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Any tips for photographing Black or darker skin properly

Teresa Earnest , May 26, 2004; 08:19 a.m.

I would appreciate any tips on proper exposure of Black skin. I haven't photographed many Black People, and seem to end up with really dark skin results, or a shine on the face. How do you properly meter if your photographing a Bride?

Thanks in advance, Teresa


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Al Kaplan - Miami, FL , May 26, 2004; 09:03 a.m.

Let me start out with stating that I'm white but spent nearly 12 years of my life with a lovely brown skinned Jamaican woman. I still carry pix of my two step sons in my wallet. I've photographed a lot of blacks over the years.

The shine is because people of African descent usually have oilier skin, and the reflection from the sheen on a white person's face isn't all that much brighter than the underlying skin tone so you don't get the contrast. With women this usually isn't so much of a problem because they tend to use make-up, and the base and the powder kills the sheen. In general, the darker the skin the more noticeable the problem. You might discuss with the bride and groom the possibility that the ladies in the wedding party might help apply a bit of suitably toned powder to the mens' faces as well. This will go a long way towards solving that problem. Have a box of tissues handy during the posed shots in case anybody needs to wipe their forehead.

The next problem is that in order to preserve detail in the white wedding gown (lace, embroidery, etc.)we tend to pick an exposure that will make the darkest parts of the photo come out too dark. The automatic exposure chosen by your camera and/or auto flash might be doing this for you. Because this is not a new problem people are used to seeing wedding pictures like this. Choose a low contrast professional portrait type of color film. This will give you the longest range of tones. Films like Kodak Gold, designed for amateur use, have a lot of contrast and a tendancy to block up the highlight areas (the gown).

It is important to give enough exposure that the faces (and tuxedos) aren't at the extremes of the film's ability to record detail. The best way to do this is to use your camera on manual. Otherwise one photo might have the flash sensor reading mostly black tuxedos, the next mostly white and pastel gowns. Usually the film's latitude will handle this, but dark faces are where the problem lies. If there's not enough image on the film you can't put it there later. With too much exposure you can still print through it. Modern color negative films can easily stand some over exposure, and in fact have slightly finer grain when so exposed.

I'd suggest that you should shoot a few rolls and experiment a bit if you can find somebody. This should be no problem if you ask a black friend or coworker to pose in exchange for some free prints. Try setting your meter, camera, and flash for ISO 100 for ISO 160 film, ISO 250 for ISO 400 film. Also try bracketing one stop over and one stop under. See what works best for you with your equipment.

Teresa Earnest , May 26, 2004; 09:44 a.m.

Thanks for your response! I am shooting digital with a 10D (rebel for back-up), so I will certainly digest everything, and try it out on my camera.

Thanks again! Teresa

Shun Cheung , May 26, 2004; 09:53 a.m.

I think lower contrast is the key. The attached image is a digital original too, shot with a Nikon D100 with fill flash. Shoot RAW and there are a lot of adjustments you can do in PhotoShop to optimize things.

Attachment: temp.jpg

Edward Ingold , May 26, 2004; 10:06 a.m.

There's an interesting article in the May issue of Shutterbug on this subject.

Nadine Ohara - SF Bay Area/CA , May 26, 2004; 01:35 p.m.

In addition to the excellent advice above, try to avoid placing dark-skinned subjects in front of dark or black backgrounds, although really bright backgrounds are to be avoided too. The first because of the natural merging of subject into background, and the latter because of the extreme contrast. At events such as weddings, one can't always control backgrounds, but when possible, having the natural separation will help. If you use off-camera flashes or lighting, in the situations where you can control things, put the darker-skinned subject closer to the light--for instance, a white bride and a black groom or vice versa.

David Wegwart - Denver/CO. , May 26, 2004; 05:10 p.m.

If you use PSCS, try the shadow/highlight tool in 'post' as this will help recover some of the detail in the darker areas. Also, the advice from Nadine is good advice (and others).

I have had several a few dark skinned subjects and medium toned backgrounds are a great help. The other major thing to remember is to give plenty of light (read; multiple angles if poss.) to the shots.

Marc Williams , May 26, 2004; 09:18 p.m.

Teresa, Make sure your 10D is set on multi-segment (matrix) evaluative metering, and that you are shooting in RAW mode. If using flash, use a diffuser to cut down on the sheen.

If you are shooting normal scenes, the automatic metering will balance out the tonal range and average it all out. The 10D is particularly good at doing this.

In other words, don't do anything just because there is dark skinned person in the mix. At least not with digital capture. Darks are much easier to lift if there is an underexposure, than restoring blown whites (like in a wedding dress).

If the problem you described persists, check what contrast level your 10D is set to and adjust it to less contrast (see your manual on how to do that). Also, learn to read the histogram on your LCD, or at least set the highlight warning function in the set-up menu. It'll flash any blown highlights so you can adjust the compensation on the camera.

Marc Williams , May 26, 2004; 09:20 p.m.


"Wedding Guest", Canon 1Ds, 85/1.2, fill from 550EX set on HSS sync., with Stofen diffuser

Nadine Ohara - SF Bay Area/CA , May 26, 2004; 10:15 p.m.

Marc, since I don't shoot digital, I'm curious--how would you expose digital when faced with a very light-skinned bride or groom paired with a very dark skinned partner in direct sunlight? On top of that, the bride usually has a white gown on, and sometimes the groom has a white tux. I've even had such couples request to be photographed in direct sunlight in front of bright backgrounds, like bright sun glinting off the water in a harbor. Film, even low contrast Portra NC, has a hard time wrapping itself around such contrasts, so I would imagine digital would be even worse. Could a RAW file that didn't have blown out whites still have enough information in the dark skin part of the image to "develop" in Photoshop? And would you have to "custom-fix" each and every frame?

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