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FAQ: Natural Skin Tones

Confession: I’ve been avoiding this question…

We’re totally digging on our Uservoice page and stoked on all the thoughtful questions people have been asking and voting on, and this is one that has slowly risen to the top, and now I simply can’t ignore it.

The truth is that the answer to this question is super simple for me to state with a quick do this, this, and this, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the most helpful way of explaining this. So, I’m going to do my best to give you some solid tips & tricks to get the skin tones in your images to look more natural and authentic.

All things being equal, your clients will 1) be the most happy with their images and 2) look their best if their skin looks as “naturally” perfect as possible. As much as a photographer cares about the artistry, backgrounds, light, and composition of his or her images (all very important) the thing most clients care about is looking beautiful and natural.

Simply stated, the best way to get your clients to look their best and have the most natural skin tones is to shoot the image “properly” at the time of capture. There’s no magic post processing tricks to get natural skin tones (although there’s a bunch of Photoshop actions that try pretty hard) – it’s really all about how you capture the image.

So when you’re shooting for clean, clear, creamy skin tones, here’s three big tips straight from Casa de Youngren:

1. Shoot in RAW

This used to be a much bigger debate than it is now (referring to the RAW vs JPG debate) but now that camera processing speeds have gotten faster and storage has gotten cheaper, I don’t really see a reason why you shouldn’t be shooting RAW. There’s a ton of great reasons to shoot in RAW (just do a quick search for the RAW vs JPG debate, or check out this article on the RAW format) but the primary reasons for shooting in RAW in relation to skin tone would be 1) the ability to adjust color temperature / white balance after the fact and 2) the fact that the amount of data contained in a RAW image is exponentially greater than that contained in a JPG file.

While a majority of the time we find ourselves setting our white balance manually while we’re shooting, if we don’t nail the color temperature during the shoot, we’re able to adjust it after the fact to give the most appealing skin tones possible. In addition, since RAW files contain so much more color information, we’re able to make fine adjustments to get things perfect.

2. Great Light > Great Background

When selecting a location to shoot, if you have the ability to choose between two locations, ALWAYS choose the one with the better light over the better background. Light wins, every time. When it comes to great light, there’s two major components: 1) Quantity 2) Quality.

Quantity can be thought of as a measure of how much light is present – or how bright the light is. Generally speaking, more light is better especially for the accurate representation of colors, which is what this discussion is all about. More important, though, is Quality, which can be thought of in terms of how pleasing the light actually is. Harsh sunlight on someones face has a lot of Quantity, but not a lot of Quality. Conversely, imagine sunlight striking a giant white building on the street, reflecting off that building and producing a soft, white light that illuminates your subject in a flattering way. That’s quality light.

Use your hand. The easiest way to make a judgement about the quality of the light is to hold your hand out in front of your face, at arms length, and look at the skin on the palm of your hand. That soft, pinkish skin is similar to facial skin, so the palm of your hand will tell you how someone’s skin tone will look in the light you’re choosing. Move your hand around, and study how the light changes on your hand while turning in different directions. This is something that we do all the time – just ask our clients. When we’re walking around on a shoot, we’re constantly checking our hand and looking for a skin tone that is bright, clean, and true-to-life – not super red, green, or blue – but a fresh, balanced white.

To get an idea of what I mean, here’s a few exercises to try. First, go find a room that is dark and only illuminated by a window, and hold your palm a few feet away from the window facing toward the window. Notice that the quality of light is very even and pleasing on your hand, right? Now slowly move away from the window (where it becomes darker) and watch how that light changes quite quickly. Now go outside and find a big shady spot like the shade of a building or a tree. Stand right at the edge where the shadow ends, and hold your palm facing out away from the shadow while walking forwards and backwards (if your body is facing towards a building, for example, you’re palm will be facing towards your face away from the shadow). Notice how quickly the light changes on your hand as you move deeper into the shadow, and how nice and creamy the light is right at the border of the shadow and the harsh light. As you do this in different environments (by trees, different colored buildings, near water, near glass buildings) you’ll begin to “see” how light changes, where it’s reflecting, and where to position your subjects for the best skin tones.

Here’s a great example of this “edge of shade” concept. While shooting the fabulous Christian and Nicole recently, we found this little green corner that was filled with even shade. Plus, there was a white building across the street that was throwing white light into the shade. We placed Christian and Nicole at the very edge of the shade, let them do their fabulous thing, and boo-yeah. Gorgeous skin.

[Both images: Canon 5D Mark II. Left: ISO 100, 1/250th @ f/2.0 @ 50mm on the 50 f/1.2. Right: ISO 100, 1/320th @ f/2.0 @ 85mm on the 85 f/1.8.]

3. Exposure, Exposure, Exposure

I know, this is an obvious one, and I almost didn’t mention it, but I think that the importance of exposure can’t ever be underestimated.While the RAW format allows you to make exposure mistakes and correct them, that doesn’t mean that you should rely on that safety net when shooting. It’s always best to have a properly exposed image, straight out of the camera to begin working with, and there’s a couple of ways to accomplish this.

Use your histogram. Briefly, the histogram is a tool to help you understand what types of light are present in your image from a data perspective, and will help guide you to create a proper exposure. It’s an outline of how much of the image is comprised of darkness and how much is comprised of lightness, and all the levels in the middle. Here’s a link to a great discussion on understanding your histogram.

Buy or borrow a handheld light meter. Light meters are a necessity with studio light setups, but they definitely have their place for shooting in natural light, too. While I’m not saying you need to go out and buy a light meter, it would definitely be worth your time to borrow one from a friend and just carry it around to a few shoots and observe some solid data about the light that you’re in, and how the light meter suggests you expose your shots. All cameras have a light meter built into them, but they only measure reflective light amounts, meaning the light that hits an object, bounces off of it, and then hits the camera’s meter. A handheld light meter will tell you more information about the ambient light in your scene that would be hitting your clients directly, which is much more valuable information. I’ve got the Sekonic L-358, and it’s great. You can borrow it from me anytime, in exchange for a bottle of Ridge wine, my favorite.

Overexpose. But just a little bit. If there’s any “tricks” that we do, it’s that we tend to overexpose skin tones a touch, by about 1/3 stop, all the time. When your eye sees an image, it confuses brightness for smoothness, so if we overexpose for skin, we’ll get it looking a little brighter and therefore a little smoother and appealing. This is a really delicate thing as if you overexpose by too much (say, a full stop) you’re going to get into some issues with white balance. So use this trick sparingly, and with practice.

Hopefully this helps – if you have any follow-up questions, or if I can clarify anything, please be sure to leave a comment. And of course, if you’ve got a burning question you’ve been dying to ask, head on over to our UserVoice page and ask away (or vote for the questions your interested in!)

And because posts are always cooler with images, here’s a sneek-peek of Shannon & Dwayne’s engagement session that we’ll be featuring next week right here! And since this post is all about skin tones, here’s some technical data for you.

[Canon 5D Mark II, ISO 400, 1/250th @ f/2.0 @ 85mm on the 85 f/1.8. Taken just after the sun dipped below the horizon, to my rear.]

Be sure to check out our other FAQ Posts:

Written by Jeff Youngren of The Youngrens

Jeff and Erin Youngren are international wedding and lifestyle photographers running one of the fastest growing boutique studios in the competitive Southern California market. Although based in San Diego, their deeply emotional style and passionate partnership has taken them from the streets of San Francisco to the canals of Venice to the family suburbs of Chicago to photograph extraordinary weddings and incredible couples. As leaders in the photographic community, they are passionate about helping other photographers build viable, authentic businesses, while building a photography community built on integrity and honest leadership.

Thanks to Jeff for letting us use this FAQ post on the Pictage Blog. You can see this post and more like it in the FAQ category on The Youngren’s blog.

The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!
The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!