Tips for Mastering Skin Tones on Camera

Posted on: Apr 20, 2023

A film production crew in a nice home prepping the actress for the shoot.Photo courtesy of B.P. Edwards

By B.P. Edwards

As a Cinematographer, you’ll be capturing a wide variety of talented people with an ever wider variety of skin tones. As science and education would have it, your light meter will give you an approximation for the correct exposure of an image but technical correctness does not always work on the wide gamut of skin tones you’re bound to run into on your photographic journey.

You may have a great exposure, but you may not understand why one person looks great in camera while another may not be as flattered by your technique

Fret not! Skin tones are nothing to be afraid of, friend. Here are some helpful tips to help you master skin tones on camera and nail your image, regardless of who is in frame.

What are skin tones?

You’ll regularly hear the terminology ‘skin tone’ but there are so many factors that determine how a person’s skin tone will look on camera… So what exactly is a skin tone? Skin tone is biologically defined as the amount of melanin in the outermost layer of the skin, or the epidermis, and serves as your body’s natural absorption of light. Melanin is present in all humans, but a higher concentration of melanin in the body results in darker features such as skin, eyes, hair, etc.

In short, the terminology skin tone is a barebones way of determining the lightness and darkness of a person’s skin. Exposing purely for lightness vs darkness is only step one of a much larger puzzle that includes the many other facets of skin including skin undertone, pore size, skin reflectiveness, moisture volume and even the impacts on the light spectrum as it relates to the concentration of melanin.

Why is all of this important?

Every person’s skin is an ever-changing organ with many different factors as to why it looks the way it does. With that in mind, exposing skin with a light meter may be technically correct to expose an image but does not take into consideration the colors, undertones, blotches and reflectiveness of each person you meter.

As a cinematographer, your aim is to overcome these hurdles by developing a better sense of these factors on each of your subjects with the goal of creating a flattering image. Cinematography and photography techniques were largely created based on the exposure of fairer/lighter skin, so the study of melanin on camera sensors is largely unknown and often results in darker skin being highly reflective, paler or ashy looking, or flat out unflattering.

How do I make everyone look good on camera?

Exposing skin tones takes a lot of intentionality from equipment selection to collaborating with crew to learn more about your subjects. Here are my recommendations for making sure every person in front of your lens looks amazing:

1. Pick the right lights
All lighting equipment is not created equal. Every light has what’s called a Color Rendering Index, or CRI. A light’s CRI is a measured number between 0 and 100 that determines the light’s ability to show an object’s naturally present colors. A light source with a CRI of 100 is a source that renders the truest colors with all of their distinctions while a source with a CRI closer to 0 will appear flat and muddy. Choosing lighting equipment with a higher CRI will create a more quality light and bring out a wider spectrum of colors to your subjects. Incandescent and Halogen sources have a value of 100, while LED and Fluorescent lights can vary. Ask your rental house or sales agent for the CRI values of the lights before taking them out to set.

2. All sensors are not created equal
With such a wide variety of digital cinema cameras, you’ll see an even wider variety of technology inside of the cameras. Depending on the manufacturer and model of each sensor, the variance in how your camera captures skin tone will vary. Higher calibur cinema cameras, for example, include an Optical Low Pass Filter (OLPF) that reduces the high-frequency spectrum information from being recorded. The presence of high-frequency information in your footage or film often results in color fringing, moiré and aliasing due to the presence of artificial lighting.

3. Work with a makeup artist
Makeup artists spend a great amount of time profiling your subject’s skin, undertones, pores, etc. Any makeup artist on set will be able to look at your image on a monitor and know if the subject’s undertone is not flattered by the color temperature of the lights. Inviting a makeup artist to a prep day will greatly increase your probability of exposing every skin tone properly by allowing you the time to find middle grounds for properly lighting darker and lighter talent.

4. Repetition, repetition, repetition
Lighting different skin tones will require practice. The best way to nail variance in skin tones is to work on it as regularly and frequently as possible on camera tests and projects. Trying different combinations of lighting techniques, sources and equipment is a great way to start finding your footing. Start with sunlight and other sources with your camera to see how the skin and grow your knowledge base from scratch.

Skin tones are nothing to be afraid of in our line of work, the process of capturing your subject’s skin tone in its best light is trial and error just like anything else. Educating yourself on the various layers of skin will prove to be a useful tool in your journey in cinematic excellence.

Happy Shooting Filmmaker!

B.P. Edwards worked hard to establish his identity as a Director of Photography.
Photo courtesy of B.P. Edwards.
B.P. Edwards is a Director, Cinematographer and Camera Operator from Pasadena, CA. Since picking up the camera in 2015, he has worked on a wide variety of projects ranging from feature-length and short films to commercials, music videos and documentaries. In 2022, he was inducted into the Society of Camera Operators as an Associate Member and has since continued to hone his talents in working above and below the line. He is a proud graduate of Langston University, and the owner of the production company, BEARVISION.

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