Tips for Photographing Skin Tones

My idea of quality skin tones
Skin tones can one of the hardest exposure challenges in photography - by dbking

As long as photographers have been taking pictures, they have been chasing the perfect skin tones.  What I’ve discovered over the years is that we’re actually chasing a look that’s better than real life.The look of human skin is not necessarily improved with more detail and the “perfect” exposure is not always the most technically accurate one.

The other problem with human skin is the tone can be wildly variable, depending on genetics, lifestyle factors, age, makeup, and the natural amount of oils in the skin.  Skin tones are, literally, like snowflakes; every one is different and each presents unique challenges.

I’m not above working in post until the subject’s skin looks pure as an Antarctic snowdrift, but I’m going for the absolutely best look I can get out of my Canon 7D to cut down the amount of post processing I have to do later.


Background is key for getting quality skin tones.  If there is too much contrast between the subject’s skin tone and the background you’re going to spending a lot of time in post masking off the subjects face and trying to correct under-exposed skin tones.

You want some color contrast, but not in terms of luminosity.


Whether indoors or out, I’m looking for the most diffuse and even lighting I can find.  The single hydrogen ion key light, located 93 million miles from the subject, filtered through 100 miles of Mark I water vapor filter can be difficult by itself.  I’m looking for reflected sunlight or indirect light in a shaded area.

Most often I’ll still use a diffused fill flash and a reflector at a 45 degree angle.

If I’m shooting indoors, I’m using soft boxes and a snoot for highlights.


Sure, I’ll meter the whole scene, then spot meter my subject and background.  I’ll even pull my incident light meter out of the bag.

In the end, however, and I’m not too proud to admit this, I cheat.  When I’m shooting a portrait, I bracket the daylights out of the shots.

It’s not pretty, but it works.