June 26, 2020

Taking and Editing Photos of People with Dark Skin


If you’ve been scrolling through Instagram lately, chances are you’ve seen visual calls to action to end violence against black people. For me, the increase in images of black and brown people continues to be a welcome disruption to media content featuring blonde white women that I’ve come to expect.

As an almost-blonde white woman in a content-creation industry, I want to know not only how to avoid tokenism, but how to make this wake-up call (that has been ringing, unanswered, for so long) last.

The onus is on us.

Color photography has favored white skin since its inception. As Lorna Roth explains in Canadian Journal of Communication, film emulsions were designed with a high level of reflectivity and a positive bias toward white skin tones. Kodak, the main manufacturer, pre-defined “Caucasians” as the target consumer market before the chemists got to work.

Syreeta McFadden confirms in her piece for BuzzFeed: film stock’s failure to capture dark skin isn’t a technical issue — it’s a choice.

It took 40 years for a multiracial reference card to come available alongside the original “Shirley cards” introduced in the mid-1950’s. And really, the primary impetus for improving dark tones in color film was (get this) pressure from chocolate and furniture manufacturers!

“We’ve seen so many images of black bodies denigrated or rendered as criminals,” McFadden explains in her interview for NPR’s Tell Me More.

What can we as photographers do?

Aundre Larrow, a 2017-2018 Adobe Creative Resident, gives 10 Tips for Photographing Darker Skin Tones, and that’s where I started my search for answers.

Don't whitewash black skin.

This happens all the time. It can be a result of poor editing, but also intentional lighting design. Check out my photo of Regina King from an October 2019 event in San Francisco vs. this photo of her published in a November 2019 issue of the New York Post. Seriously, I cannot get over this!

Regina King at Marie Claire's Power Trip Event in San Francisco, October 2019.

Truth is, I can’t claim to be an expert on this. I’ve made (and will continue to make) mistakes. Getting skin tones right, especially in our filter-heavy world, is a constant challenge for photographers. It’s something I’m working on and something I have thought about since I began editing photos (thanks to my mentor, Russell, who drilled into me the importance of accurate skin tones).

Use Adobe Lightroom to reveal undertones.

In addition to the article linked above, photographer Aundre Larrow teaches useful editing techniques at the end of this video.

Adjusting the highlights and shadows in Lightroom can help reveal the beautiful hues and undertones of dark skin. Dark skin is anything but dull.

Light black hair.

Don’t let dark hair disappear into the background. When using artificial light, use a two light system to separate them from the background.

Here’s a mistake I made in April 2017 so you can see why it’s important:

How much hair is that stick bug about to climb onto? The world may never know.

Diversify your portfolio.

While we were planning a portrait session years ago, my friend sent me another photographer’s photo of a black man and asked “can you make my skin look like his?” He had to send me an example from outside my portfolio to show me the look he was going for.

You can see how lack of diversity is self-fulfilling. My friend could have gone with a different photographer with more experience photographing dark skin instead of taking a chance on me.

I started my photography career taking photos of the people close to me. In general, the people close to us look a lot like us. In fact, the person I have photographed the most is my younger sister—who frequently gets mistaken for my twin.

So how do you start building a more representative portfolio?

Photographer George Mitchell suggests in The Bokeh Podcast one way to do this is to diversify your network. He talks about how he worked with a white wedding photographer to create a referral system that helped them each diversify their portfolio and client base.

Host Nathan Holritz asks him how to approach potentially awkward conversations around learning how to photograph dark skin. My favorite takeaway: “Just try your best to not come off weird.”

Candid from Redfin’s 2018 Women@Work event at Terra Gallery in San Francisco.

Expand your network by attending events that draw black and brown audiences. How does your community celebrate Black History MonthJuneteenth? Does your city have its own NAACP branch? Check their calendar of events.

If you happen to be reading this in the middle of a pandemic and, let’s say for example, the San Francisco NAACP has no upcoming events listed, browse Eventbrite’s list of Online Black Events instead.

Offer your services for free (as many photographers do for styled shoots, or when first starting out), or pay black and brown models.

Photo from my first collaborative session with advocate and two-time heart transplant recipient, Corie Crowe.

Why does it matter?

In a story for The Atlantic author Ta-Nehisi Coates addresses his son:

“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”

“The beauty of the black body was never celebrated in movies, on television shows, or in the textbooks I’d seen as a child,” he continues. “Everyone of any import, from Jesus to George Washington, was white.”

We have the power to confront systemic racism on an individual level. Pay attention to how you photograph and edit people with dark skin and dark hair. Treat black bodies with care and respect.

References / Further Reading

Didn’t catch all my links above? Here are the key resources I cited:

Encouraging Inclusion in the Photography Industry
Light And Dark: The Racial Biases That Remain In Photography
How Kodak's Shirley Cards Set Photography's Skin-Tone Standard
How To Capture Beautiful Dark Skin Tones in Your Photography

Finally, I leave you with the words of my Peloton instructor (while kicking my butt in a HIIT ride):

“Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.”