Whether it be Rachel Morrison’s work on Black Panther and Mudbound, or our friend Mamadi Duombouya’s work in Kankan, the challenges unique to capturing darker skin tones are being stared down by some of the most talented image makers in the world. And “no, you’re not crazy,” Adobe Resident Aundre Larrow writes in a blog post on the subject, “photographing darker skin tones…is harder than photographing lighter ones” [emphasis mine].
Luckily, Mr. Larrow—a supremely talented photographer and storyteller—has been kind enough to outline ten tips for capturing darker skin tones, “like [his].” Along with a written guide, he also hosted an Instagram Story tutorial last week on the subject. As with any Story, it’s disappeared after 24-hr. run, but we snagged some of the goodies. Let’s check ’em out.
“For a photo including people with different skin tones,” Aundre writes, “place your primary light source closer to the subject with darker skin.” Keep in mind, however, that you may have to “burn a little” in post to ease the brightness of the subjects with lighter skin.
2. Pay Attention to the Undertones
Everyone has undertones. When choosing the environment for your portrait, keep these in mind. And choose a relation between the two hues that fits the emotions you’re trying to elicit: choose complimentary colors for a “soothing portrait,” or contrasting one’s for a “provocative” style.
3. Dynamic Lighting
“Keep lighting off the walls,” Larrow urges, for this creates a more “dynamic” and “cinematic” feel. Utilizing varying “stages” of light, he says, creates “depth.”
4. Use a Hair Light
“Don’t rob your subjects of the complexity and detail in their hair,” Larrow warns, use a hair light. Not only will it help illuminate your subjects’ dark hair, it will create a “rim” around it which will keep it visually separate from you background.
5. Don’t Be Afraid of a Silhouette
“In low light,” Aundre admits, “I will often opt for a silhouette,” while gently “kiss[ing]” the subjects’ frame with lighting for an air of mystique.
Utilize the “highlights” slider in Lightroom CC to “create soft contrast across darker skin.” Evenly balanced lighting on darker skin tones, he says, “looks magical.”
“Reflective light,” he says, “is your best friend.” While a harsher source might be more forgiving, a diffused our bounced light source reveals the intricacies of your subject’s facial features.
8. Don’t Whitewash
The only tip Aundre repeats “for the folks in the back” is to resist the temptation to lighten up your subject. “Dodging dark skin,” he explains, is not the same as “properly lighting dark skin.”
9. Use the Dodge and Burn Tools
If you’re shooting with one light source—say, outdoors—then it’s going to be difficult to expose each person’s skin tone appropriately. Instead of trying the impossible, shoot each subject “properly exposed” so you have an example of what they should look like. Then, in post, using the Dodge and Burn tools get them close to that.
For any skin tone, background is crucial. For darker tones, don’t put them in dark backgrounds, “unless you’re going to light them separately.”
All Images Courtesy Aundre Larrow