Skin Tone - Part II

A hopefully much quicker follow-up to Part I where I discussed the interplay of a few things like exposure, contrast, saturation, and color correction when looking at skin. Today I wanted to come at this from another direction to illustrate a bit more on something that’s always of primary concern — light and something closely related — context.

These illustrations are some quick exposure tests and demonstrations I made during a window light mini-workshop way back in May 2014. Perfect day for participants. Two models for the price of one by a quirk of fate as well as the perfect day to illustrate a lot of important points. As for my exposure tests… Meh, as usual so they won’t distract from the discussion with any sort of wonderful-ness. Happened to have my ancient 28mm Pre-AI connected to my camera and didn’t bother changing it up so ignore the framing and my careless perspectives and focus on just skin.

Let’s start with the shot at the top. Light directly from the side, with no real fill in a very large room hence very dark shadows. What was the light like outside? A mix of blue sky and sun almost completely obscured by a bank of clouds that covered only half the sky. That’s an important point as it will give you cooler light than a completely cloud covered sky but warmer light than clear blue sky and no sun. I normalized post processing parameters here for illustration and discussion not optimization. Import preset was VSCO film 02 Portra 400. I set the white balance to my personal tweaked cloudy for my camera. A touch warmer and a touch pinker than what Nikon’s cloudy setting puts out. I didn’t measure it or have a gray card in frame but will assure you it’s technically too cool and a bit too pink.

Let’s take a look at the next shot that’s literally Mary taking one step back.

What’s going on here? The direction changed as the window is more to the front instead of from the side which is obviously quite important. The other thing is the lighting ratio is less. There’s less difference between the highlights and the shadows. How much different? About a stop. The reason isn’t because the fill came up, it’s because the main light from the window is a stop less. I brought the exposure up so that the brightest parts of the skin were about the same as they were in the first shot. Less contrast means more exposure flexibility in where you decide to put your mid-tones… Better? Worse? Neither, just different. Same post processing treatment and still technically on the cooler side and a slight touch on the pink side but that’s okay. In fact I could probably even go a little cooler and it would be okay — a matter of taste. Softer light tends to be okay as cooler, if you go too too warm (and sometimes “technically” neutral it might look too warm due to context) it tends to look off because in nature softer light is almost always cooler — we’ve seen this our entire lives.

Keeping white balance the same setting I shot the same exact shot as the one above but an hour later when Mary was let go and Anastasia stepped in…

Holy shit, that’s way different. How can this be? Same exact shot as the previous one. What the hell… Okay, you might notice the color first off as it’s way different but what’s far far far far different is the light which is associated with the color but is not the primary reason it looks so different.

Technically speaking it still on the cool side of neutral of the main window light but it is warmer. Technically the softer light coming directly thru the window is much cooler too so how can this be? Here’s whats changed and what’s going on if we break it down:

  • The sun came out. You can’t see it based on my framing but the clouds went away, we have full blue sky (hence cooler window light vs cloudy or mostly cloudy) and sun streaming in the windows and hitting the interior of the room all over the place.
  • The most important place the sun is relative to this photo is directly in front of the subject which is providing boatloads of up-light fill, similar to a big reflector bouncing light up right out of frame. Possibly better as in powered fill.
  • The second most important place the suns hitting is everywhere else in the room which serves to bring all of that bounce back fill up even more making the window light coming from camera left and slightly above Anastasia very very close to all the fill. So again even a lower lighting ratio.
  • Last thing is color. The sun is much warmer than the cloudy sky and crazy warmer than the blue sky and now that it’s so close to that “blue sky” main light it’s actually warming all of it up significantly.

Note — very very important. Warming up or playing around with the color will absolutely not make the pictures of Mary look anything like the pictures of Anastasia. It’s the light not the color. Both of which are fine and both of which are technically not “correct”. Note how cool the highlights on Anastasia’s face are. If I were to hold up a gray card and angle it even slightly toward the window then white balance according to that this picture would look crazy warm, crazy saturated and way off. The slightly cool color balance relative to the fill and VERY cool color balance compared to the blue sky window light only are serving to give Anastasia’s skin a less saturated look. Remember I mentioned that the temperature slider can alter how saturated skin is… that’s because it’s very close to the same hue as skin. Well, at least it’s in the same neighborhood.

Let’s take a look at one more shot in terms of color and context. Again not any fine tuning just used my tweaked version of Nikon’s “daylight setting” for my camera which amounts to a half a hair more pink than factory “daylight”.

Technically this white balance is way too warm. If I were to measure it then correct it in post I would most likely get a cooler rendition possibly a pinker rendition as well. Looks fine. I could actually go a bit warmer. Completely different color rendition of Anastasia’s skin so it’s not even based only on the subject. I told you I was hiding that sun via framing. This was in the corner on the floor directly in the background of the shot previous to it. Much warmer and much “greener” in the parts that are directly lit by sun. In nature that hard light screams warmer so typically hard light it’s okay to go with a warmer more saturated rendition. It makes visual sense. The shadows are insanely cool but so dark that’s fine. Even if they were more open as long as they were at a high ratio it would still make sense contextually. It’s what happens in nature and we’re all used to that.

More later, that’s enough to consider for the day. Bringing this stuff together and then mixing in your own personal taste when making decisions on how to render skin is the key rather than some route recipe. Recipe changes based on context and subject and feel and mood. Even what time of day you it actually is or how you want to make the time of day “feel” counts. More red/orange feels more like afternoon generally speaking, more neutral feels like mid-day, more yellow tends to feel more like morning. Just my take on things.


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