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The Art of Lighting Dark Skin for Film and HD

Filmmaker Toolkit
by Cybel Martin
February 4, 2014 1:07 PM
29 Comments
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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. I want to discuss “the art”.

Your narrative will dictate how a character should appear: Ashen. Vibrant. Healthy. Exhausted. Apathetic. Enlightened. I can (and so can you) make any skin tone exude one of those adjectives. This is 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 Correct, pace of our shooting schedule and demands of the location (no windows, can’t rig from the ceiling etc).

My preference is to light the location first (bright day outside, room lit from sunlight and overhead chandeliers) and then make tweaks to accommodate the actors skin color (reddish brown), movements (dances across the room and then sits) and motivations (character wants to be mysterious).

Here are a few of the things I consider when working with different skin colors:

1. I 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, lenses, Picture Styles/Profile Settings can either neutralize those subtle shifts in color or exaggerate them.

2. Color combinations speak: I chose colors (whether shifts in color temperature or party gels) which when combined with all of the wonderful complexities of their 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.)

However when lighting for narrative, commercials and music videos, you’re lighting to say something. The scene may be about love, distrust, community, frailty etc. One aspect I love about shooting black/brown/tan skin is how it literally drinks in colors. Brown skin combined with warm/gold/peach hues can be luminous. Rick dark skin combined with greens/blues can be equally beautiful yet alienating.  

3. Joys of underexposure. Perhaps my greatest pet peeve is a dramatic film, with a predominantly black cast, lit like a comedy. Brightly lit, high key and all of the actors reduced to the same caramel shade. In film speak, its as if everyone was set at 18% grey. If my/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 (using my spot meter or calibrated monitor) 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.

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. 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.

4. Become besties with the Make-Up department. Instead of futzing with my lights or adding gels, sometimes its faster and easier for Make-Up to add a foundation that eliminates reddish skin or add powder to soften 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/lotion give dark skin a more reflective quality, allowing me to do more with less lights.

5. Technical tips. Depending upon the desired look and camera you’re using, consider:

- Using 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, the rest falling 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 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 (not always) 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 light off of the lighter skin 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 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.

See my brand spanking new Cinematography site with new work at CybelDP.com.

Chat film with me at @CybelDP

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29 Comments

  • Dankwa Brooks | July 9, 2014 12:41 PMReply

    I just finished re-reading and it's still as awesome as ever. Great, great info!

  • Jason Harris | April 5, 2014 9:27 AMReply

    This article is so on time!!!!! Thank you so much!

  • JudasOrleans | February 6, 2014 12:49 AMReply

    Cybel you are the best!

  • CareyCarey | February 4, 2014 5:14 PMReply

    That's it, it's final, with this posting Cybel has now moved ahead of Tambay on my priority list of S&A's writers/readers. You know, when my time is funny (I'm on the move), forcing me to decide which writer, commenter or posting I'll read first, Cybel's name draws my attention as if it's the last number I was looking for before I could yell "BINGO"!

    Listen, S&A is unique place in so many ways. Unlike gossip film sites (won't mention any names) or your run of the mill "look at what's playing this week" film sites, S&A goes deep in the trenches and behind the screen, giving us a look at every aspect of the film-making business and the entire process, equipment, etc, that's required to make a film. We've seen it in Matthew Cherry's journey. The same goes for director Pete Chatmon's many postings. And, the producers, Ava Duvaney, Rob Hardy and Will Packer, the Akims, 34th Street Films &
    Homegrown Pictures "Peeples" (I forget their names?) just to name a few, have all shared their knowledge and wisdom with the folks here at S&A. Oh, and I can't forget "Twinkie" Byrd, the black casting agent behind many memorable black films, has shared her gifts with us as well.

    As one can see, S&A has always been the place to be if one is interested in Black Cinema. But, remember what Janet Jackson said "what have you done for me lately? Well, that's easy, in walks the DP with the mostest (is that a word?), the black woman who does it like no other, Cybel Martin. Now let me tell y'all something, not only is she a proven - and damn good - cinematographer, the woman is one hellava writer.

    Listen, I'm sitting here reading this post (i've read all of her posting) and I'm thinking "damn, is she a DP or a writer, this woman got skills". I mean, generally, from what I've seen in my "many" years on this earth, when an artist is skilled at one craft which requires immense training and studying and continued honing of said craft, their other secondary skills/hobbies go wanting, but apparently Cybel is not your ordinary DP. But let me stop, I can go on and on about what I admire in this woman who S&A has brought to our attention... and I could start right here in THIS POST. There's so many details, so much concise imagery, and so much wisdom, knowledge and insight in this one post alone, that just blows me away. So before I wear out my welcome (any more than I have over the last months :-() , I'd better stop and simply say, THANK YOU Cybel, you're a great read, just what the doctor ordered (medicine for melancholy and a deeper look in the world of DP's)

  • sarah | October 20, 2013 4:42 PMReply

    I was watching the British drama "Death in Paradise" which has a predominantly black cast all various shades of brown. I really enjoyed watching this serious because it does well capturing the different brown skin tones and making everyone look really pretty. It really showcases brown skin in ways I have not seen on television before. Cybel have you seen the show and if so what are your thoughts about the lighting. I want to be able to incorporate some of this into my photography.

  • Tasha | February 4, 2014 2:00 PM

    I was looking for a reason to start watching Death in Paradise...you just gave it to me. Thanks!

  • Cybel | October 21, 2013 1:14 PM

    Hello Sarah

    I've not seen nor heard of "Death in Paradise" but will look for it. I see that the show has had 4 Cinematographers. It's not always easy to maintain a consistent look with that many DPs. The best way I know to mimic someone's cinematography is google the show/film and read all of the articles you can about their process (Am Cine Mag, different forums etc) and then test, shoot, test, shoot until you make it your own.

  • Serene | October 2, 2013 3:30 AMReply

    Very useful tips! So many pre-concieved notions about lighting darker skin. It's not impossible to light, it is simply different than lighting white skin. Different from the norm. Not anything more radically more difficult or insurmountable... just different. And the fact that everyone says it is so much more difficult KEEPS it from being the norm and the thing taught. Techniques like this should be taught in every film class. There are so many beautiful skin tones out there, they shouldn't all be washed together onscreen.

  • Alexandre Desane | September 30, 2013 8:01 PMReply

    Thank you so much !

  • JLESLIE | September 18, 2013 1:29 AMReply

    I instantly clicked on this post as this title peaked my interest. It made me reminisce on a time where I was in my lighting 1 class at Columbia College Chicago sophomore year and we were lighting one of our classmates as an example. A dark skinned black girl volunteered to be part of the example but the professor said it wouldn't be doable because her skin was too dark. Her skin wasn't even that dark. Maybe darker than my skin, but she had a even brown skin tone. He then chose a white student to take her place. I was offended for the girl! The girl didn't even show up the next week of class. So this reminded me of that. It's nice to know that there's tips on how to light black skin tone because I shouldn't have to go through that experience. I also like the fact that there's certain types of lighting to make people look a certain way. I never thought of it like that. Like how to make people look healthy, vibrant, or exhausted. This is something I should take on set or something I should always be cautious of when filming. Thanks for the article Cybel.

  • Charles Eason | September 14, 2013 12:07 AMReply

    The Art of Lighting people of color should start with make-up...a very thin coat of Vaseline which brings out the chocolate color...

  • Sonya | September 10, 2013 10:34 PMReply

    I recognize this!!!!! I was this movie!! It was the Gilded Six Pence right?

  • Cybel | September 11, 2013 10:58 AM

    Sonya! You are correct. That's Chad Coleman in Booker T Mattison's film "The Gilded Six Bits" that I DP'd.

  • Sonya | September 10, 2013 10:35 PM

    I saw this movie. LOL :-)

  • Justathought11 | September 10, 2013 2:33 PMReply

    I really appreciate this article. I am currently a film student and the most annoying claims I have come across since entering is hearing white DP's tell me over and over that is extremely tough to light black people. NO! Lighting for film is tough, stop telling how hard it is, do your homework and figure it out. I think I wll keep this article on all of sets, so the next time a dp comes up with an excuse for how tough it is, I can use this as an example of one dp's perspective on how to get the job done. Thank you.

  • Cybel | September 13, 2013 10:18 AM

    I had the same experience in film school. When writing this article, I was hoping / assuming / praying that Cinematographers no longer taught that it is hard to film non-Caucasian actors. Besides the negative effect it has on DPs and our craft, it adversely affects casting. Directors, producers and casting agents may be reluctant to cast a dark skinned actor because it will be hard, time consuming, require special equipment and be a burden to the budget. Lets change that perspective yesterday!

  • Ty Stone | August 21, 2013 8:57 PMReply

    I am an aspiring DP and was wondering how do you find your camera's DR?

    Thanks

  • JaySmack | August 21, 2013 4:15 PMReply

    It's one thing to "light" dark skin, but I'm sure everyone has noticed how lighting is done today in such a way as to make someone seem bracial, or --if the skin is light enough-- even white.
    Funny how nobody objects to this or even highlights (pun intended) this.

  • n. hunt | September 12, 2013 9:58 PM

    The African American community discusses this regularly. One well known singer has stated she will not allow photographers to " lighten" her in photo shoots in the future.

  • Shawn Peters | August 20, 2013 5:57 AMReply

    Great article, thanks Cybel.

  • NothingButAMan | August 19, 2013 9:35 PMReply

    I find CTS to be a bit preferable to CTO, but great points otherwise ;)

  • jeni | August 19, 2013 7:24 PMReply

    Loving these posts! This one is particularly necessary because I've seen bad lighting on darker-hued actors in some more recent nationally-released features from black directors.

  • Donella | August 19, 2013 1:51 PMReply

    The importance of lighting became important to me when I saw Waiting to Exhale. That was like the first time I saw Black actors lit for beauty. Up till then, Black actors looked purple or blue or grey.

  • Donella | August 19, 2013 7:14 PM

    Or a better television.

  • Winston | August 19, 2013 4:03 PM

    Really? Purple, blue, and grey? Now you're just lying. Or you need LASIK.

  • Brotherknowledge | August 19, 2013 1:43 PMReply

    Excellent information!

  • Elizabeth June | August 19, 2013 1:24 PMReply

    You are a GodSend! Thanks for this article! I am sending it to every filmmaker I know! Peace and Blessings!

  • Dankwa Brooks | August 19, 2013 12:23 PMReply

    Thanks so much for posting this Cybel! You have no idea how helpful this will be!

    A pet peeve of mine since studying film has been black actors, specifically dark skin ones lit poorly.

    Case in point actor DEON RICHMOND (better known as "Bud" from 'The Cosby Show') in 2000's 'Scream 3'. Gee whiz. It's a sorry sequel made even sorrier for his lighting. If it comes across your screen. Watch his scenes to see what I mean. smh.

  • rane | August 19, 2013 11:53 AMReply

    Excellent! Thanks so much for posting this!

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