Portraits of Dark-Skinned Subjects
Shooting dark skinned models and portraits
If, like me, you're a photographer in a city on the east coast of Australia, there's a good chance that you predominantly shoot fairly pale-skinned models and - purely due to demographics - rarely get the chance to shoot subjects with dark skin. However, Jazzy was in the studio not long ago and there are a few shots from the photoshoot above, so it seemed a good time to look at the differences in lighting and set-up when you're shooting pale- and dark-skinned models.
The differences in lighting and technique are not huge, but they do exist and can make the difference between a good photo and a great one. Below are some of the technical and lighting points to keep in mind when shooting a subject with dark skin if you're used to shooting pale-skinned models.
Just a note to say that I'm speaking very generally here - skin tone is a range from very dark to very light, and everyone's skin is different, but as a general guide, this will help you get great photos of your dark-skinned subject.
There aren't many issues fortunately! But here are a couple of things to keep in mind.
Autofocus - Your camera may struggle more than usual to focus on dark skin due to a lack of shadowy contrast. For close-up portraits, it's usually not a problem because the contrast between the eye and the skin is great, but if you're pulled back doing a full-length shot, the camera may not cope. To get around this, I find that adding more ambient light helps so turn your modelling lamps up to full if you're using studio strobes, or turn on a light if you're using a speedlite flash. If you're using ambient lighting or shooting in low light, then you may need to take control and use manual focus.
Picture style - If you're used to shooting pale-skinned models and using, for example, 'portrait style' then you might find that the results are somewhat disappointing. There's no simple answer here, partly because it comes down to preference and an individual's skin, but also because each camera manufacturer handles colour differently (compare Nikon and Canon, for example, and the portrait settings are very different) so the only way to work out what's best is to try them out. You'll see in some of the pictures above that monochrome often works well with a dark model.
Exposure - Getting the exposure right for a dark-skinned face is not nearly as hard as many people seem to think! In general, you may want to increase the exposure by a small amount - maybe half a stop - when shooting a dark-skinned face compared to a pale one, but only that much. The goal is not to make the dark skin look light. However, how you work out your exposure might be a bit different (see below).
Histogram - If you use the histogram on the back of your camera to judge the correct exposure, the correct position will be different when shooting a dark-skinned model compared to a pale-skinned model. The peaks of the graph may be shunted quite significantly towards the left. You don't want to try and match the histogram to that of a light-skinned model as you'll end up with a hugely overexposed shot.
Auto-exposure - Following on from the histogram section above, you don't want to match the histogram's exposure to that of a light-skinned face. Unfortunately, that's what your camera will do if you're using auto-exposure (if you're using aperture priority, for example, or any of the auto modes) and ambient light so you may need to use exposure compensation (the +/- button on most cameras). Use -1.0 EV as a starting point and then adjust accordingly.
The studio set-up or how you use the ambient light can be a bit different between a pale-skinned model and a dark-skinned one. There are, in fact, several advantages to shooting dark-skinned subjects, but also a couple of things to keep in mind.
Lighting - The set-up of the lights for a portrait is not going to be very different between a light- and dark-skinned model. The difference can be quite subtle but, in general, you'll be emphasising the contours in the face rather than softening them like you might in a portrait of a pale-skinned model. You'll still be using softboxes (or your favourite light modifier) for the main and fill lights, and a snoot on the dark hair is usually a good idea too.
One technique to add some contour to the face is to add a light to one side (or both) of the face in addition to the main and fill lights. In the main photo above, the lighting was 1) A beauty dish above and slightly to the right of the model's face, 2) a softbox fill-light to the left-hand side and below, 3) another softbox to the right slightly further back, and 4) a snoot as a hairlight behind and to the right of the model.
Shadows and contrast - One of the good things about shooting dark skin is that it hides some of the shadows that might be unflattering on a lighter skinned model. This means you may have a bit more leeway with where the lights can be placed. However, it's not a get-out-of-jail-free card!
For example, be aware that if you use an unsoftened light to one side of the model, it will still catch the pores and imperfections in the skin, just like a pale-skinned model, but you might not notice it on the back of the camera, so zoom in for a look to make sure that you're not emphasising the skin too much.
On dark skin, sometimes the colour of the lips can get lost under studio lighting making the mouth indistinct. Other than lipstick or gloss, the easiest way around this is to get your subject to give you a big smile.
Reflection and shine - When shooting a pale-skinned model, you'll be bouncing light off the subject, which is nice and easy, but dark skin can suck up the light and you may be using shine off, for example, the forehead and cheek to break up the skin tone and to give some contour. You may need to bring your strobe closer to your model and turn up the power a touch. On a pale-skinned model, this would produce an overexposed hotspot, but on dark skin, it can give a nice defining shine. However, if the skin is a bit oily, this shine can be too much and in this case, you shouldn't be emphasising the shine and you should use a standard portrait set-up.
Catchlights - When you're lighting dark skin, it's easy to end up with unpleasant catchlights in the eyes. This is for two reasons. The first is that you may be using brighter lights than you would with a lighter-skinned model. The second reason is that dark-skinned subjects tend to have darker eyes, which are much more reflective than paler-coloured eyes. Some of the most beautiful eyes that I've ever photographed have in fact been quite hard to shoot because they were so shiny.
Backdrop - For a really good, crisp portrait, in many cases you need some contrast between your subject and the backdrop. So for a pale model, a grey or black backdrop can work well, but with very dark skin, you may find that there isn't enough contrast between the foreground and the background. Usually for a dark-skinned model, I'll shoot against a white or grey background. However, if I'm shooting against a white background, I'll shoot with a high-key set-up (just at the edge of overexposed) otherwise the contrast between the skin and the backdrop can be too much.
Backlighting - The concept of backlighting is to have the lights behind the model such that the bulk of the face/body is dark (or at least less exposed) than the rim of the body or face. However, when shooting dark skin, in my experience, the backlighting does not give a very satisfying result as the amount of lighting around the edges is not enough or is too contrasty to allow a really good backlighting set up. The shine off the body can be improved by spraying water on the body or using oil on the skin.
There aren't many differences in the ideal clothing choices between light- and dark-skinned models but what differences exist are at either end of the scale. Very dark clothing may not have enough contrast with the subject's skin, unless you're flooding the scene with light. At the other end of the scale, white clothing is likely to have too much contrast, which can be a problem at weddings! In my experience, I find that reds work well with dark-skinned models, but that may be purely subjective.