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Understanding Skin Tones For Better Boudoir Photography

Understanding Skin Tones For Better Boudoir Photography - Why you need to pay particular attention to skin tone when shooting boudoir photography.

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Category : Portraits and People
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This is an extract from the book Boudoir Photography -The Complete Guide to Shooting Intimate Portraits. Visit Ilex for more information.

Boudoir photography Book CoverThere is nothing human vision reacts more sensitively to than skin. And there are not many other types of photography that show more skin than boudoir photography. So be extremely particular about skin tones!

Get confident in your judgment of skin tones; if in doubt seek an opinion from someone else. Also, some people can discern color less well than others; men are more often affected by this than women. With training, feedback, and the use of tools like color numbers in software, this can usually be overcome, but it is something to be aware of.

The most obvious problem with skin tones occurs when they are too reddish, or, in technical terms, the amount of magenta in the color mix is too high. The less controlled your lighting environment is at the shoot, the higher the risk is of getting unpleasant skin tones. A typical scenario is when you are dragging the shutter (you are using long exposure times) to get much of the room lights, and then add flash. High ISO settings can have a similar effect. This can result in mixed light on the skin and an unpleasant magenta cast. The easiest way to correct this is to shift your white balance’s Tint slider toward green. Working with raw files will give you much more leverage here. If this results in an unwanted color cast in the rest of the image, you might have to resort to local corrections, which most software products offer, be it masking or brushes.

Another thing that can affect skin tone is overexposure. Film was much more forgiving than digital is now; digital often shows hue shifts in overexposed segments. Again, skin tone is the most sensitive area. Different software reacts differently, but most of the time a shift to orange or magenta can be seen in overexposed skin. Try to avoid overexposing, especially when working in warmer light. If your camera can show a RGB histogram, make sure the R (red) channel is not severely overexposed. Raw processing software provides a control called “Recovery” (Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw, Apple Aperture), “Highlight” (Canon DPP, Phase One Capture One) or “Highlight Protection” (Nikon Capture NX2), which can save some of the overexposed highlights. In tougher cases backing off the exposure slider and compensating with fill light can help—a technique that works exceptionally well in Lightroom. If all else fails, a conversion to black and white can save an otherwise great image.

 White balance card
A white balance card can make it easy to achieve correct colors and pleasant skin tones. Take a picture of the card, then click the white balance picker in your raw converter. You can always use this as a starting point and modify from there. Re-shoot the card when the lighting changes. Do not confuse white balance cards with the old gray cards that were used to expose correctly. These are not perfectly neutral. The WhiBal card is of highest quality and is extremely neutral and durable. There are also white balance tools that feature tinted fields of gray that will warm up or cool down an image when clicked on. X-rite’s ColorChecker Passport and ColorRight are prominent examples.

 Very cool and bluish window light from a clear blue sky rendered the skin cool and pale.
Very cool and bluish window light from a clear blue sky rendered the skin cool and pale. Sometimes the camera’s auto white balance can correct successfully, sometimes not. Different camera makes and brands vary widely in their auto white balance capabilities. In this case, the color temperature was raised in the raw converter’s white balance controls.
 Window light white balance correction

It is hard to judge skin tones if they are only a small portion of a photo; in such cases, zoom in while you are color balancing for pleasant skin tones. Depending on your style, you might love highly saturated colors in your images. This, however, shows skin tones that are “off” much more readily than a picture with low saturation. In these cases you may need to work twice as hard on your skin tones, as overly saturated skin is likely to look bad. You can solve this by locally desaturating your image where skin shows. For this some raw converters provide brushes, while Photoshop lets you mask a desaturation adjustment layer. Another important parameter to control saturation is vibrancy. This only affects colors with low saturation, and also has only a slight effect on skin tones. Compared to increasing saturation, vibrancy has a much more pleasant effect on skin tones.

Outdoors skin can look green from the reflection off the grass 
Problems can arise when grass or foliage are predominant in a scene. The first image was white balanced more or less correctly; however, green light reflected from the grass onto the model’s skin. Shifting the white balance tint control toward magenta improves the situation. Another way to deal with it is to add neutral light with either a flash or a reflector that brings in sunlight. The second image shows what can happen when auto white balance was used. The camera overcompensated for the green and turned the image magenta. This needs to be countered with a tint shift toward green.
 Auto white balance
 

PRO TIP:

Use gels to bring the flash’s color closer to the room light—typical gels to warm up flash are CTO (Convert to Orange) or CTS (Convert to Straw). Alternatively, bring enough flash on your subject that it overpowers the room light on skin sections. Always be aware of a common pitfall with mixed lights: the shadow sections. This refers to where one of the two light sources (room light and flash) may be hitting the subject, but the other is not. A color cast in the shadows will be the result. Using halogen video light is another way of dealing with similar light colors.

 Under tungsten lighting
Tungsten light threw a yellow cast on the subject, so the image had to be cooled down significantly by reducing the color temperature in the raw converter. White balance can be applied much more effectively and with less loss of image quality if the image is shot in raw format.
 

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