’m going to be in shade. Never wear vivid clothing to a shoot… leave that to your clients. You don’t want to see your red shirt reflected in their catchlights or on their skin.
6. Use a reflector. I have a Tri-Grip Lastolite reflector that is light weight and has a handle for easy hand holding as I’m shooting. They make a world of difference for providing enough light for catchlights or filling in light on a side of a face that’s unevenly lit.
7. Use a gray card to calibrate your white balance. If I’m in a tough lighting situation, I’ll shoot a quick image of my Photovision Target , shoot in auto white balance, then sync my white balance settings to the images later in post in Lightroom. Using a RAW editing (again!) for this makes it quick and easy and keeps me from having to dial in my custom white balance settings in the camera during the session.
ETA>> For those who asked how to sync WB settings in post, Watch the video on THIS page. Click the orange button that says Post Correction.
8. Use a RAW editor like Lightroom or ACR. It’s worth the time, energy and investment to start your edits in a RAW editor (even if you shoot JPG). You can easily change your temperature and tint, reduce vibrancy, and reduce the red/orange/yellow saturation channels to correct skin tone in a RAW editor. This alone will be huge. Photoshop is great for a lot of things, but correcting skin color… not so much. Lightroom is much easier to do this. Plus, you can sync your temperature settings across multiple images in a matter of seconds. I cannot stress enough how much impact using a RAW editor will make in your skin tones, your details, your overall image results. I often tell people in mentoring that Lightroom is for correcting, Photoshop is for enhancing. I really believe that.
9. Put more time and energy into learning your camera and how to find good light than you do your editing. I’m pretty sure if more time was spent honing the shooting side of the craft vs. the editing side, people would love their images more. They would spend less time editing because they would be enhancing and not fixing. Practice using different light, at different times of day. Get a feel for what light at 3 PM looks like vs. 7 PM. The difference between early morning light vs. setting sun light. What locations will work best in the AM, which in the PM? Make a list of your locations that you want to use and when the best time of day will be for great light. Take your kids or your friend out and just shoot, moving them, moving you, being aware of how the light is hitting. When practicing like that, be more concerned about assessing the light than your compositions. Learn your light! Think about your angle. Are you shooting above or below your subject. By shooting slightly above, you can get better catchlights in the eyes as they angle their heads toward the light. This reduces under eye shadows. Shooting above the subject slightly is also more pleasing to the subject (they look thiner).
10. When shooting, take your time to think about what you’re doing. It’s easy to feel rushed or nervous. Your clients will thank you in the end if you take longer, but deliver better images.
These are all really simple things to do to improve not only skin tones, but your overall image. Great skin tones begin with better out of camera images. Try the things I listed above and I promise, your skin tone struggles will be greatly diminished!
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Here’s what’s coming up next! One image, many different looks.