What a professional wants you to know about photographing dark skin tones

Jade Keshia Gordon
(Image credit: Jade Keshia Gordon)

For a long time the photography industry made it seem like it's difficult to shoot darker skin tones, either because of studio lighting or just capturing the different tones within their skin. But what if I told you that everything you do for lighter skin tones can be adapted to darker skin tones?

As photographers I believe that we should have the ability to be able to shoot all types of skin tones, and doing our research before a shoot minimizes any problems on the day. I don't think that you'd turn up and tell a model that you couldn't work with their clothes or hair color. Skin color is no different. 

With that in mind, here are a few simple things to consider before you start.

Jade Keshia Gordon
Jade Keshia Gordon

Based in London, Jade is a fashion and beauty photographer who works with brands and bloggers alike, as well as manufacturers, such as Manfrotto and Lastolite. She has created content for Nike and Canon, among others, and runs her own talent agency.

Work with the right team

The first thing I would do before starting the shoot would be to find a hair and make up artist that can work on darker skin, as this will eliminate many issues when it comes to photographing the model and would also have them feeling relaxed knowing that they are in good hands. You always want to make sure that you are setting yourself up for a canvas that can easily be retouched.

Consider the background

Choosing a backdrop that complements your model also plays a big part. My go-to colors are nudes, browns, pinks. Some shades like orange and yellow look great on darker skin tones for clothes, but the backdrops can sometimes have the model blending in – which you don’t want. 

Jade Keshia Gordon

With this image I decided to go for complimenting tones from her hijab and the silk background. Play around with the textures you are using (Image credit: Jade Keshia Gordon)

Get the exposure right

Sometimes people tend to underexpose darker skin tones, as they think that those tones don't need the extra light – but it doesn't quite work like that.

Lighting plays a big part in how you would shoot darker skin tones. You need to make sure that the lighting is balanced, and that it compliments the make up.

I tend to use a two light setup that consists of a softbox or an Octa box on the left hand side of the model. I would then have the beauty dish (key light) on the right side slightly above the model, tilted downwards. You could also have this dish directly in front of the model to reduce any shadows. Having the lights either side enables you to cover the model and the backdrop.

This is definitely a key difference when shooting darker skin tones. You want there to be as much controlled light as possible, whereas if you were shooting someone of a lighter skin tone you would probably have the key light (beauty dish) a distance to avoid blowing their complexion out.

Using reflectors

Once you feel like that you have got the lighting how you want it you can start introducing gold or silver reflectors. Both give two different feels and can enhance the image, as the examples below show.

Jade Keshia Gordon

A silver reflector was used to add a lighter glow to her highlight points (Image credit: Jade Keshia Gordon)

Jade Keshia Gordon

A gold reflector was used here, which you can see has added a  nice golden glow (Image credit: Jade Keshia Gordon)

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