23 Jul 2015

Colors in the photos – natural skin color

1 Comment Retouch

Natural skin color is a torment for many people. Various cameras render colors in different ways; for instance, Nikon has a reputation of producing yellow photos, while Canon – red ones. People also say that Canon’s photos are much better and more natural. If someone takes photos in JPG format, it may matter, but since you read my website, you know my opinion about taking JPG photos: they are only suitable as ready photos after the retouch, not as input material before editing.

This kind of photos is taken as RAWs. In case you don’t know what RAW is, let me explain that it’s an equivalent of the film in analog cameras. It’s a raw file undestroyed by camera editing and processed e.g. in Adobe Camera Raw, Lightroom, or Capture One. All the parameters used to take a photo when you press the shutter release (contrast, white balance, color space etc.) can be changed in the RAW file. JPG is a file with 8 bits per channel, while RAW usually has (depending on the settings and the camera) 12-14 bits. It contains a lot more information; for instance, you can lighten the shadows by several EV. RAWs have various extensions depending on the producer of the equipment, e.g. *.raw (Panasonic), *.nef (Nikon) or *.cr2 (Canon).

You set saving the files in RAW format after you take the camera out of the box for the first time and you never interfere with this option again. Then, since you have RAW files, you can do anything with colors. Here comes a myth that it is easier to obtain natural colors during editing if you use Canon equipment. I completely disagree with this. I am going to show you how you should control colors and the brand of the camera won’t matter. I don’t use Color Checker and my RAW processor is the latest version of Adobe Camera Raw (ACR).

If someone tells you that it’s impossible to obtain equally good colors from Nikon as those from Canon, it doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. It means that this person doesn’t have the faintest idea about the basics of editing.

In case some of you don’t know this, let me mention that RAW processors ignore your camera settings. It doesn’t matter if you set the profile in the body to neutral or high-contrast. It doesn’t matter what sharpening, color saturation or color space (sRGB/AdobeRGB) you select. The only parameter taken into account is white balance (but you can change it later). The appearance of the photo after opening it in a processor (Lightroom, ACR or Capture One) depends on the settings you define as standard ones in those programs. If you don’t define them at all, default program settings will be loaded anyway instead of camera settings. An exception is the manufacturer’s software such as Nikon’s View NX delivered with cameras or Camera NX, which can also be bought separately. As I’ve already mentioned, I use ACR. It’s a standard plug-in delivered with Photoshop. However, other processors have equivalent functions to those I’m about to describe, while Lightroom uses the same plug-in, only with a different interface and additional options.

I think I don’t need to write anything about this one: setting white balance correctly is the basic thing – and the first one you should do after opening the photo. I take nearly all photos using flash light, so I do the correction only occasionally. Still, if it’s necessary, it can be done using the sliders for this option or by taking a color sample from the spot which is expected to be grey/white (without discolorations). The latter method fails, however – there are always some discolorations there. Thus, during a photo shoot it is best to take one photo intended precisely for setting white balance: the model holds a grey card, which will later on allow you to set white balance easily by sampling the color from it.

Camera profile – To me, this is by far one of the most important options during RAW processing, but many people don’t realize that it exists. Camera profile is selected in the Camera Calibration tab:

The Camera Calibration tab and the list of profiles for Nikon D700

For Nikon D700, D300(s), D90, D3(s) I always use D2X profiles (usually D2X Mode 2 v 4). They have a lot of yellow, but removing it lasts a moment. The sliders for red, green and blue, which are located below, prove virtually useless for that purpose. If you move the red slider, you will change the color not only of the red dress, but also of the brown background because brown contains red. The corrections I need are done using the fourth section named HSL/Grayscale. If the skin is too yellow, I simply move the orange slider:

I use orange color. If you use the yellow slider, the make-up will change its colors very significantly before you obtain the skin hue that you want. Moreover, that color will need big correction. If the skin is too red, you should also use the orange slider, but move it to the right and not to the left.

HSL/Grayscale section is divided into three tabs. The one shown in the above screenshot is responsible for Hue: by moving the orange slider, you change the color to redder or greener. The second tab is Saturation, which allows you to decide if the color should be intense or pale (faded). The last tab – Luminance – is also very useful: changing the orange color there lets you adjust light reflections on the skin. Thus, you move that slider to the left to reduce them and make it easier to increase the contrast later on.


If it turns out during the subsequent retouch in Photoshop that the color still needs some change (for instance, when you set the proof colors for the printer and the paper you are going to use and the colors are different than what you want), PS has many tools for playing with colors. I use one of them, whose effect is very similar to that of Camera RAW sliders. You need to select Hue/Saturation in the menu of Adjustment Layers.

Natural skin tones

The standard (Master) setting applies the changes to the whole photo, but you can change this by selecting the color you want. After that, the color and saturation sliders will only change the selected color. There is no orange there any more, but even if you move the red slider and this changes the hue of lips, dress or anything else that shouldn’t be changed, it doesn’t matter. You are no longer in Camera RAW, but in Photoshop: it’s enough to cover the undesired areas on the layer. That’s it.


My website will definitely not be centered around retouch, but around lighting. I will probably describe some basics from time to time; the issue of colors puzzles many people, so I’ve decided to write about it just now. There are also other methods of correcting skin color, but the one I’ve shown is simple, effective and fast because you don’t usually need to apply a mask. Adjusting colors is only one of the many stages of editing and even this stage has a much wider scope owing to local corrections and other elements. But that is a topic for another discussion.

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I have taken beauty and fashion shots for a few years. I publish the results of my work on this blog together with photo shoot descriptions, setups, backstage photos and everything that is significant while photographing. I try to diversify the equipment I use during my photo shoots.
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