Good skin tones

For me, getting good skin tones are key. As a portrait photographer, it is something that I dedicate a lot of time to perfecting. In both research and test shoots (so many test shoots!!!). “Good skin tones” is a bit of a vague statement, I get this. it varies depending on which field of portrait photography you work in and most importantly,  it comes down to personal taste, as do most aspects of photography. Photography is not as technical as camera magazines would have you believe. There are a finite amount of technical variables to play with. Everything else is creativity and taste, I wish publications would give more time to this, but I suppose when funded by camera adverts, telling people that they tech makes such a negligible difference probably won’t go down too well. So How do I get good skin tones for portrait photography?

  Good Skin tones for portrait photography

First of all, I am making these recommendations from my own workflow, which directly reflects my taste. Hopefully, you can tailor this to suit your own.

Dynamic Range.

When working with digital cameras, I use the Canon 5D system. This has one major draw back over medium format and film. The dynamic range and colour depth just isn’t there. Any extreme gradient in light or large variation between highlight and shadow will put you into difficulty straight away. When I want really “good” skin tones, I tend to opt for very soft and slightly graduated light.

My current headshot set up involves a 8ft octa from above and a 180 cm umbrella with a diffuser over it directly behind me to help fill in the shadows. This gives very soft light and a very slight gradation between shadow and highlight. Canon Cameras also really like it if you shoot against a grey or off white.

How do I get good skin tones as a portrait photographer

Vibrancy Slider.

In lightroom, there are three sliders at the bottom of the basic panel. Vibrancy, Saturation and Clarity. I NEVER move saturation and Clarity on colour portraits. It looks bad. The one thing I almost always do is to reduce the vibrancy. Normally between -5 and -20 depending on the lens I have used and the way I have lit the portrait. For some reason, Canon decided that we wanted more sharpness, more contrast, more red and more vibrancy in our sensors. I spend more time removing these qualities than anything else!


HSL (Hue, Saturation and Luminance)

The HSL  is another key part of my colour (and black and white) workflow. I generally play with the red, orange and yellows. There is no hard and fast rule, but most of the time I increase the luminosity of the three colours, decrease the saturation of the red (It seems to be a Canon sensor thing, Nikon has more of a green issue) and then adjust the hue if needed. In the studio, it never needs this, but on location and with mixed light sources changing the hue can make a big difference.

The image below was shot at max ISO, f1.4 and a 50th of a second. The colours in the RAW file were all over the place and the image was not in great shape as the camera had probably been pushed a little past its limit. There is still a red glow from where the moon light bounced off the dress on to Charlie’s cheeks, but I manage to produce a skin tone similar to what I could see with my eyes on the day.

Charlie, charlotte, portrait, muse, beautiful lady, blond lady,


I have touched on this already with the dynamic range, but lighting is so crucial for great skin tones. With the lighting system I use, I find that most of the time a very low power is called for, keeping to large octa boxes, umbrellas and beauty dishes (as in the image below). If you get the exposure wrong for your lighting, it is very hard to save the image. This is one of the reasons why I shoot tethered, the back of a 5D camera lies to you a bit about what is blown out and what is lost in the shadows. Lightroom has a really simple tether function that I use for every photoshoot.

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I hope my ramblings were of some use to you. Give it a go and let me know how your images turn out, or if you have any further suggestions to add. I have recently looked back on some old “how to” blogs recently that I now completely disagree with. This is a vital part of growth as a photographer. Hopefully, in 12 months time I will look back at this and wonder “Why did I think this was a good idea?” and I will have progressed onto something new and exciting!

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