Learning how to master skin tone is a skill every photographer should learn. Follow these tips for capturing and editing images of any skin tone.

It’s important to create images that will set you apart from other photographers in the industry. Having a unique shooting and editing style is definitely important. However, photographers should spend a little extra time learning how to edit for different skin tones. Here we share a few tips on how you can master those skills, and edit stunning images of people.

Editing Skin Tone: The Techniques You Need to Master — Why Accurate Skin Tones Matter
There’s no better time than today to master your editing skills. Image by Dundanim.

Why is editing skin tone correctly important?

There’s nothing more disappointing for a photographer than realizing their beautifully shot portrait has unnatural skin tones or weird color casts, and they’ll need to spend more time editing to correct these images.

One of the most common mistakes photographers make when editing skin tone is that their subjects appear lighter, darker, or tanner than they really are. Whatever your editing style is, make sure you keep track of what the skin actually looks like in real life and try to stay close to that.

Editing Skin Tone: The Techniques You Need to Master — Emulate Real Skin
Your skin tone edit should emulate the person’s real skin tone. Image by Paradise Studio.

5 Tips on Setting up Your Camera for Photographing People

Before we start talking about editing for different skin tones, here are a few things to consider during your shoot. These on-set tips will set you up to have quicker editing times. Practice these new skills on old archive images of people, or shoot new images of family around the home to practice your skin tone editing skills.

Tip #1: Shoot in RAW

You’ve probably heard this plenty of times. But, shooting RAW retains the most amount of data on a file, which really does allow you to have more flexibility during your post-processing. Shooting RAW is also an easier way to achieve natural skin tones.

Shooting in RAW captures the most detail in an image. Images by Daxiao Productions.

Tip #2: Have the Right Exposure 

Understand the skin tone you are shooting for. For example, if you’re shooting someone who is caucasian, try overexposing the skin a little. This will make the skin a bit smoother and softer. On the other hand, if you’re shooting a model with darker skin tones then make sure you’re exposing for the models’ face.

Editing Skin Tone: The Techniques You Need to Master — Expose for the Model's Face
Expose for your models face when shooting portraits. Image by Jaroslav Monchak.

Tip #3: Use the Spot Meter Setting in Your Camera

Using this meter system will help you expose for the correct skin tone. Just make sure the spot meter is falling on the subject’s face when you set your focus. Here’s another great guide on setting up your spot meter. 

Editing Skin Tone: The Techniques You Need to Master — Use the Spot Meter
The spot meter setting is your friend when shooting photos of people. Image by kuzmaphoto.

Tip #4: Choose the Correct White Balance 

Most DSLRs give you the option of choosing different white balance modes. Cameras in 2020 are extremely good at reading the overall exposure and white balance of the image you want to capture.

Editing Skin Tone: The Techniques You Need to Master — Choose the Correct White Balance
Kelvin mode is a great mode for capturing images of people. Image by Gansstock.

However, we recommend learning to shoot using Kelvin mode. Kelvin is a manual white balance setting on DSLRs, and it allows you to manually adjust the temperature of the setting while you’re shooting. It is the most flexible and accurate white balance setting. It does take a while to get used to shooting with this mode, but once you get used it you won’t ever want to go back to shooting Auto.

Tip #5: Bring a gray card

If you want to get a bit more specific, we recommend carrying a gray card with you during shoots and have your model hold it for one frame. A gray card is a middle gray reference, typically used together with a reflective light meter to help produce a consistent image exposure and color. A gray card provides you with a reference point to start shooting.

These tips are great to keep in mind to minimize the amount of post-production you have to do to edit skin tone. One thing to remember when editing skin tones is to make sure you have a flattering representation of your model’s skin tone.

Editing Skin Tone: The Techniques You Need to Master — Bring a Gray Card
Bring a gray card for a reference point before you start shooting. Image by Rawpixel.com.

4 Post-Production Tips: Editing Skin Tone

As funny as it may sound, tweaking and editing is a lot like choosing the right makeup. Something that looks good on someone with light, cooler tones in their skin might not look good on someone with a darker, warmer tone.

If setting up your camera isn’t helping you achieve perfect skin tones, there are some easy steps you can take in post-production to achieve perfect tones for your subject’s skin. 

Tip #1: Pay attention to RGB numbers.

The first thing a photographer needs to pay attention to when editing skin tones is the RGB values. A quick and easy rule of thumb to remember about RGB numbers is:

  • The blue percentage value should be the lowest value.
  • The green percentage value should be higher than the blue value by at least one point.
  • The red percentage value should be the highest value and at least two points over the green value. 

RGB values help guide your image edit. Images by Olena Yakobchuk.

Knowing the RGB values of skin tones will help you know which color you need to focus on when correcting a particular image. If you’re editing a model with light skin tone your RGB values will be higher than if you were editing a model with darker skin tone. Pay attention to these numbers throughout the editing process.

Tip #2: Tweak the White Balance

Adjusting white balance should be something you focus on before applying any other changes to the color values of any skin tone. Additionally, white balance is often the cause of unwanted color casts (a tint of a particular color that affects an image).

Editing Skin Tone: The Techniques You Need to Master — Tweak the White Balance
Tweak the white balance to neutral. Image by snglrty.

Most post-processing tools (i.e. Lightroom, Photoshop) have a white balance dropper. Use this dropper tool to adjust white balance by setting the dropper over a medium-gray tone in your image. A good place to set your dropper are the whites of the eyes, or any other area of your image that is neutral (gray).

Tip #3: Adjust the Exposure

If your image is underexposed, skin tones might look a bit oversaturated and uneven. Bringing up the exposure will correct this and smooth the skin out. However, be careful to protect the natural color of the model’s skin tone. Use the before and after features to ensure you are protecting a model’s likeness and true skin tone.

Editing Skin Tone: The Techniques You Need to Master — Adjust the Exposure
Adjust the exposure for skin tone. Image by Diego Cervo.

Tip #4: HSL (Hue, Saturation, Luminance)

Get familiar with your Hue, Saturation, and Luminance panel and use it strategically. The most important colors to remember for skin tones are oranges and reds, as these are the most prominent colors found in various skin tones.

Editing Skin Tone: The Techniques You Need to Master — HSL (Hue, Saturation, Luminance)
Get familiar with your HSL panel to help you bring out colors. Image by Mostovyi Sergii Igorevich.

There are many other options during post-processing to help you achieve the perfect skin tone. Like most things in photography, getting the perfect results takes practice and time. We hope this helps you get started on finding your own unique style.


Top image by Benevolente82.

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