When my students ask me “how do you know when a picture looks ok?” I always tell them that first they should try to achieve realism.
Does what they see with their eyes match what’s on their camera screen? Only when this is achieved, should they then learn how the rules can be broken. The problem is, no matter how careful we are, sometimes we just can’t achieve realism.
This is especially true for skin tones. Shadows or bad lighting, colour casts from artificial lights or brightly coloured surfaces can cause skin to look discoloured. Similarly, skin conditions (including sunburn, bruising or acne) can make your subject feel self-conscious about their finished portrait. I’m going to show you a few things you can do to fix or prevent uneven skin tones.
How white balance can affect skin tone
A poorly chosen white balance could be the difference between your subject looking happy and healthy or very ill. This often happens when using the tungsten or fluorescent white balance presets in the wrong type of light. If your camera has a white balance shift feature, avoid placing it on the blue/green side of the spectrum.
Getting it right in camera You would, no doubt, have heard it said that it’s better to get it right in camera first. This saves you the headache of spending hours trying to fix your image up in post. But what can you do to ensure that skin tones are right, before you even release the shutter?
A grey card is often used in studio or in light controllable environments (not outdoors). To take a reading, set your camera to custom white balance, then take an evenly exposed picture of the grey card (you may want to set it to auto for this step), ensuring that it fills the entire picture. Alternatively, some models allow you to take the picture first, then select it from your catalogue when you enter custom white balance mode.
If you don’t have a grey card or you’re working outside where the light is changing often, you may wish to set the kelvin number of your white balance manually. This allows you to change the colour temperature of your scene by making it cooler or warmer, and is more accurate than using the preset balances.
Options in editing Temperature and tint sliders
You’ll find these in both Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. Adjust temperature to affect the coolness (blue) or warmth (yellow) of your image. Adjust the tint to add more or less pink or green. Skin tones will generally look better with a pinker tint.
Figure 1 - Lightroom white balance sliders
Figure 2 -Photoshop colour balance adjustment
White balance selector Use the white balance dropper in Lightroom to select a neutral area in the photo; generally from the grey card test shot that you may have taken at the beginning of the shoot, or a white space in the image.
Reducing skin redness using selective colour This technique usually works best with layer masks in Photoshop, as you only want your changes to affect the skin and not the rest of the image. Choose the selective colour adjustment. This will automatically create another layer, called Selective Colour 1 by default. Make a skin area selection on your image while the layer mask is selected (see figure 3). The easiest way to do this is by using one of the selection tools or the brush tool, coloured black, with an opacity of 50%.
Figure 3 - Selective Colour adjustment, with the layer mask selected
Once you’ve made your skin selection, click back to the colour selection options (figure 4) and adjust the sliders of the red, yellow and magenta colours until the redness of the skin has been reduced. This will differ from one image to the other, depending on how red the skin is.
Figure 4 - Move the sliders of the selective colour adjustment layer
Lightening or darkening skin
Occasionally you may find yourself with uneven lighting on your subject, or shadows under the eyes or nose. While there are many fixes for this in Photoshop, one of the easiest to use is the dodge and burn tools (figure 5).
Figure 5 - dodge and burn tools in Photoshop
Use the dodge tool to lighten and the burn tool to darken. This works best with a soft brush (30% hardness or less) and an exposure of 3-5% (see figure 6). Slowly work over the affected area and build up the light or darkness gradually so as not to overdo it.
Figure 6 - dodge and burn tool options
In Lightroom - For simple blemish fixes, you won’t even need to open Photoshop. Lightroom has a simplified spot removal tool that allows you to either clone or heal spots with an adjustable brush. You can change how big this brush is as well as the level of feather and opacity it uses (see figure 7).
Figure 7 - spot removal tool in Lightroom
In Photoshop - For very problematic skin or largescale fixes, Photoshop has a number of available options. The easiest of these being the Spot Healing Brush Tool, the Healing Brush Tool and the Patch Tool (figure 8).