5 Mistakes You're Making When You Edit Black Skin: Tips from a Black Photographer
Let's be honest, editing melanated skin is intimidating. Not because it's harder, but because a lot of people are just afraid of getting it wrong. I can't tell you how many posts I've seen from photographers asking the same crucial question:
Did I get these skin tones right?
If you've found yourself doing the same thing, let me help you out! I'm a black photographer, and even I had to learn how to edit melanin skin with care and accuracy. It's not harder, it's just a little different. A lot of presets and tutorials cater to whiter skin and don't tell you much about editing an array of complexions. Add to that the shame that sometimes happens when you try to ask these questions in open spaces and it totally makes sense why you're struggling in this area. So what do you do?
You take these tips and run with them. I've noticed 5 mistakes photographers seem to make the most when editing black and brown skin. So I took each one andp rovided apractical solution to each. All you need is your photos (ideally in a RAW format) and some version of Lightroom (either Classic or Mobile is totally fine). Let's jump in!
Mistake #1: Darker Skin is Coming Out Green/Blue
The Solution: Get Your White Balance Right
When it comes to editing Black and Brown people, especially when they have really deep and dark complexion, and ESPECIALLY when photographing that person with someone White, they zap all the color from the darker person. Their skin ends up looking almost blue or green, and that just feels sickly. The best way to fix this in my opinion is to get your white balance right. White balance, if you're not familiar, basically helps to make sure your colors are accurate and true to life. I'm a creative photographer and I love to bring in rich color grading to my photos, but getting the white balance correct first helps to make sure my baseline skin is always accurate. If darker skin is looking blue or green, move the white balance sliders around until things look right. I recommend doing this before any of your edits, even exposure!
Mistake #2: Dark Skin is Looking Too Orange
The Solution: Use the HSL sliders and white balance to reduce saturation
That Tang effect not really your thing? Same here. Super orange skin is a common issue I run into when editing melanin skin, but it's really not hard to fix. The key is to use the HSL (hue, saturation, luminance) sliders in the color panel of Lightroom. The orange and red sliders will be your best friends when it comes to dark skin. I usually lower the saturation in orange just a little bit, and sometimes increase the luminance if I want to add some subtle glow to the skin.
If that doesn't work, your white balance may be too warm. I know we all love that warm golden hour glow, but I think the best way to achieve that is with color grading (I'll have to write more on that another day). You should be starting with a properly white-balanced baseline to make sure your skin tones are good.
Mistake #3: Dark Skin Lacks Depth
The Solution: Use Clarity to Bring Back the Glow
Wondering how your favorite photographers get those rich and flowy skin tones? My favorite way is to use clarity. Clarity confused me for a while, but I learned that it increases contrast between the midtones in Lightroom. We can get into the technicalities later, but clarity is great for two things:
Making things seem sharper
Making skin look richer
I find that clarity adds *just enough* contrast - it doesn't mess with the deep shadows, so you don't loose all the detail there, and it doesn't fuss with your highlights so you won't blow anything out. Those midtones are where skintones tend to be the most abundant, so a little bit of contrast will add depth and richness to your skin. I recommend using your masking brushes and using the clarity slider sparingly. Too much will make skin look aged and weathered.
Mistake #4: Darker Skin Looks Dull and Flat
The Solution: Use Vibrance to bring back radiance
If you dont know how to edit melanin skin, you might find it coming out dull and flat in your photos. If you're racking your brain trying to figure out what exactly is missing, try using your vibrance slider. Vibrance is similar to clarity in that it doesn't affect all pixels. If you want super technical, I am not your gal, but what I can tell you is that vibrance is the much gentler cousin of saturation. Saturation will amp your colors all the way up while vibrance will subtly enhance them across the photo. That makes vibrance perfect or skin tones. Check out the differences between the two below.
Mistake #5: Skin Looks Muddy and Grainy
The Solution: Get into your masking brushes to adjust texture, clarity, and saturation
Muddy tones (aka your colors aren't crisp and feel like they're just running together) can happen for a lot of reasons, particularly when your shadows are too dark. If you didn't expose your shadows or darker skin tones enough in camera, it will be tough to fix them in Lightroom, but there are ways to save them! Lightroom's masking brushes are really quite powerful and can really help enhance your photos. If I have a photo that I love, but the skin is looking a little muddy, here's what I use these three tools and a highly feathered brush to fix it:
Increase the shadows - if the area is darker than it should be, I lift the shadows and sometimes the overall exposure just a tiny bit. This helps bring back some detail, but sometimes makes the skin look a little washed out. This is a good time to use the noise slider to address any grain that might happen from slightly overexposing. Lightroom's Denoise AI is top notch, try it out!
To address the washed out-ness, I increase the clarity a bit and sometimes the overall contrast. The goal is to create richness in the skin again.
Finally, I play with concentration to bring back color in the skin if some of it was lost.
And that's that y'all! Editing melanin skin doesn't have to be scary! These tips are a just a place for you to start. Once you start feeling your way through Lightroom, applying the knowledge you already have, and practicing more, you'll be an expert. Want some in person support on your editing journey? Join me in my class on how to edit melanin skin on September 18th! If you're in the DMV and want to get one-on-one support for how to edit melanated skin, this is the class for you! Sign up before spots are filled!