PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY

How to capture natural skin tones in your portrait photos

Recording natural skin tones is one of the most challenging aspects of portrait photography. Jade Keshia Gordon offers five tips for success.
Canon Camera
Capturing natural, accurate skin tones is one of the most challenging aspects of portrait photography. Unusual lighting and strange colour casts can leave your portrait-sitter with sickly looking skin that can take an age to put right in post-production. But while we can't all afford to have a make-up artist on stand-by, there are a number of ways that you can get fresh, clean tones straight from your EOS camera and reduce the amount of retouching you need to do.

Here, award-winning fashion and beauty photographer Jade Keshia Gordon offers five simple tips for capturing perfect skin tones. She explains how she approaches black, white and mixed-race skin differently, and how she sets up her EOS camera for consistent results.

Follow Jade's advice, and you'll be capturing perfect skin tones in no time!

1. Avoid harsh, direct light

A woman with long braids, wearing a pink cardigan, posing with her hands either side of her head.

Shooting in natural light is a great way of illuminating your subjects and ensures their skin tone is true to life. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/640 sec, f/1.4 and ISO320. © Jade Keshia Gordon

A woman with long braids wearing a blue tie-dye T-shirt.

Harsh, direct light can cause unflattering shadows – an overcast day and gentle lighting from the side will ensure that shadows are softer and work for you, helping define the shape of the face and features. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/1000 sec, f/1.2 and ISO320. © Jade Keshia Gordon

Softer light is generally more flattering. Shooting outdoors on a bright but overcast day will give a diffuse illumination that suits all types of skin tone. On clear sunny days, where the light is unfiltered and harsh, it's often better to find some light shade so you can avoid shadows and hotspots on faces.

"When it comes to skin tone, the first thing you have to think about is your lighting," confirms Jade. "If it's hitting your subject face-on and they have lighter skin, they could end up looking washed out. So you need to be prepared to reduce the exposure, or alternatively switch the subject around so that the light is coming from behind them.

"When I'm working in a studio, I like to have a two-light set-up, with one light behind the subject, illuminating the backdrop, and then a beauty dish at the front, slightly off-centre from the model in order to light up their face."

2. Expose different skin tones correctly

A high fashion portrait of a woman wearing a pale blue gown. Her hair is waved and filled with clips.

Don't use a one-size-fits-all approach for different skin tones in portraits – choose the best lighting, exposure and white balance for different tones. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 100mm F2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 1/125 sec, f/4.5 and ISO50. © Jade Keshia Gordon

A portrait of a woman wearing a large fur coat, holding her white sunglasses with her long nails.

Jade says the most important thing to bear in mind is your exposure setting – make sure lighter skin tones are not overexposed. © Jade Keshia Gordon

Jade regularly shoots models with different skin tones, and adopts a different approach for each.

"It's important to avoid over exposing white skin when you're shooting a portrait," she explains. "You want to make sure that you can see the textures and any freckles or make-up. If the highlights are burned out, it can be hard or impossible to bring them back."

"With black skin tone, you need plenty of light," continues Jade. "Black absorbs light, so you need to make sure you have enough light to highlight the features. It's a thin line, though, as too much will overexpose the skin and wash the features out.

"I tend to find that backlighting works well for mixed-race skin tones, whether it's a studio light or the sun. It brings a nice light around the sides of the face, and you can use a reflector to bounce some of that light back onto the face."

3. Use the Portrait Picture Style

A portrait of a woman with long braids, wearing a pink cardigan and grey jeans on a city street.

This photo was shot using Portrait Picture Style, making the colours slightly warmer. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/640 sec, f/1.4 and ISO320. © Jade Keshia Gordon

A slightly cooler looking portrait of a woman with long braids, wearing a pink cardigan and grey jeans on a city street.

This photo was shot using the Standard Picture Style, so the colours are a little flatter, but more true to life. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/640 sec, f/1.4 and ISO320. © Jade Keshia Gordon

Choosing one of the preset Picture Style options in-camera takes care of a whole array of settings for you – each Picture Style offers a different blend of sharpness, contrast, saturation and colour tone, and they can have markedly different effects on skin tone in a portrait. As you might expect, the Portrait Picture Style is optimised for shots that include people, with the sharpness moderately reduced and the brightness slightly increased to give softer-looking skin.

"Here, I prefer the Portrait setting, as the one I shot using the Standard Picture Style felt a bit flat," says Jade. "Portrait gently enhances any red undertone in the image. So it brought out the best in the model's pink top, and because she is black, that red boost helped to lift her skin tone without making her too orangey red."

If you find the default Portrait Picture Style produces skin tones that are a little too reddish or yellowish under the lighting conditions, use the Colour Tone slider in the Picture Style menu to correct this.

4. Manually set the white balance

A portrait of a woman with long braids in a pink cardigan.

This image was taken using the Daylight white balance setting, rendering true to life colours. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/640 sec, f/1.2 and ISO320. © Jade Keshia Gordon

A portrait of a woman with long braids in a cropped pink cardigan, with a warmer white balance.

This image was shot using the Shade white balance setting, making all the colours in the portrait warmer (more orange). Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/640 sec, f/1.4 and ISO320. © Jade Keshia Gordon

For consistent skin colours, choose a white balance preset that matches the lighting conditions, or create your own using the Custom White Balance option in the camera's main menu. As long as the lighting doesn't change, you'll get the same results from shot to shot.

If you leave the white balance set to Auto, the camera will adjust the colour temperature to remove colour casts. This can produce skin tones that are too 'warm' (orange) or too 'cool' (blue). If you shoot RAW you can change the white balance later in editing, but setting it correctly in-camera gives you a more accurate preview.

"In these examples, you can see the effect that using a different white balance has on the model's skin tone," explains Jade. "I prefer the results using the Daylight setting here, as it doesn't wash her out and it doesn't make her overly orange-toned. It just lifts the colours slightly and is closer to what I saw with my eyes at the time."

5. Shoot RAW

A person holding a Canon EOS R6 setting the camera to shoot RAW.

Shooting RAW means the camera saves all the tonal and colour detail captured by the sensor, giving you more freedom when you process the image. © Jade Keshia Gordon

If you do shoot JPEG or HEIF, then you need to get the settings right in-camera before you shoot. This includes the colour space, which determines the range of colour that can be displayed in a photo. You can set this in your camera's main menu.

Jade always shoots RAW, and recommends doing so even if you are new to portrait photography, as this makes it easier to fine-tune the skin tone later. RAW files hold more picture information than JPEGs or HEIF files, and you can freely adjust picture parameters such as white balance, colour characteristics and sharpness using RAW processing and editing software such as Canon Digital Photo Professional without affecting the original image data.


Written by Marcus Hawkins

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