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How to Photograph Mixed Skin Tones

by Elena Wilkins

If you ever had my family as your clients, you could feel a tad lost at how to photograph us. Why? Well, there are three of us, and we come in a wide range of skin tones—from my fairly light skin, to my husband’s, pretty dark and handsome; our child fits right in between. We are a true colored family—a perfect fusion of all tones—a photographer’s conundrum, or, maybe even, a nightmare!

Who do you expose for? The mom? The child? Or the father? All three of us would need different camera settings… or a few tricks to make magic happen.

Because very few photographers get enough experience to properly shoot families like mine, or people of darker color in general, and even fewer know to properly process such images to perfection, we always find it hard to find the “perfect” photographer for us. I remember the first time I organized a multi-photographer photo shoot in the Northwest (Washington State), and brought my husband to it—he was everyone’s favorite model to practice on, since he happened to be the very first person of darker hue for most of the photographers at the event. Since I am the photographer and often the subject in our family images, I have been able to perfect these skills.

In this post I will share a few of my tricks, which helped me successfully satisfy not only my picky taste, but many of my darker complexion clients, as well as families, much like mine, with mixed skin tones.

But first, meet my colorful family.

My perfect child. It is the mother’s right to think that her child is the cutest and most perfect :).

How-to-Photograph-Mixed-Skin-Tones-5

The beautiful duo—both loves of my life.
How-to-Photograph-Mixed-Skin-Tones-4

How-to-Photograph-Mixed-Skin-Tones-3

Things to keep in mind for this post:

  1. as a photographer, I use only natural light—I shoot almost exclusively outside, on location, and barely ever use fill flash, even with darker skin people;
  2. studio techniques for photographing people of color or mixed skin tones might be slightly different—I will not be covering them in this post;
  3. I do not use reflectors, since I shoot solo, but they might be helpful, if you have an assistant;
  4. I shoot RAW, so that I could easily adjust highlights and shadows in post processing;
  5. when I refer to people of color, I mean ALL people, since all of us are of some color :),
  6. I live by a motto: get images right in the camera as much as possible to cut down on post processing time—I usually spend no more than 30-60 seconds per image in post processing.

5 Tips and Tricks to Photograph People of Color

1. It’s all about clothing

If at all possible, I ask my dark skin complexion clients not to wear white clothing. It makes life easier. In cases of wedding, as you can imagine, this is not an option. Sometimes I do have clients who want to be wearing white clothing specifically—I never say no! I will discuss how to make those images magical in post processing shortly.

During my initial consultation with clients, we discuss best clothing options for the shoot, depending on the look we want to achieve and the mood they want to create. Often my clients come with a few sets of clothing to the shoot and a wide range of jewelry (for the ladies, and I help them coordinate to create the best, and the most magical images.

I coordinated every piece of clothing and accessories for this shoot, at my client’s request

I coordinated every piece of clothing and accessories for this shoot, at my client’s request

2. Away from Bright Lights

I love to shoot either early in the morning or in the evening, when the sun goes down, lavishing its golden rays to create perfect magic. In cases, especially with weddings, if that is not an option, and I have to shoot in the afternoon sun, I look for evenly shaded areas, so there is no competition between the natural light and my subjects’ skin. If all else fails, I do use fill flash.

This image was shot in an evenly shaded area, away from harsh light. I exposed for Francesca’s face.

This image was shot in an evenly shaded area, away from harsh light. I exposed for Francesca’s face.

3. Expose for the Skin

When shooting a darker skin complexion person, expose for the face. Get the face right, and the rest of the image will fall into place.

If she is wearing complimentary colored clothing, concentrate on getting perfect skin tone, so you won’t need to spend too much time in post processing, and also have something to show your client during the shoot to inspire her with her beauty.

Courtnee’s face was my focus; the brick, as gorgeous as it is, was easily darkened back to its beauty in post processing with a quick action and a few brush strokes

Courtnee’s face was my focus; the brick, as gorgeous as it is, was easily darkened back to its beauty in post processing with a quick action and a few brush strokes

4. Balancing Whites and Darker Skin Tones

If your clients are wearing light clothing, especially true with weddings, make sure not to blow out highlights, so you can adjust it in post processing. This is why I shoot RAW, without exception, when it comes to weddings. I want to make sure I still can tone down my whites in post processing.

In these images I focused on my clients’ faces, making sure not to blow out whites, so I would still get detail in the dress, the shirt and the veil in post processing. In post processing, I used Bridge/Camera Raw, I brought down highlights and whites, bumped shadows, and then finished magic in Photoshop, selectively processing areas of the images that needed extra attention.

In these images I focused on my clients’ faces, making sure not to blow out whites, so I would still get detail in the dress, the shirt and the veil in post processing. In post processing, I used Bridge/Camera Raw, I brought down highlights and whites, bumped shadows, and then finished magic in Photoshop, selectively processing areas of the images that needed extra attention.

In these images I exposed for Candice, since she was the focal point of the images, and ensured that whites were not blown out, so they could be fixed, if needed, in post processing

In these images I exposed for Candice, since she was the focal point of the images, and ensured that whites were not blown out, so they could be fixed, if needed, in post processing

In this image of my little girl, she was facing away from direct light, I made sure to get her face just right, in camera, which left some of the highlights in her dress just a tad too bright. Not to worry! I was able to fix that in post processing, in less than 20 seconds!

In this shot, since she was facing direct light, I made sure not to blow out highlights, so, her face turned out a tad darker, but the dress was not blown out. In post processing I lightened the face and darkened the dress. The image turned out magical, although she might not have been too happy to be interrupted for the image during her playtime.

In this shot, since she was facing direct light, I made sure not to blow out highlights, so, her face turned out a tad darker, but the dress was not blown out. In post processing I lightened the face and darkened the dress. The image turned out magical, although she might not have been too happy to be interrupted for the image during her playtime.

I will mention actions used in processing these two image at the end of the post

I will mention actions used in processing these two image at the end of the post

5. Go for the Mid-Range: Photographing Mixed Skin Tones in the Same Image

If you are photographing people of different skin tones in the same image, go for the mid-range; the rest can be adjusted in post-processing. I always make sure that the lightest person is not too light, while the darkest person is not too dark. If the lightest person turns out too light, you might have a case of blown highlights, and no Photoshop tricks will fix that. If the darkest person turns out too dark and you will try to adjust it in post processing, there might be too much digital noise on that person’s face, compared to the rest of the image.

When I photograph my husband and myself, I usually take a couple of test shots to make sure I do now pale completely next to him. Having over ten years of experience, however, these days I normally do a quick test shot with just him in it, since I know how I would look next to him.

When I photograph my husband and myself, I usually take a couple of test shots to make sure I do now pale completely next to him. Having over ten years of experience, however, these days I normally do a quick test shot with just him in it, since I know how I would look next to him.

Magic Happens in Post Processing

How to Post Process Images with Mixed Skin Tones

While batch processing is the best thing since sliced bread, as you can imagine it is not always possible in situations such as I just described. Batch post-processing can be done only to a point—you could not just throw all images of clients with mixed skin tones into Lightroom and have magic happen. Some selective image post-processing (processing only parts of the images) will need to be done.

Most of us are visual people, so instead of trying to explain something with a thousand words, I created a ten minute video to show you how I photograph and post-process images of clients with mixed skin tones to perfection.

How to Photograph Mixed Skin Tones from Elena Wilkins on Vimeo.

Here are the images used in the video, and, as promised, a list of actions I used in post-processing.

How-to-Photograph-Mixed-Skin-Tones-2

Actions used:

same set of actions used to process this image

same set of actions used to process this image

In the two images of my little girl, after adjusting them in Bridge/Camera Raw (I decreased highlights to -82, bumped up shadows by +50 and added contrast at +24), I used the same actions as in these images, with an addition of:

I hope that having read this post you will feel more equipped to photograph people of color and know how you can create magic in post-processing.

Happy Shooting!

Elena Wilkins is a lifestyle and wedding photographer. Since becoming a Mom, she took a break from full-time photography, concentrating on raising her baby and running a health and nutrition blog Vegalicious, which is filled with images of delicious foods and her colorful family. She still photographs occasional weddings and sessions, dedicating herself to serving people who need her expertise the most—people of color and families with mixed skin tones. She is getting ready to relaunch her photography web-site, Color Fusions, which she will dedicate to sharing tips and tricks of the trade, and serving her colorful clients.

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  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/wlschlueter photography

    You could certainly see your expertise in the paintings you write. The sector hopes for even more passionate writers such as you who are not afraid to mention how they believe. All the time go after your heart.

  • Kathleen Mekailek

    I come from a Caucasian family, my brother married a woman from Puerto rico, and they adopted an African American boy and a Hispanic boy. I will definitely be using your tips to help make their portraits better!

  • Taina Williams

    Thank you! I have half Finn, half Nigerian daughter, so do many of my friends and they are all different shades of brown, also one of my friend is half Finn, half Moroccan and has a baby with a man from Kongo. I doubt many people can takes family photos of us here in Nortern Europe. I’m brave enough to try :D

Some older comments

  • photography

    September 18, 2013 07:58 am

    You could certainly see your expertise in the paintings you write. The sector hopes for even more passionate writers such as you who are not afraid to mention how they believe. All the time go after your heart.

  • dani

    September 6, 2013 12:56 am

    What program do you use for editing / post processing?

  • Shawn Weekly

    September 5, 2013 02:40 am

    Thanks for this post! I am a newbie, and this is extremely helpful as most of my photos deal with a diverse group of complexions. You rock!

  • Darlene

    September 4, 2013 01:37 pm

    Yes I have noticed comments with images embedded do tend to get stuck in the system for longer

  • Elena

    September 4, 2013 12:56 pm

    Thanks, @Darlene! It just happened that I submitted them last week, and other comments got approved, so I was not sure if the image attachment might have been an issue.

  • Darlene

    September 4, 2013 12:48 pm

    @Elena

    The comments you aren't seeing just haven't been posted yet. All comments on this site get moderated by the editor so you may get an email notice of them before they are approved and on the site. I'm a regular writer here also. http://digital-photography-school.com/author/darlene-hildebrandt

  • Elena

    September 4, 2013 12:10 pm

    Rafa, grey card might be very useful. I personally can get images right, as much as possible, in the camera even without. When there is a HUGE difference in skin tones, then some post processing will be required regardless.

    Per Ulrik, it might be a Capture One option. I know that Lightroom might have some options as well for that. This is a basic tutorial for all levels, since not all photographers use more complicated tools.

  • Elena

    September 4, 2013 12:01 pm

    Everyone, thank you for your kind comments about this post and about my family! It was an honor guest posting here!

  • Elena

    September 4, 2013 12:00 pm

    Dr. Jones, I hope that you can now have great images of you and your husband :).

    Martha, I totally agree--digital makes life much better. My own wedding was shot no film, and even having transferred images on CDs there is not much that can be done to them now.

  • Elena

    September 4, 2013 11:58 am

    Pepa, seems like my response to you did not get posted either. I use Adobe Cloud. I think the current version of photoshop is PS6.

  • Elena

    September 4, 2013 11:57 am

    Katy, I posted a response to your question, but it does not seem like the comment was approved to post here. I did a quick edit of one of the images of your session http://www.colorfusions.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/dps-before-after.jpg. I think you can make some magic ;). Their blue outfits can look good too.

  • Elena

    September 4, 2013 11:55 am

    Darlene, thank you. I actually always emphasize on getting the image right SOOC! If grey cards work--great! Do it! I personally have enough experience to do one, at the most, two, test shots, and I am good to go. If you see my before and after, my SOOC images are pretty much close to the final image.

    When there is a HUGE difference between skin tones, however, even with grey cards you will be needing some post processing. There is no way around it. As you yourself experienced even with film.

    As for watermarks--I believe in them, use them all the time with anything done online. Had my images stolen before, and even watermarked cropped out. I do also embed my information into each image, but yes, anything that goes online is watermarked, and I normally try to end up with something over a very important part of the image.

    When I give images to the client, I normally provide them with a set of resized, watermarked images they can use online. High res. images, of course, are not marked.

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    September 3, 2013 09:25 am

    OH By the way you have a gorgeous family!

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    September 3, 2013 09:13 am

    Also curious your stand on watermarks? There seems to be much debate about them lately, use them, don't use them, do they even work to stop image theft?

    What are your thoughts, I'm interested, because I see you have used them on your images and they're quite prominent. Do you put the same sized marks on client images you show online also?

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    September 3, 2013 09:11 am

    Interesting article. Over the years I've had a chance to photograph many different skin tones alone and mixed together. For sure my toughest was similar to your Martha. I was shooting film in the studio and had a groom in black from Jamaica and a bride in white dress from Canada and as pasty white as they come (I know I'm that pasty).

    I had to put extra lights on the side of the studio facing him and in the darkroom still had to dodge him just to get him to show up. Yes really tough.

    Elena you mention post processing fixes a lot and Rafa mentioned using a grey card or hand held incident light meter. Do you not use those things? It would ensure a "correct" exposure no matter what color or tone the subject matter is then the need for post processing corrections may be greatly reduced.

  • Photondulator

    September 2, 2013 02:51 am

    Elena: Ok, thanks a lot for clarifying this.

  • Alejandro Camacho

    September 1, 2013 03:25 am

    Thank you very much Elena and also congrats for having such a nice family. You gave us a topic no so much covered in literature so it is very helpful. Question: what about HDR processing for these cases. Thank you and keep on loving your family and work as you do now.

  • Elena

    August 31, 2013 09:02 am

    Todd, thanks for suggestions. I do use fill flash when I feel that the image calls for it. The image of the groom, that you mention, was done so purposefully. As artists we do have different interpretations of the same scenario. I am sure that you would have come up with some awesome shots too, if you were there.

    Pocatello Photography, thank you!

  • Elena

    August 31, 2013 09:00 am

    Juan, yes she is. Interestingly, she did end up marrying a man of a much lighter hue ;)--a gorgeous couple.

    Marsha, thank you.

    Pat, thank you! And it is very rewarding to give the best experience possible to people of all skin colors and tones. Everyone should feel beautiful, especially when paying for professional services.

    Thanks, Tania!

    Angie, it sounds like you have an amazingly fun family! When photographing your bride, make sure not to completely blow the highlights. You can always adjust her skin tone in post processing to make it look just right.

  • Elena

    August 31, 2013 08:56 am

    Nadia, I would love to come to Canada! :) Not all communities as diverse in colors as Toronto sounds. We lived in a town once, where African American population was less than 1%! Yikes!

    dr.albert, thank you. Yes, I find that there is not enough information on this topic out there, but I think as our country becomes more diverse, as do our families, there will be more and more need for the expertise.

    Brian Fuller, yes, practice is necessary. Play with your settings. I shoot in Manual only, so I have control over every aspect of the image. It makes my life easier in post processing. When photographing people, also watch out for the light source and maximize it. You have some great images on your flickr site.

  • Elena

    August 31, 2013 08:29 am

    Khürt L. Williams, when we do on location shots, clients change in the car for the most part, unless there is a library or some sort of restroom nearby. Most of my clients are women, so help with privacy, by holding up a towel or something of sorts, if needed.

    William, thank you! She is the light of my eyes!

    photondulator, no, no misnaming. The one on the right is processed in a way that is light and airy, and shows her face and her dress being properly exposed.

  • Pocatello Photography, Cramer Imaging

    August 31, 2013 05:23 am

    This is a great topic to discuss for portrait photography. There are so many families these days which are arising out of different peoples intermixing. It does create a variety of skin tones to worry about. I will be keeping your tips of aiming for mid-range skin tones for exposure settings in mind. Thanks for sharing about such a unique but prevalent topic. Your daughter is cute.

  • Todd

    August 31, 2013 05:19 am

    Good article and tips. Quick suggestion though. Learning to use a fill flash off camera or a reflector will certainly help in enhancing some of your images. One in particular was the groom sitting underneath the shelter. Granted your focus was on the bride, but he lacks zero facial features. A well placed fill flash would have illuminated him just enough to see the eyes and his face without being totally lost in shadows. Keep up the good work...

  • Jo Farrington

    August 31, 2013 02:36 am

    One of the best posts on DPS. Its a wonder no one addressed this before. I too belong to a family with mixed skin tones and this will certainly help. Thank you!

  • Per Ulrik

    August 30, 2013 08:59 pm

    Very very interesting. I can see that you are using the processes used by me too. I have also concluded that in most cases it is necessary to deal with each face individually.
    Have you tried to use an "Auto Improvement" feature instead of using a preset. I think it would take care of most of what you are doing in the Camera RAW, but only need one click (at least in Capture One)?
    Thanks for your efforts!

  • Rafa Mellado

    August 30, 2013 05:22 pm

    Won't it be easier using a gray card or an incident light meter?

  • MikeJackson

    August 30, 2013 12:04 pm

    very nice article. My first efforts at photographing my darker friends was a disaster. I now use a external light meter for those challenging portraits and that helps a LOT. I shoot in RAW format and Manual all the way.

  • Helen

    August 30, 2013 11:55 am

    This was excellent! Maybe now I'll get it right with my LARGE, mixed up family!!! Thank you!

  • Angie

    August 30, 2013 09:10 am

    OMG!!! THANK YOU SOOO MUCH!! This is such a timely article!! I am photographing a bride who is of a darker skin tone for her bridals this week. There are people out there that don't realize this is real! I am of African American decent...my sister-in-law is a redhead who is pale. Their kids are like your daughter and fall right in the middle. I photographed them a couple of years ago and I was not happy.

    In any event - THANK YOU!!

  • Tania

    August 30, 2013 08:59 am

    Awesome post. Thanks.

  • Pat

    August 30, 2013 06:06 am

    Thank you so much. For me this is the most important post I will ever read; giving all the members of my family a great experience and having them trust me to render all of them faithfully is very important. To have my husband tell me the other day that the photos I take of him alone and of us together are now the only ones that show his skin tone as he perceives it was extremely gratifying. Thank you for your help.

  • marsha alberty

    August 30, 2013 05:54 am

    Great tutorial. Beautiful family!

  • Juan

    August 30, 2013 04:40 am

    That woman in the black dress is absolutely beautiful!

  • Brian Fuller

    August 30, 2013 04:38 am

    Thanks for posting this. I haven't watched the video yet, but will definitely do so. My friends are a variety of colors and I will honestly say that I usually do not process my friends of darker color well. I need to get more practice. It's very difficult when two people are of a significant difference in what the camera would meter separately.

    Flickr:
    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

  • Dr.Albert

    August 30, 2013 04:21 am

    Great article. No one has ever covered this subject matter as you dis as it relates to people of mixed color.
    You got a wimmer here. You video is nor very clear as you explained the preprocessing

  • Nadia

    August 30, 2013 03:48 am

    I had never thought of this as a challenge since I have the privilege of living in Toronto (Canada) where encountering all mixes of colour and ethnicity is an everyday occurrence wherever you go. As I do love to photograph people, especially children, I will keep your very helpful tips in mind. Come to Toronto sometime. You'll have a blast - photographically and otherwise!

  • Lenka

    August 30, 2013 02:59 am

    This is an extremely well documented post. Very informative and a must for all successful photographers. Thank you!

  • Ricardo Diniz

    August 30, 2013 02:26 am

    A good way to treat those cases is Niki Software Viveza 2 ! I hope this could be helpfull...

  • Craver-Vii

    August 30, 2013 02:25 am

    I love what you've done here! There is something precious about mixed skin tones, especially when it's real life and not just a marketing scheme, but when I asked for advice, people acted like that was something we are not supposed to talk about. My community is very mixed and these tips will help me do a good job of catching and even showing off the diversity.

  • Garry

    August 30, 2013 02:06 am

    Great article and thanks for sharing. Being from an all around mixed family and extended family, your thoughts came in very handy, and additional tips I look forward to capitalize on as well. Thanks again, and yes, you have a gorgeous family!

  • Martha Weaver

    August 30, 2013 02:01 am

    Back in film days I photographed a wedding of a very pale-skinned man on a black tux with a very dark bride on a white dress. The church had dark walnut paneling with recessed lighting behind the wedding party! A film users night mare! I learned a lot in practicing for that one. Digital is much better! Good article! Thanks

  • Dr. Jones

    August 30, 2013 01:39 am

    FINALLY that somebody addresses MY ISSUES. My family looks EXACTLY like yours, so I been desperately trying to make us ALL look good. Often in photographs of my husband and I, as I can't achieve what I want and make his face to be seen well without making myself look even paler I just focus on MYSELF and make ME LOOK GOOD :-)
    Thank you for this article as now both of us will be able to look our best.

  • Katy

    August 30, 2013 01:38 am

    #1 Your family is SO adorable! OMG ! #2 THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for posting this. If you check out my blog you will see that I recently shot a couple that were different skin tones. She has fair skin and he has tan skin. He wore a LIGHT BLUE shirt while she wore a blue dress (they are expecting a baby boy) and I had NO idea how much of a difference their clothes would make!!!! The white balance was all of and if I hadn't shot in RAW these photos would have been a disaster! I hope that you'll take a look and let me know some ways to make these photos even better! Thank you!

  • Pepa

    August 30, 2013 01:00 am

    Hi, I loved your video and the way that you edited the pictures. I have one question. I use PSE 8, what photo shop do you use? Thank you so much!

  • Mridula

    August 30, 2013 12:14 am

    It is amazing what you come across when you read DPS, thoughts that will never cross my mind otherwise! Hence I keep coming back for more.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • Lee E.Mckay

    August 29, 2013 02:24 pm

    Great article. Every family not just families of color could use the tips because we have so many different skin tones which could be due to intermarriage and genetics which is the big unknown in how we are going to look that it is great advice. Really liked all the photos shown it is America

  • Photondulator

    August 29, 2013 07:49 am

    Is it only me or have you misnamed the images of the little girl at the end of the 4th part? The first one is clearly better (to me) and has a much stronger contrast.
    With respect.

  • William

    August 29, 2013 07:36 am

    Great article! My wife and I are are of different races and somehow this topic never crossed my mind. Now I'll have us taking photos all the time haha. BTW your little girl is precious.

  • Courtenay

    August 29, 2013 06:42 am

    Great article! I can definitely use some of these techniques even when photographing my own family because we run the gamut of skin tones too.
    Thanks!

  • Sarah

    August 29, 2013 06:11 am

    What a great, unique, much-needed topic!

  • Khürt L. Williams

    August 29, 2013 04:20 am

    Great article thank you. Most of my family has darker skin tones and I shoot very few light skin tone subjects. I've find that I often over expose when shooting light skin tones.

    One question about clothing. You mentioned that you do most of your shooting outside in natural light and that your subject may bring several pieces of clothing. Where do they change?

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