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{getting good skin tones}

when we asked our readers what you would like to learn more about, a large group were very interested in learning how to get those perfect skin tones in photos. today we have a guest blogger on tml with some really great tips to achieving those great tones. Jessica is a seattle based photographer and her work is just brilliant!!

Getting good skin tones
Jessica Feely

When most people ask how to get good skin tones, I think some of them are referring to not only color, but skin texture, creaminess, and the light being even on the skin.

This can be a little tricky because there are several factors involved. A good rule is, try to get the image as perfect as you can IN CAMERA as possible. This will make your job easier and requires less post processing to fix errors, lighting, WB issues, etc.

Below is a list of things I make sure to do in order to get perfect skin (or as close to as possible). These are the things that work for me and my photography.

1) In camera white balance- I usually shoot on Auto White Balance. I know other photographers that shoot using Kelvin or Cloudy for example. Auto works great for me, and is usually really close to how it should be if not perfect. Plus it is one less setting to change on my camera! When I open up my RAW images in ACR I go through and correct any WB issues. Sometimes I don’t have to, and sometimes its minor changes. (Side note- shooting in jpeg doesn’t give you as much control over WB in ACR as shooting in RAW does. That is my experience and I much prefer the WB of a RAW image).

Bottom Line: Shooting WB on Auto is okay.

2) Finding the light- I feel that lighting is probably the most important thing in photography. It’s all about how you see it and use it. Light can really make or break an image. So when I go to a location (I always scout out my locations, I want to know how the light will look and affect my subjects at that time of day) I always make sure that I have good light available. I have several locations that I use specifically in the evening, and some that I use in the mornings. I do a lot of urban sessions, so another thing I look for is the shade side of the building.

At the session, I may turn my subject’s face away from the light and then use a reflector to bring light back into the eyes. Most times I will have my subject in open shade with their face facing the light source. I always look for ‘raccoon eyes’ which to me means that their eyes are dark and lacking light. If this happens I will use a reflector, or literally turn them in a circle until their face (eyes) lights up. Another good rule of thumb is to look for the catch lights in the eyes. Chances are that if you don’t have them- your light isn’t that great, and therefore their eyes will look dull.

Having that even light on your subject’s face is a huge help in getting great skin in photographs. Open shade is great and to me the best lighting and sometimes the most pleasing. Living in Seattle brings many overcast days. I honestly am not a fan of overcast weather at all. Yes, it is like a ‘giant soft box’ like you have heard a million times over. However, to me the photos look flat and dull, and there doesn’t seem to be as many catch lights in the eyes. I tend to use a reflector much more on overcast days than on sunny days. They are a great investment!

Bottom line: Turn your subject towards the light to ensure even light on their face. Use a reflector when needed to help with shadows. Pay attention to where the light is coming from!

3)Shooting in Manual Mode (Exposure, shutter speed, aperture, ISO)- There are so many books written on this stuff and your best bet is to invest in some of those AND just practice shooting in Manual to understand it all. I remember getting my Nikon D40 beginner dslr and I thought I was good using Aperture Priority. Then a couple months later I got the D300- semi pro camera and still used it in Aperture Priority. It wasn’t until 7 months after that I decided to brave it and try shooting in manual. I was nervous because not only do you have to talk to your subject, make sure the lighting is good, make sure they look good, etc, you have to constantly meter off the subject and change your aperture & shutter speed. I had a hard time wrapping my head around the triangle of Aperture/Shutterspeed/ISO. But what I did notice was that I could control the light in my images so much better than before. I knew that it would take a lot of practice, but it was worth it. I have never gone back. EVER. I could seriously go ON and ON about all the benefits and great things you could do. Give it a try!

Understanding Exposure is a great book to start with.

Bottom Line: Shooting in Manual will help with getting correct exposure and therefore help with lighting and skin tones! That also means less editing in ACR/PS.

4) Shooting in RAW- Shooting in RAW has many benefits, and it is usually a preference thing. I used to be a jpeg girl and shot that for a long time. The thing that wins me over is exposure corrections. Say you didn’t have time to meter because the kid was running around all crazy at the session; you can correct the exposure pretty well in ACR. Moving the slider won’t get to grainy/noisy on you until you get to a certain point. But with jpegs you can’t do too much with exposure once the picture has been snapped. That doesn’t mean you should be sloppy when metering. Ive done that too and it just creates more wasted editing time. Also, jpegs compress the image and applies a setting (that you have in your camera’s settings) to the image. When you have a RAW image, you literally start from the ground up and can build it to however you want. Give it a try- set your camera to shoot in RAW + JPEG and compare the two images. When I compare mine side by side, the skin is much smoother and creamier in RAW images. Yes, maybe not as much color as jpegs, but that is because jpegs are compressed and sharpened remember? You need to do those things manually with RAW images.

Bottom Line: Shooting in RAW helps you to start from a clean and fresh canvas. It gives you more choices and customization.

- Shooting JPEG gives you about 16.7 million possible tones and colors.

- Shooting Raw gives you 68 billion!

5) Skin retouching in PS- Once you get to this point with your image, you will know how much work you have ahead of you. Looking at your image, do you still have dark circles around the eyes, weird shadows? You can still save your photo by slightly dodging (brightening) those areas of the face that are too dark. The majority of the time, I don’t do much at all to skin in Photoshop. I do a light skin smoothing that gives a softer look. If I need to remove blemishes, I will use the healing or patch tool. Everyone has their own style and the way they want their pictures to look. Usually skin retouching is all personal preference! Just remember to not over-do it!

Bottom Line: Be yourself, and do your own style!

I know there is so much more to these topics, but hopefully these will help give you inspiration and motivation to try new things. Good luck!

thank you so much, jessica!! make sure to leave her some blog love and feedback!


  1. Anonymous3/23/2010

    thanks a lot! this is very helpful.

  2. great info! thanks for this. i have been wanting to invest in a good reflector!

  3. This is a great blog post - thank you! I'm always curious about reflector use at portrait sessions. I don't have an assistant with me and often feel that setting up a reflector stand isn't practical. How do you handle the reflector? Do you have an assistant - or maybe have the subject hold the reflector? Any info. would be great.

    Also, I shoot in RAW but I've never used the ACR sliders in Camera Raw - until now! Do you start there and then head back to the WB slider, or skip the WB all together?

    Thank you!

  4. Thank you so much for this. I shoot in RAW now because of the very reasons you explained. Love your work.

  5. Hi Morgan! I slide the sliders in ACR when I adjust the white balance. That is really the only place I do it. I dont touch anything in photoshop either. As far as a reflector- I either have an assistant hold my LARGE one (its like 5 or 6 feet wide) or for my small one I hold myself with one hand, or as you said- my client holds it for me. I have never used a light stand. I think they might be useful if you need a bigger reflector, but it is so much to carry around and I move around to locations alot. :)

  6. WONDERFUL blog post!!! THANK YOU!!!

  7. Jessica, this was awesome and so true! Great tips and very through!

  8. Jessica, Thank you for your quick response! My reflector is probably a medium size, maybe 3-4 feet wide. I've seen reflectors that are slightly triangular/oval and have a handle on them. I thought they might be easier for a client to hold. Without a paid assistant this gives me a reason to tell my seniors to bring a friend, and something for the parents to do during a shoot :-)

    Thanks again!

  9. Great post! I already do a lot of this, including the auto white balance and it works for me too. The only thing I have been 'on the fence' about is switching from aperture mode to manual. I work with babies/toddlers and kids who move a lot, and that's how I learned when starting out a few years ago. You have convinced me to try it. Thanks!

  10. Great info! I am still learning. Got my first DSLR last August. I have been reading everything I can get my hands on and going out and practicing. I started out in AP mode, but I am transitioning to Manual. I already shoot in RAW and love it. Thanks Jessica and Maternal Lens.

  11. Totally Awesome!!!
    Thanks for sharing all this it will help me lots!
    I am still in the process of learning a bit of everything at the same time!
    You Rock!!!

  12. great tips thank you! I am new to all this but i absolutely LUV taking pictures!! I am wanting to get great at it but its hard to find great tips like this! Do you know any places that have easy to understand learning websites that offer great info like this?

  13. http://digital-photography-school.com/ is a great place to learn LOTS of things, plus they have forums to ask questions and get advice. I read this website all the time when I first started learning photography! :)

  14. Great advice! I would add, on the White Balance section, that for on-location shooting this is right on. However, for indoors/studio lighting, adjusting the WB will improve the photo considerably on first take!

  15. Excellent article. I love the simplistic explanations.

    Thank you for sharing!

  16. I've had the hardest time understanding metering. Can you recommend a resource to help? ~Thanks

  17. Hi Cynthia- the resource I gave above is a great one for those kinds of things. However I have a Q & A going on currently on my blog and I will make sure that I address the metering question!

  18. One more thing....great glass! My 50 mm 1.2 rocked my world and I'm just learning to maximize it's potential!

    thanks for all the info...it really has pushed me one step closer to shooting RAW. It just sounds like so much more work. :/

    I will definitely experiment with it, though!

  19. This was a great tutorial thanks so much for posting it!!

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