How to Get Golden Skin Tones in Your Portrait Photos

Lighting is everything when getting the sunkissed look in your photos.

Fact: most people go about getting those gorgeous golden skin tones using post-production. But what if I told you you didn’t need to. Instead, you can get it by shooting in-camera, and you won’t need post-production. The photos will be perfect right out of the camera. Like a perfect steak, a good portrait shouldn’t be touched at all. And we’re going to talk about how to get those great golden skin-toned portraits.

Daylight or Shade White Balance

First off, everyone knows to shoot during the Golden Hour. Depending on the time of the year, this can last a long time outside. It’s otherwise usually called Sunset or Sunrise. Shoot during that time if you want to work with natural lighting. But later on, we’re going to talk about how to do this any time you wish.

Start by changing your white balance. Set it to Daylight. If your camera doesn’t have that, choose to set the white balance manually. Specifically, you should be able to dial in the kelvin number yourself. Dial-in 5200K or 5500K. This is the daylight setting. It’s usually good enough for what you need to do. Otherwise, choose the shade setting. The shade setting looks at the scene that you’re in and makes it warmer. After all, it’s designed to be used in dim lighting. The only way to balance out the cool light from the shade is to warm it up using this white balance.

For more on this, we’ve got our very own cheat sheet. You can read more about the golden hour effect via the previous hyperlink.

The Keep Warm White Balance Setting

Lots of cameras have a particular setting that will keep the white balance warm. Sony, for example, has that in the menus. But other cameras do it through the specific white balance setting. You can tell it to preserve the white point–which will make the photo more neutral. Otherwise, if you set the camera to keep the images warmer, it will do so. This is fantastic for portraiture if you like that look. More importantly, it will keep those golden skin tones when shooting portraits. 

Part of this also depends on the lenses you’re using. For example, the image above was shot with a Tokina 100mm f2.8 lens. Tokina’s lenses render warmer than Sony’s. So too do Tamron’s. Sigma and Sony lenses tend to remove all sorts of character. They’re incredibly clinical.

If you’re really looking for a great system for this, shoot with Canon or Fujifilm. Canon’s color science has always been top-notch in combination with their lenses. Fujifilm’s lenses are work very well with the company’s film simulations. 

Don’t Underestimate What a Gel Can Do

Here’s where we’re going to talk about using gels and creating your own light. This is best done with a strobe that can do high-speed sync. That means that it can overpower the ambient light of the sun. If you add a warming gel to light, you’ll get the look of the golden sun. That will translate into those beautiful warm golden skin tones that everyone looks for. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think the image below was shot in natural light.

Here’s a fuller tutorial on how we did this shot.

Can you do this with a constant light? It’s challenging to do it. You’ll need to shoot with an electronic shutter speed. That’s probably going to create banding because you’re using artificial light. Balancing the aperture and ISO to the constant light is also really difficult to do. Quite honestly, it’s easier with a flash.

With a flash, you get other cool things like the effects of fast flash duration. That helps kill the ambient light. It also helps add an extra layer of crisp details with specular highlights.

Give it a try!

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.