Accurate color management is crucial for ensuring portrait subjects look their best, highlighting beautiful hair and lovely skin tones.
Color is simple, right? For many shots, as long as the white balance is somewhat close to correct, your picture will be fine, right?
Well, not necessarily, especially when it comes to portraits. What might pass as good enough in a landscape or still-life photo may appear very incorrect in a portrait. When you and your subjects care about the subtleties of beautiful hair and ideal skin tones, taking control of color is particularly important. It can be difficult to make auburn hair look just right, and fair skin tones can wash out as dark skin tones can block up.
People come in all varieties, but the one constant is that everyone wants to look their best. With a bit of forethought, you can ensure your portraits have ideal color by using these techniques in the camera, with lighting and on the computer.
Part One: Color Accuracy In Portraiture
When it comes to photographing people, nothing ruins a shot like bad color. Perhaps on some fundamental level, we, as humans, perceive the proper shades our skin tones come in.
So, the first step in ensuring that skin tones look good is to ensure they appear correct, and that starts with accurate white balance settings.
The best way to achieve precise, accurate color balance is to capture raw image files and dial in an exact white balance for the light source that is illuminating the subject. Sure, setting the camera to Flash WB when working with a flash is a good way to start, but to get really precise, you want to create a custom white balance. Thankfully, with a bit of forethought, this can actually be accomplished after the shoot is complete.
To start, photograph a neutral gray card close to the subject’s face, illuminated by the same light that will illuminate the portion of the face that will be visible to the camera. Take care not to tilt the card up too much, since you can produce a halation (or the spreading of light beyond its proper boundaries) on the card.
Why be so precise? It will ensure that the different colors of light striking the subject from different angles will not have an inordinate impact on the color balance.
For instance, if there is a hair light or a rim light illuminating the subject from behind, and if that light is notably warmer or cooler than the key light, positioning the gray card imprecisely could derail your plans and throw off the primary color on the face, which is produced by the key light.
Instead, ensure the gray card is aimed at the camera and positioned deliberately—typically right under the subject’s chin or next to their face.
If your subject is in a mixed lighting scenario, try to position your model so that the light source falling on the face is specific and singular. This will let you accurately set the white balance for one color of light rather than multiple. In practice, this could mean ensuring an indoor subject near a window is not also standing directly under an incandescent ceiling spotlight, which will add green/yellow/orange hot spots on the face and hair. Moving the subject just a few inches can be enough to eliminate such issues.
Capturing raw image files is crucial to this custom white-balance approach, as the white balance will be set officially during post-processing.
Bring the image into Lightroom and select the Color Balance eyedropper in the Develop module to set the white balance exactly for the scene. Click on the eyedropper, then click on the neutral gray card. In a pinch, with an image in which there’s no neutral gray card, you can click on something white in the scene—like a shirt collar—to get a more accurate color balance. But if that white is a bit warm or cool, the balance will be off.
Part Two: Improving Portrait Color With Lighting Modifiers
Sometimes just being accurate with white balance isn’t enough to produce ideal skin tones. What you need to do is go to the source—the light source. It’s how, for generations, photographers and filmmakers deliberately modified the color of their light sources in order to improve the skin tones in their pictures. And while many of these effects certainly can be mimicked in the computer, it may be more effective to modify the actual light falling on your subjects since you can confirm that the color of the light source is producing the correct skin tones. In other words: what you see is what you’ll get.
Warm tones are often quite flattering in portraits. Therefore, using a gold reflector, whether as a fill light or a key when working outdoors, is a great way to add a warm, golden glow to a portrait. A little goes a long way, however, and the gold can sometimes be a bit much when used as a key light. But for a hint of warmth from a fill light, a reflector with a gold finish can be perfect.
A more traditional way to fine-tune the color of light to provide better skin tones is to use an artificial light source, such as a strobe or hot light, modified with a subtle pink-, gold- or amber-hued gel. The CTS straw cinegels from Rosco offer the same sort of warming and color correction as a CTO (orange) gel but with a slightly more yellowish tint that is particularly pleasing on skin. When using a CTO gel to convert from daylight to tungsten white balance, the CTS can be used instead for the same level of Kelvin temperature conversion, but it will give skin tones an additional pleasing warmth. Adding a one-quarter or one-eighth straw gel to a strobe can also add a pleasing hint of warmth to a neutral light source without needing to change the color balance in camera.
]You can get a bit more creative with the color of your key light in ways that may make different hair or skin tones especially appealing. Beyond CTO and CTS gels that are great for improving skin tones, the oddly named bastard amber (particularly nice for warming fair skin), pale gold (generally pleasing on a variety of skin tones) and lavender (which nicely complements darker skin tones) are great options.
For the example shown here, I used a #187 Rosco Cosmetic Rouge gel, which is known for producing pleasing warm skin tones but can look a little pink on fair skin. These cosmetic gels also typically have a bit of diffusion built in, further indicating their intended use in producing pleasing skin.
Bear in mind when working with gels that they will cut light—in this case, almost a full stop—so the exposure must be adjusted accordingly.
Also remember that when using gels, a little goes a long way. Often a one-eighth power (a paler, less intense color) is sufficient. And with these thinner gels you can always double them up to turn, say, a one-quarter gel into a half. Also, be sure to set the custom white balance or shoot the gray card before applying the gel to the light. Otherwise, the warmth from the gel will be neutralized by the custom white balance.
Production gels are generally pretty safe around high-temperature sources. However, it’s best to play it safe and be sure to keep some distance between the gel and the source to prevent melting or, worse, a fire hazard.
You can also double up or use denser gels in orange and gold hues to significantly warm a light source for more dramatic special effects. Namely, you can mimic the warmth of a setting sun. The effect is neither subtle nor neutral, but that golden sunset glow can be especially effective for producing attractive portraits.
To accomplish this look, simply gel a flash, and place it at eye level and fairly far from the subject to mimic the low-angle look of sunset light. Again, the white balance must be set prior to applying the gels, or the warming effect will be neutralized.
Strobes and gels aren’t the only way to achieve this warm portrait look. The equivalent of a strobe with a full orange gel is a tungsten light source (an incandescent hot light, for instance) with a deliberately mismatched daylight white balance in camera. Using an LED light panel with a variable color temperature works just the same way: Set the color to daylight and the camera’s white balance to tungsten, and everything will appear blue. Set the LED color to tungsten and the camera’s white balance to daylight, and the resulting image will appear very warm and orange, like the example shown here.
Part Three: Perfecting Portrait Color In Post
The beautiful thing about portrait lighting and color is that there isn’t just one right answer. If you prefer warm, make it warm. If cooler works for you, go for it. That opens up a whole world of lighting color and creative choices once the image gets into the computer.
Again using Lightroom, fine-tune the color in your portraits using sliders in the Develop module. Starting with the color temperature and tint sliders, add a bit of warmth or pull it out simply by clicking and dragging until you like what you see.
Better still, use the HSL and Color controls. They allow you to adjust the luminance (brightness) and saturation of specific colors. For instance, if your redhead’s hair is lacking luster, try boosting the saturation of the orange or red sliders. Another approach is to click on the HSL heading, then the Saturation tab, then look for the round bull’s-eye icon on the top left of the HSL panel and click it to activate the tool.
Next, click on the color you’d like to adjust, and drag up or down to increase or decrease the saturation of that specific tone. The same approach works for luminance and hue as well, enabling you to make subtle adjustments to skin tones by clicking and dragging until they look pleasing to your eye.
While Lightroom has a variety of easy-to-use color enhancements that can easily be applied to a group of raw image files, my favorite portrait color adjustment is found in Photoshop.
As mentioned, warmth is often pleasing in portraits. It tends to make any skin tone appear healthier and more attractive. My favorite way to add a hint of warmth in post is to use a Photoshop Adjustment Layer—specifically, the Photo Filter adjustment layer.
If you click on the Photo Filter icon in the adjustment layers palette, you’ll create a new layer with a warm photo filter applied. By default, it is the #85 warming filter, and it just so happens this filter is perfect for portraits. The default setting is at a strength of 25, but I find that dialing it down to single digits, even a value as low as 3 or 5, definitely improves portrait skin tones.
The maximum setting I recommend is around 15. Beyond that, the filter starts to create a strong warm cast over the whole scene. You can use the layer mask in order to selectively apply the mask to just the face, but in my experience with a single-digital value applied, the hint of warmth doesn’t detract from other tones throughout the scene.
In the end, if you start with a neutral white balance, use care with lighting and fine-tune the color in post, there’s no reason all of your portraits can’t feature perfectly attractive color and absolutely beautiful skin.