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Color Correcting Skin Tones in Digital Photography

Thursday, August 18, 2011
When you look at a photo with a person as the subject, you really want the skin tones to be a believable, or better, a correct color. The established method for reading skin tone colors is through the CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black) color space. CMYK is the opposite, or opposing colors of RGB (Red, Green, Blue). If you lessen the color Blue somehow (through curves, selective color, etc.) you will be adding Yellow. The same is true for Green which has an opposing color of Magenta. That leaves the color Red having a the same effect on Cyan. If you increase Red you take away Cyan.

There is no CORRECT exact skin tone color that you can plug into a photo and get perfect results every time. It just doesn't work that way. But there is a basic skin tone color/hue which is Yellowish Red. To get a Yellowish Red skin tone the following color recipe should be observed.

CMYK - Yellow highest, Cyan lowest, Magenta closer to Yellow.
RGB - Blue lowest, Red highest, Green Closer to Blue.
LAB - A and B positive, B highest, A more than half as high.

The rules above create the color Yellowish Red. And all people have this combination (except for really pale infants and maybe some really pale people. They may have a slightly higher magenta than yellow). There are some other instances where this rule may be broken, like someone who has just exercised may exhibit a more magenta look, or have a bad sunburn, because they have a red face. But these instances are very few and draw attention to the person in the photo in what is considered a bad way . We want to see healthy skin tones and we have an unconscious idea of what that color is when viewing a photo.

When color correcting skin tones in a photo where there are other objects, you have to consider and measure the interrelated parts of the. We want the skin tones to be believable but not throw off the rest of the photo. In the photo below, the cement and the skin are in the same tonal range, so if you change one (without masking) then you are going to change the other. You have to be careful how one effects the other when changing color.

The photo above looks good, but there is some muddiness in the color. The difficulty of this photo is that there are NO know colors in the whole photo. We can make some guesses, like the ladies shirt in the background being white, and the sign in the back being black. But they might not be be pure white and black. Using skin tones in this instance as a KNOWN color helps us down the color correcting road very well. If we get the skin tone into a better range, a more pure Yellow Red, then we can get a better idea of what might need to be our neutral Blacks and Whites in the photo. When yu get one known color in a proper range the rest of the photo should fall into place.

I would say there is slightly too much Cyan according to the skin tone numbers in the main subject. The skin tone CMYK also says that Magenta is too far away from Yellow (color point 1). It is a common rule that you should not use a persons face to measure skin tone. You don't use the face because the person (especially women) will/may have makeup on. Men have beard lines that may change the color reading of the skin tone. The only lit part of my central subject is his face, so I broke that rule here, found his beard line and used the side of his face where the beard line did not affect the reading as my measuring point (color point 1).

As I placed points around the photo, I notice that the ladies white shirt has too much blue (The upper tonal range). This is common in digital photography and I see it in wedding photography very often, uncorrected too (so the bride picked a BLUE dress).

I decided to add a slight bit of Red to the mans face (lowering Cyan in CMYK) and make my Blue curve the main tool of color correction since it is the most contaminating color in most of the photo. Below you see the photo with the color adjustments on a duplicate layer in color mode, the new measurements and the Blue curve that got me there.

I made the shirt white with a rather dramatic color curve in the blue which put many other objects in the photo into perspective. I also took a little bit of Blue out of the lower half of the curve (the shadow side of the curve) to keep the sign neutral behind the subject. By adding some Blue in the midtone area of the curve, I lessened the Yellow (CMYK) in the skin tones, bringing it closer to my preferred magenta number and eliminated much of the "muddiness" in the colors of the photo. A very slight increase in the Red curve directed at the skin tones and my color correcting is finished.

Is there a big difference? After you color correct 100,000+ photos on a calibrated monitor, you will easily see a difference which is the main point of color correcting. When there is a slight color cast like the photo above, it makes all the colors a little less vibrant. It muddies everything with a slight gray cast.

The above photo is rather flat and the midtones are underexposed. I do shoot ETTR, so I am happy with this photo because I didn't want the ladies shirt in the background to totally blow out and become a white distracting blob. So the next step is a luminosity/contrast curve (duplicate layer using blending mode luminosity).

I changed the number 4 color point to read the subjects face because I wanted to get an accurate luminosity number from the LAB color space. So his face has decreased in all the numbers because everything got lighter. The neutral numbers got lighter but there was no color in them to alter so they stayed neutral. The final photo is -

Color correcting skin tones - with some practice this method of curving a separate color curve to get your colors right - then a luminosity curve to get your tones right should take about 5 minutes. The steps are as follows:

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  1. Find a well it section of skin, preferable not the face, to measure skin tones from.
  2. Make the persons skin tones a Yellowish Red color/hue
  3. Understand what other parts of the photo will be affected by the color correcting curve and make appropriate changes to the photo.
  4. Don't force anything that make other objects in the photo have an unnatural color. Work with the photo and the skin tones instead of against them. They have a natural look.
Our next color correcting skin tone colors tutorial takes us to masking in order to achieve a believable color.The Yellowish Red color will be painted onto the skin in order to color correct a persons skin tone in CMYK.


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