Last Updated on 11/11/2021 by Chris Gampat
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This post is motivated by watching a YouTuber with a Mamiya RB67 photograph folks with darker skin like mine. But nothing was done about the all-natural lighting. And as a result, there were no details in the person being photographed at all. It’s made me realize that there’s a stark lack of representation in models within photo instructionals. That shoot was done with a very digital workflow that relies on fixing it all in post-production. The problem could’ve been solved easily. Look, I’ve long believed the theory that color film and photography were developed for folks with lighter skin. I’ve done my own research into the matter myself for years now. And here’s what I’ve learned after photographing so many different types of models with a different skin. This is a quick, surface-level introduction to how to photograph black skin and dark skin like mine.
Editor’s Note: Before I go on, this subject matter was typed into our search engine. And I’m giving a few general tips. Obviously, a creative vision may make things much different. But these are general places to start. I’ll never forget when someone said to me that they thought Phoblographer was run by a white man. But for the record, I’m a New York-born Guyanese man of Indian descent. That fact alone should really put down any accusations of racism. If anything, I feel we need to shine more than we do in current media. So if you want more tips like this, check out what else we’ve got.
Contrasting Color, Skin, White Balance, Shadows and Highlights
The most important thing to think about here is contrasting colors. This is going to run holistically through the entire process. Steve McCurry always did this with the people that he photographed. When you photograph someone with lighter skin tones, you typically try to add warmth to the photo. But when photographing folks that have black skin or darker skin, it’s a better idea to add a cooler white balance. Because of the way that photography was created and how color science has evolved, this is generally what works better for us. Cameras register our skin tones with orange, but we’re a very dark orange according to cameras and post-production software. All of my experiences have told me this.
To think about this a bit like how cameras do, equate our skin to filling in shadows and darker areas. When a camera looks at us, it sees deep shadows and a deep black area. But when photographing someone with lighter skin, it registers someone more in the white area of the editing panel. To bring out more of those details you need more light. If you gave the same amount of light that we dark-skinned folks need to an extremely white-skinned person that barely sees the sun, you’d blow out the highlights. The camera would register their skin as the highlights and whites–and then you’d have to recover the highlights. With us, you need to boost the shadows when we’re shot at a similar exposure setting.
So generally speaking, whiter skin goes for a warmer white balance. And darker skin goes for cooler white balance. On top of that, make the colors in the scene contrast and give the scene more light.
Your creative vision may vary. But generally speaking, warmer white balances really don’t work. I know that I’ve said this a number of times, but it’s important to hit home on.
Mixing it Together
I was going through our archives to look at folks who we’ve shot with darker skin. This image from the Mermaid Parade is a great example. I was shooting with the light on camera left. As you can see, she’s blown out quite a bit, but he isn’t. I should’ve brought the light to the right side, but I didn’t because it was a lot easier to shoot with the camera in my right hand.
Above is a photo where I photographed a man with darker skin during the Polar Bear plunge. Becuase the light is hitting him directly, it’s a lot easier to see the details on him while balancing for the background. Unfortunately, there is no given formula either because we all come in different shades.
The photos below all show folks with darker skin and a more balanced scene because of the cooler white balance and more light hitting them.
Pro Tip: Deep set eyes and darker skin tones really need a reflector. The key to how to photograph Black skin in this case is a silver/soft-silver reflector, daylight white balance, and watching the colors.
A Silver Reflector: The Key on How to Photograph Black Skin and Darker Skin
This is a photo of me above. I have darker skin. This photo was shot in the middle of winter when I’m not darker like I am in the summer. A warm white balance would’ve messed with the skin tones a whole lot. It also would’ve messed with editing the colors. But a cooler white balance adds separation combined with extra light.
That cooler white balance and light can be achieved by using a silver reflector and silver light modifiers. Typically, silver is reserved for products or scenes where you need a lot more details. But darker skinned folks like me need it to bring out the details regardless.
Here’s a tip: try soft-silver. This is a combination of silver and white light reflectors. It softens the look of the light and gives a bit of extra pop and detail to the darker areas of the photo.
In summary, it’s time for us to approach portrait photography totally differently. The era of capturing a portrait is pretty passive. We should aim to create. You as a photographer should be a director and totally organize the entire shoot. Of course, collaborations are fantastic. But don’t leave it all to be done in post-production. Sometimes you just won’t get the colors you’ll need to edit later on and that’s going to make things tougher.