Lighting For Skin Tones

There’s one thing all portrait subjects share in common: They want to look good. Young and old, men and women alike, everybody hates to see their wrinkles and blemishes on display. So learn how to light to minimize flaws and produce smooth, flattering skin tones.


Whether you’re working with ambient light or strobes, window light or a softbox, it’s imperative to set the camera’s white balance manually in order to produce the most accurate color. There’s nothing less flattering for a face that’s too green or too magenta, which can happen if the auto white balance misses. Imagine you’re photographing someone with beautiful sunset lighting as the primary illumination. A manual daylight white balance would render the golden glow appropriately to produce warm, flattering portrait light. But if the camera is set to automatic white balance, it may remove some of that lovely hue.

In mixed lighting—say, blending flash with indoor bulbs—try setting a custom white balance. Simply shoot a white or neutral gray card under the subject’s lighting, and be sure to fill the frame with the card. Then set the camera’s white balance setting to Custom, and direct the camera to this frame. Better still, shoot RAW and refine the white balance precisely in processing.


There’s a somewhat counterintuitive skin-flattering technique I learned from a fashion and beauty photographer. It’s "dragging the shutter" to add blur in order to remove sharpness and edge definition from pores, wrinkles and blemishes. The subtle camera movement that occurs with a too-slow-to-handhold shutter speed, like 1/10th, can impart a bit of ambient blur even when working with strobes. When it comes to skin, more sharpness isn’t usually better, so blur often improves skin tones. In the old days, that blur often was done with diffusion on the lens; now it easily can be achieved in post with Clarity and Sharpness adjustments during RAW processing, or with Photoshop’s comprehensive Blur filters. Don’t overdo it, though. A little blur goes a long way.


The first choice is between a hard and a soft light. Hard light—a bare bulb—can be flattering, but only if it’s positioned near the camera axis. Specular light sources are trickier to get right because they can be so unflattering on skin if they’re positioned toward the side at an angle that rakes across the face. That amplifies the appearance of texture—like wrinkles, pores and blemishes. Generally, hard-edged specular lights can be tricky to work with, but done well, the results produce beautiful, glowing skin.

The light that’s easiest to use and that consistently produces the most flattering skin tones is a diffused, indirect source. Soft light like light diffused through clouds or bounced through the diffusion of a softbox, umbrella or silk minimizes texture and contrast, and generally produces soft, appealing lighting on all kinds of skin and from all kinds of angles. Still, any sidelight can enhance unflattering textures, so the main light should remain fairly frontal for subjects with less than ideal skin.

Using a large source very close to the subject produces wraparound lighting that’s almost always flattering for skin. And a close source produces falloff that keeps the light interesting and avoids flat lighting. Oh, and lest you lament a lack of large sources, bouncing a speedlight off a white wall or positioning a subject near a north-facing picture window produces a beautiful, big, soft source.

For all kinds of faces and almost any kind of skin, one of the most flattering lighting techniques places the main light directly in front of and above the subject to produce a butterfly-shaped shadow between the nose and the upper lip. This "butterfly" lighting pattern has been used in beauty shots for more than a century. The frontal light fills pores and wrinkles and sets off the chin and cheekbones. Add a large white reflector below the subject’s chin, roughly parallel to the floor, and this butterfly lighting becomes clamshell lighting—a popular beauty technique precisely because it fills in dark shadows and makes skin look beautiful.


Some of the most beautiful portrait lighting occurs naturally. Soft ambient light can be found in north-facing windows, as well as in open shade outdoors—under tall tree canopies or in open doorways that cut harsh sunlight and provide flattering, indirect illumination. One of my favorite light sources is an open garage door. With the subject near the opening, the light is flatter and more omnidirectional. But put that subject a few steps back, and the source will start to take on the beautiful soft look of a big, soft, directional source.


Sometimes the best way to make ambient light produce flattering skin tones is to add a bit of flash. Subtle on-camera flash can provide an ideal shadow-busting fill to minimize wrinkles and blemishes. To determine the ideal amount of fill without overpowering the ambience, start with the flash at its lowest output and work your way up until you can see its effects. Then dial it down a bit and you’ll be in just the right spot to fill deep shadows without overpowering attractive ambience.


If you’re faced with unappealing ambient light—midday sun, perhaps, or heavy overcast—an off-camera flash shot through a white umbrella can overpower the ambience and create a new key. At high noon on a sunny day, for instance, the correct ambient exposure at ISO 100 will be 1/100th at ƒ/16. Make it 1/250th, then, and the ambient will be one stop underexposed, and a fairly powerful diffused flash (strong enough to produce ƒ/16 at ISO 100) can create studio-style, skin-flattering illumination, even outdoors at high noon.


Indoors, when working with normal household bulbs, any flash additions should be gelled orange to match the warmth of tungsten bulbs. Failure to gel the sources will produce orange ambience (when the camera is set to a daylight or flash white balance setting) or blue strobe illumination (when the camera is set for tungsten). Neither of these options is ideal for skin, so a full CTO (color temperature orange) gel is designed to shift the Kelvin temperature of the strobe to match tungsten; just cut a swatch of the gel and clip it or tape it over the strobe to match the sources.

That same orange gel used on a strobe outdoors can simulate the warmth of a golden sunset. Place the strobe at a low angle and you can quickly mimic sunset with a simple off-camera flash. Warmth, in general, is almost always flattering for skin. More subtle gelling has a long tradition in portrait studios and Hollywood productions for producing flattering skin tones—try subtle pink, amber and gold gels for a healthy glow.


Here are some examples of recommended tools for creating flattering portrait light and exposures



Available in four sizes from the 7.5×10-inch Reference to the smaller Studio, Pocket (pictured) and Keychain options, the WhiBal White Balance Reference Card is water- and scratch-proof to stand up to years of use. Low-reflectivity neutral gray is complemented with white and black patches, as well, to help you set white balance, white point and black point in post. List Price: From $15.95 (Keychain) to $49.95 (Reference). Contact: WhiBal (Michael Tapes Design),


Another option for setting custom white balance is the 2.0 Professional White Balance Filter from ExpoDisc. Attach the filter to your lens and set white balance using your camera’s custom white balance feature—it’s that simple. It can also be used to meter a perfect 18% incident exposure and map sensor dust. Version 2.0 includes portrait warming gels that you can use with the filter to add degrees of warmth to skin tones. Currently available in 77mm and 82mm sizes. List Price: $49.95. Contact: ExpoImaging,


Compatible with over 20 flash brands via speedring adapters, the octagonal Softbox RFi Octa from Profoto features a deep shape and recessed front for precise control. Octagonal softboxes are great for portraiture, as they create natural-looking catchlight in your subject’s eyes. The RFi Octa is designed to tolerate heavy professional use, and is available in three diameters, 3-foot, 4-foot and 5-foot. Estimated Street Price: $235. Contact: Profoto,


Add warmth to your speedlight output with Rogue Universal Gels, which fit any standard shoe-mount f lash. Each is labeled with the Kelvin color temperature correction. The kit includes 14 color effects gels, 5 color correction gels and one diffusion gel in a range of hues across the spectrum, including Full CTO, 1/2 CTO and 1/4 CTO, ideal for warming skin tones. The included Rogue Gel-Band attaches the gels to your f lash. List Price: $29.95. Contact: Rogue Photographic Design (ExpoImaging),

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