Portraiture, Skin Tones, and Clothing: Making the Editing Process Easier

If you’re a portrait photographer and you’ve learned how to work with the color channels in Lightroom, then you’re probably aware of some of the potential problems that can occur when editing the channels and how they affect a scene. In some situations, editing skin can be simple enough. But unless you’re using a Color Checker of some sort then you know that it can become very complicated.

Before you go on, I strongly recommend not really taking this post in unless you’ve worked with the color channels and have advanced experience in portraiture. It will probably be very tough to process otherwise. Why? It’s cumulative. However, it’s only briefly touching on this as it can become very complicated.

The Problem

Model: Bec Fordyce. F2.8

Model: Bec Fordyce. F2.8

First off: in the image above the main colors are red, orange/yellow and the green in the background.

So if you don’t totally understand this problem, here’s what I’m talking about broken down into bullets.

  • You and a portrait subject choose to photograph on an on-location spot or with a background.
  • Their skin tone is one color
  • Their wardrobe, makeup, hair, accessories or something else is very close to other parts of the color spectrum: ROYGBIV. So what that means is that for example their skin tones are associated with orange while their wardrobe is red. Also parts of their skin tone is red.
  • It looks wonderful in camera but when you go to edit the images and the specific color channels problems arise and what you do to one channel affects it in the entire scene.

The natural answer to this problem is very selective editing in Photoshop, right? Yes. But why even do that when you can fix it in camera.

The Color Spectrum

raw_issue_colorchecker

Here’s what I’m trying to explain a bit more. Some portrait subjects are more shades of yellow, others are more orange, and then there are other undertones involved depending not only on the lighting in the image but also in the person’s actual skin tones. Some have red, some have green and with others it can change.

Fernando's skin tone is associated with orange, his shirt is blue and the trees are green.

Fernando’s skin tone is associated with orange, his shirt is blue and the trees are green. It makes editing simpler without adding an overwhelming amount of color.

Then pile those one with variables like the wardrobe and the natural environmental colors.

If a person’s skin tone is associated more with orange, then when you manipulate orange in Lightroom various things will change accordingly. All of this depends on the color spectrum.

Avoiding the Problem in Camera

In this image, Anthony has orangish skin, there is red tinges from the background and his undertones and highlights of blue on his shirt.

In this image, Anthony has orangish skin, there is red tinges from the background and his undertones and highlights of blue on his shirt. Adjusting one of these colors affects a large area.

If you’ve ever studied the imagery of Steve McCurry, then you’ll understand what he does with portraits.

  • The skin tone is one color
  • Their wardrobe is another color in another part of the spectrum
  • Their background is another color in the spectrum

He keeps the colors pretty simple and not overwhelming. Usually there are three main colors–and that’s what I really recommend when creating these images.

Here are some examples:

Orange, Yellow, Blue and Magenta are all clearly defined here.

Orange, Yellow, Blue and Magenta are all clearly defined here.

Orange, blue, and green/yellow

Orange, blue, and green/yellow

Green, Orange and Yellow

Green, Orange and Yellow

Blue, Orange, and Red undertones dominate here.

Blue, Orange, and Red undertones dominate here.

Blue, Orange and Magenta dominate this one

Blue, Orange and Magenta dominate this one. You could say red too.

Orange/Red, Purple/Blue and Green/Yellow are fairly clearly defined here so it makes editing easier.

Orange/Red, Purple/Blue and Green/Yellow are fairly clearly defined here so it makes editing easier.

The Editing Process

To start off, I usually either get a completely neutral white balance point by finding a middle gray pixel or I adjust that white balance first. Then I adjust the shadows and highlight shades/saturation accordingly by working from the bottom of the develop panel in Lightroom and moving up. The individual color channels are edited accordingly to what I need in the final image. Then fine tuning the highlights, lights, shadows, darks and then the basic adjustments are done last. It’s basically what I do in the posts that I linked to previously. However, it’s much easier this time because colors are very easily defined into their own partitions.

So it really means that you need to be on top of your game with choosing the colors and all.