The Art of Lighting Dark Skin for Film and HD
Here are some practical and artistic tips from a working cinematographer on how to ensure dark skin "drinks in colors" on camera.
Every shade and hue offers its own unique challenges and glorious opportunities for the cinematographer to create art. Anyone with a basic knowledge of lighting can get a decent exposure when filming non-white skin. But I want to discuss the art.
Your narrative will dictate how a character should appear, whether ashen, vibrant, healthy, exhausted, apathetic, or enlightened. As a cinematographer, I can make any skin tone exude one of those adjectives. To begin my process, once the director and I come to a consensus on how a film should look, I determine which HD camera/film stocks and lenses can achieve it and still stay in budget. My lighting scheme is based on the dynamic range and/or latitude of the HD/film stock, my "man power" (size and technical ability of my G/E crew), post-production budget for color correction, pace of our shooting schedule, and demands of the location (no windows, can’t rig from the ceiling, etc).
I love shooting black/brown/tan skin because it literally drinks in colors.
My preference is to light the location first and then make tweaks to accommodate the actor's skin color (in this scene, reddish brown), movements (dances across the room and then sits) and motivations (character wants to be mysterious).
Below are a few of the things I consider when working with different skin colors, plus specific technical tips to get you started on the right track.
Study faces like a painter
Painters are fascinated by the nuances in people’s faces. They’re not black, white or beige; they’re obsidian with flushed crimson cheeks. They’re ivory, with skin is so translucent, it looks green. I enjoy noticing the full tonality of the talent’s skin tone. I know my choices in camera, film stock, and lenses can either neutralize those subtle shifts in color or exaggerate them.
Color combinations speak
I choose colors—whether shifts in color temperature or party gels—which, when combined with all of the wonderful complexities of a skin tone, "says something." Most often, when lighting a subject for news or documentary, you light so that the subject is well exposed and their face is "neutral." For instance, if a subject is fair-skinned with "too much" magenta, I might add 1/8 Plus Green to their key light to achieve a neutral look, or, 1/4 CTO to balance out the blue undertones of someone with dark brown skin. (Or, of course, pull out the color hints in post-production or via camera settings.)
My greatest pet peeve is when a dramatic film with a predominantly black cast is lit like a comedy.
However, when lighting for narrative, commercials, and music videos, you’re lighting to "say something." The scene may be about love, distrust, community, or frailty. I love shooting black/brown/tan skin because it literally drinks in colors. Brown skin combined with warm/gold/peach hues can be luminous. Rich dark skin combined with greens/blues can be equally beautiful, yet alienating.
Underexposure: Rich skin tone
Perhaps my greatest pet peeve is when a dramatic film with a predominantly black cast is lit like a comedy: brightly lit, high key, and all of the actors are reduced to the same caramel shade. In film speak, it's as if everyone was set at 18% grey. If our job as filmmakers is to have something to say, lighting all black actors flat and high key is severely limiting our vocabulary. Unless I’m shooting reversal film, I love to underexpose my actors’ faces (assuming it fits the narrative) and let the camera enjoy the richness of diverse brown skins.
I’m obsessed with sensitometric curves and dynamic range. That way, I know how far underexposed I can go and still retain detail. I also know the range of skin tones my camera can capture without additional light. There’s no reason to flood a dark-skinned actor with light when their face, metered 3 or 4 stops under, maintains its deep rich brown, umber, or ebony color. All I need is a side “kicker” (hot edge light on one side of the face) to give shape to their bone structure, separate them from the background, and make sure their lighting contrast is consistent with the rest of the scene.
Overexposure: Don't overdo it
I love overexposure, too, especially when wanting to convey joy, levity, romance, luxury, comfort, and ease. Overexposing brown skin while using a warm gel on your light can make the actor radiant. For beauty spots, that extra light can literally make your actors/models flawless.
But I’m always mindful of overexposing too much with brown skin. Go too far, and they can appear unnaturally lighter and washed out. I think the India Arie music video Cocoa Butter looks great, but it is interesting to compare how she looks in the video to the behind-the-scenes.
Become besties with the make-up department
Instead of futzing with my lights or adding gels, sometimes it's faster and easier for make-up to add a foundation that eliminates reddish skin, or to add a powder to soften the light hitting the actor’s face. On Orange Bow, a film I shot for Dee Rees eons ago, I asked that oil be applied to the actors’ faces. Black/brown skin can absorb light, making the light non-existent. Oil or lotion give dark skin a more reflective quality, allowing me to do more with fewer lights.
Depending on the desired look and camera you’re using, consider the following:
- Use a large soft vs. hard light on dark-skinned actors. Because black/brown skin absorbs light, a hard source can leave an unsavory “hot spot” on the actor’s face as the rest falls into darkness.
- Place your fill side closest to camera. The true depth of their brown skin fills the frame while the opposing side exposure matches the scene.
- Chose film stocks, lenses, and cameras that naturally support your look. If you don’t know which, do camera tests. I shot a Bollywood-inspired film and chose Fuji Vivid 160 ASA film (RIP). I loved that stock. Its high contrast, relatively limited latitude, and color saturation was perfect for romantic comedies and dance numbers. Plus, the stock naturally loved the warm browns of our predominantly South Asian cast. Similarly, some lenses are naturally warmer/cooler. Same goes for picture profiles.
- Put all of your lights on dimmers so you can adjust as actors with different skin tones move on set.
- Add color to your bounce cards. I love using a gold showcard for bounce on brown skin. I’ll use the silver side if I want the same actor to seem severe, harsh, or uncaring. A little pale lavender or 1/4 CTB added to bounce card on the fill side may (sometimes) make the rest of the face warmer. A little bit of Minus Green on deep bluish black skin can make it even richer brown.
- When working with multiple actors, I prefer to light for the darkest skin tones and use half scrims, silks, flags, etc. to take the light off of the lighter-skinned actors. When you start adding light for darker-skinned actors, you run the risk of creating ugly shadows.
- To create form and depth with lighter-skinned actors, focus on enhancing the shadow areas. To mold and accentuate the form of darker-skinned actors, augment their highlights.
- When working with a black actor who really needs extra light (compared to other actors in the scene), follow them around with a small light (200w) with a ton of diffusion, a paper lantern, or something similar. Put the light on a stand with wheels or “Hollywood” it.
Practice. Shoot. Be Bold. Repeat.