As a working colorist, if I had to prioritize a single aspect of my grades over all others, I’d choose skin tone every time.

Why? Because nearly every shot we grade has skin in it, and its appearance plays a huge role in the viewer’s response to the image. Get it right, and we’re well on our way to a solid grade. Get it wrong, and there’s almost no way to recover.

So can how we structure our approach to nailing skin tone in every shot? Let’s explore some guiding principles we can use to answer this question.

Before we dive in, let’s establish a practical definition for skin tone. Skin tonerefers to the reproduction, hue, saturation, and luminance of our subject’s skin.

Respect the Context

The first principle we need to understand is that skin tone is contextual, and there’s no single combination of hue, saturation, and luminance we can target to get it “right."

In other words, we can’t simply paint by numbers. Lighting, environment, and our subject’s age, health, and natural pigmentation all influence skin tone, and these factors can and should yield varying appearances in our final image.

Target Memory Colors 

Memory colors are colors which human beings store an internal ideal for, and they include things like skies, foliage, and—you guessed it—skin. As a matter of fact, skin is the strongest of the memory colors.

So, even though skin tone depends on context, there are circumstances in which nudging it toward this memory color can serve our image well. DaVinci Resolve’s vectorscope has a built-in skin tone indicator which we can use as a target for these adjustments.

Embrace your creative intent.

Ultimately, the most important factor in determining where we should set our skin tone is creative intent. Want your film to have a desaturated, high-contrast look? Or maybe you’re after a glossy, saturated feel? Whatever direction you choose, your skin tone should be part of it, rather than treated as a separate element in need of specialized treatment. If this ends up moving you further from the skin tone indicator, so be it!

When it comes to skin tone, there are very few hard and fast rules, but if you make skin tone a top priority and embrace the above principles as you seek to finesse it, you’re setting yourself up to author truly compelling images.

Want to learn more about color grading? Check out these cinematic color grading tips and how you can use contrast to your advantage

Have any color grading tips? Share them in the comments below. 

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