Skin Tone - Part I

Dad, will you take picture of me and Jill with your good camera. Daughter #3

I break out in cold sweats with any sort of request that comes close to that formula. Here’s why; That’s nothing like “hey, lets spend a couple of hours making a great picture at this awesome spot, with am unbelievable setting, at a great time of day, with a couple of things brought to the table to optimize it all, and remotely appropriate photogenic, flattering wardrobe”. In this case it meant right here, right now, in the 32 seconds prior to us having to meet other people already on their way to the restaurant in whatever horrid (photographically) striped shirt that might be on at high-noon with not an attractive setting within the 30’ we’re at. That’s what this kind of request always means. Not with clients but definitely with family and friends that are not into making pictures. Hey, you make awesome pictures. I’ve seen them so get your awesome camera and crank one out here and now. Oh and make it really quick with no fuss. Ummmm, sure… right.

I shot a few. Of course I would. How did they work out? Meh, whatever. Here’s one where I did use my considerable innate StupidCrap™ at provoking a laugh - a real one vs. the iPhone selfie practiced posed defaults most teenage girls instinctively summon when an imaging device is aimed remotely in their direction. I thought this particular 30 second photo session might be a great place to start for a question that is so broad it defies any magic button answer. I got a shout-out from eBuddy Steven Chan via twitter that was something along the lines of:

Got any good books to recommend on skin tone?

Hmmmm, that depends on you answering about 8,004 other questions. How about we start with just a couple…

I defaulted to a very workman like generic reasonably decent recipe for generally acceptable skin tones for this set of ultra generic, poorly executed, not-so spectacular images. The upside is I did them at about the same time as this question came up — quite literally. The other good thing is there’s no distracting greatness that will at all influence your perception of the matter at hand. Skin and just skin with no exceptional wonderfulness.

This kind of rendition is absolutely capable of building a career on. Safe, generally attractive and adding even a smidgen of care, wardrobe, setting, shallow DOF or anything else will turn it into fantastic by most measurements. You see it all the time. Personally I default to this if I want something safe. Others can’t make a picture to save their life if it’s not this kind of rendition. Let’s take a look at what’s going on here and what sort of post processing might influence this one way or another and where that might land in terms of how big or small a part of skin tone perception it is.

What’s the absolute most important thing going on with the shot at the top? Answer: The light, end of story. Any magic color or anything like that? Not really.

  • Dead neutral white balance set via shooting a pre-set white balance in camera off a gray card.
  • Sort of safe exposure. Probably should have gone a bit brighter but added +0.33 in post (more on that later).
  • Generic preset on import (VSCO Portra 160).

What else is important? Hmmm, Light… yep extremely important. Low ratio as in not a lot of difference (a stop at best but less depending on how you measure it) difference between shadow and highlight on skin. Sort of soft but not completely flat. A hint of specularity to it as can be noted by the highlights on tip of nose, highlight areas of cheeks, frontal portion of forehead between eyebrows, etc. It could use a bit more specularity mixed in truth be told to be optimal. Oh yea and pretty much from the front and not too high. There you have it. Almost forgot. the response curve is next up as in contrast response curve. I despise most default digital RAW processor and built-in camera response curves for two reasons. Contrast in all the wrong places is the first and primary. The VSCO film 01 presets do a response curve more to my liking for skin. That’s important for perception of skin tone for sure.

Anything else? Oh shit there’s that color thing but that’s a tricky bitch. What I’m looking at right now is probably a hair different than your monitor and this is dead neutral with whatever skew and split tone VSCO is putting on top of that. Lets change that all over the place with differing VSCO film 01 presets with different color skews and different split tones to see how giant an influence it is (sarcasm — the first two are far more important).

How about a horse of a different color Fuji 160C?

Color is completely different but what’s most noticeable in terms of skin? From my POV it’s the different highlight contrast more so than the color skews. How about VSCO film Portra 400…

Hmmm, different color but again not really different. How about we start really messing about with things? Before we do that I’ll offer a few points to consider when it comes to skin based on the four million photographers I’ve worked with that had great technical understanding and no shortage of glossary definitions of various terms but were missing something quite obvious visually but not anywhere to be found in the most learned texts or workshops or other recipes, the connectedness of some of those terms everyone uses to verbalize things that ultimately are visual.

  • Saturation and contrast are related in a big way. Generally as contrast goes up so does saturation. Typical digitally generated files are “off” in what I happen to like compared to remotely modern negative film emulsions. Specifically they are to saturated at too low a mid-tone contrast level. Key point — generally. Circumstances rule with all of this stuff.
  • Luminance levels are related to visual perception of color saturation. The darker something is (relatively speaking — lets say mid-tone vs a stop more than mid-tone vs a stop and a third more than mid-tone) the more saturated it will appear.
  • Too much saturation in skin and too dark a rendering make it almost impossible to get a reasonable “skin color” no matter what the hue, skew, WB or whatever you might adjust because it’s the “wrong color”. Conversely lower saturation and lighter renditions make things far more flexible and the perception of “good skin color” far easier.
  • Most real world light is actually a few different color temperatures so there’s no such thing as “dead neutral”.If measured it depends on which way the gray card is aimed even by a few degrees. The higher the saturation is the worse this looks and more noticeable it is. See above.
  • If you haven’t played around with skin a whole lot I will assure you that luminance issues will appear as white balance issues and white balance issues will appear as saturation issues and saturation issues will appear as color correction issues in one big giant tangled mess.

Let’s see how all that plays out shall we? Here’s VSCO 160C again but in the ++ variety with fade set to “none” and blacks set much deeper (blacks+) both of those things effectively increase the contrast a bunch. They give you a much more typical digital contrast increase without touching saturation directly. In fact all of the VSCO color skews actually take a bit of saturation out.

Here’s the same thing but only one change, less dense blacks, for the numbers oriented blacks = +25 which happens to be what VSCO uses most of the time on most presets. Less contrast and less saturation without ever touching anything “color related”.

We still have a far more modern contrast level with none of that VSCO fading so let’s leave it at that contrast level (which is still better than most defaults as it doesn’t have contrast in all the wrong places and a bit less saturation due to the minus saturation in the VSCO color skews) and take out a lot of saturation relatively speaking as in overall saturation slider -10…

Let’s take saturation down a hell of a lot to -20…

Most people if I didn’t use that word saturation would perceive that lower saturation as cooler even though the actual hues, white balance, etc, are the same which brings us exactly to that point. Let’s take that desaturated image and warm it up a bit…

The change in actual color in that warm version is massive - I mean quite massive like 600 points more temp starting out at 4850. That much at that starting level is massive. If the staring point was 10,000 then 600 is a nit. The change visually is not absolute based on the 600 number. It depends on where neutral actually is. Not really the point. The massive warmth increase looks a bit like more saturation. If I didn’t walk you through this theres a really good chance that crazy warm white balance is actually perceived as too much saturation when the saturation is quite low or the other way around most likely; Too much saturation is perceived as way too warm, etc.

Let’s take a look at the horrors that occur at “normal saturation” along with the too warm white balance with the stronger contrast and stronger blacks. In other words where the image was before we lowered saturation in a big way.

Okay, that is not good for sure. Now it’s color balance is way off and it’s got way too much contrast and way to much saturation. If you are having trouble knowing which particular dial to turn hair is usually easier to visually remember than skin — strange but true. If hair that should be yellow or brown is turning red you have a color balance problem and possibly a saturation problem too. Now for an even bigger horror show. Remember what I said about luminance or brightness level of skin and how it can play tricks on your perception of hue, color correctness or saturation. Let’s exaggerate this for effect… Here’s just a hair less exposure of the freak show above.

Now that’s making my eyes bleed. As a rule of thumb the more contrast you have dialed in one way or another the more gigantic the effect of even a little bit of “exposure” difference going in is going to make. Let’s go the other way just to show you what I mean about how luminance tends to distort all those words we use to describe color. Here’s the other side increasing exposure to the same “little bit degree” as we went on the less exposure side.

All of this is meant to exaggerate that interplay a bit. If you are an old hand at all this you already know but trust me, there’s a really good chance if we didn’t walk thru it step by step you might not know if you have a luminance, color correction, saturation problem or all of the above. This walk-thru was not intended as a recipe. In fact it’s not even representative of my particular taste on color, contrast, or luminance of skin this week (that changes). It’s not even a discussion of fine tuning. The only intent was a few broad brushstrokes of relationships key factors when deciding how you want to render skin in your photographs. Even more, I hope a starting point for a few of you to step off in getting to where you want to go.

How do I like things? On or about the first image with a hair more exposure, probably less than a third of a stop swing that I’ve been playing with here. In terms of color I like it a little cooler and a little pinker than neutral as well as a nit less saturated. That’s all fine tuning though.

More to come. Feel free to ask any questions.


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