Who doesn’t want the people in their images to look healthy and vibrant? Getting skin tones correct is a great start towards this goal. However, getting skin tones in your portraits to be correct and consistent isn’t as easy as it might seem. Paying attention to the light and white balance before you ever snap the shutter can go a long ways towards making that goal easier and to cutting down on your editing time.
1. Pay attention to the light.
There is no one lighting scenario that is best for skin. You can get good skin tones with flat light and with dramatic light. Before you snap your shutter though, train yourself to really look at your subject and what the light is doing to them. If they look gray when you look at them, they will look gray when you go to edit your images. Your best bet is to move them until they look good to your eye. I find this to be more of a problem on dark overcast days that are common this time of year. This is also a great time to notice anything reflecting a color cast onto your subject and decide if you want to fix it before you take the picture. If it’s something in the environment causing a color cast, moving them further away from whatever it is will do the trick. If it is something that is harder to change like their clothing, as in the bright pink vest and hat in the image below, you’ll know you will have to fix it in post.
2. Get the correct white balance in camera.
If you are using a dSLR or a high end point and shoot there are plenty of ways to set your white balance. You can use a white balance card or ExpoDisc to set a custom white balance. You can set the temperature to roughly match the Kelvin temperature in the scene. Or, if your camera doesn’t allow for custom white balance or Kelvin, you could set it to the closest preset you have available. The last option isn’t as accurate as the first two though. Setting it in camera will save you time in processing and will allow you to get the most accurate exposure possible.
3. Get calibrated.
Once you have done everything you can to get the best possible image SOOC (straight out of camera), there is one more step before you start to edit. Do what you can to make sure the colors on your monitor match the prints you will be getting from your images. You can test that by sending a few test prints to a reputable lab and then comparing the prints to what you see on the screen. If it’s a perfect match, great, if not you calibrating your monitor will make your editing more effective. Calibrating a monitor can sound hard, but it usually just requires a small investment in a calibration device. Once you do that, it can be as easy as answering a few simple questions about your monitor, hitting start, and letting the device do the work for you. If you don’t have the money to buy a calibrator you can search online to see if there is any advice on getting your particular monitor as close as possible without one.
4. Double check and set the global white balance.
Since you hopefully set a custom white balance when you took the image, this step is usually quick. However if you forgot to set the white balance, or if the light changed between when you set it and when you took the image, you will want to first get the global white balance correct before touching the skin tones. If your white balance looks off and you’re not sure where to start you can pick something that was a neutral tone in the image – gray pavement, the whites of someone’s eyes, etc. – and then use that as a starting point adjusting it until it looks right to your eye.
5. Edit the skin.
Now you are finally ready to start working on the skin. Sometimes when you set the global white balance, skin tones naturally fall into place. If not, this is where training your eye and/or learning to edit skin by the numbers comes in handy. Now that I have been doing this for a long time, I generally edit by eye, but in the beginning, before I got calibrated, and then for years after that, I edited by the numbers. Once I had it were I thought it was good I would double check the CMYK or RGB values. There are a number of tutorials out there on this subject and Sarah Wilkerson’s Flawless is a 100+ page PDF that is very, very thorough on this. As a general guideline though, when looking at CMYK numbers, you will want a little more yellow than magenta. The cyan channel will vary more, but it should generally be a fair amount less than the others. If you allow it to be close to equal to the yellow and magenta numbers, you are almost guaranteed to have gray looking skin. Even when using the numbers and still keeping things feeling natural, there is some room for variation. Just like if you look at someone at sunset their skin will look a bit different to your eye than it would look indoors under florescent lights. I tend to keep things as real and natural as possible, but I do tend to edit on the warm side. As you develop your style you will find what works for your eye.
Kristin Ingalls, Washington
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With her Nikon D700 and assortment of prime lenses in hand, Kristin loves to take portraits and describes her style as “organic and clean/pure with just a hint of whimsy.” She has an art/design degree from college and worked for years as a designer but like so many others really got into photography once she had children. In her own words, “I started to capture our family life, and somewhere along the line I got bit by the photography bug.” Her ideal day off would consist of shooting for herself, spending time with friends, and some quiet time alone curled up with a good ebook and possible a Starbucks/Tazo Iced Green Tea and chocolate. With her husband and three daughters, Kristin currently resides in Kirkland, WA.