Cinematography Mailing List - CML


Search CML website & discussions

Skin Tone & Other Things

I've just spent today sitting on my cliff, drinking Mumm Napa and watching the tide go out and come back in.

As always in conditions like this I get to thinking. I'm reading Blains Cinematography book and especially the section about Zone system.

I've always used the palm of my hand as Zone 6, enough!, that was aimed at my crew who were, without doubt, making crude comments by now, but I got to wondering about non-caucasian skin tones.

Blain says that most people expose African-Americans as Zone 5 but that just isn't right, Terence Donovan, a God of English fashion photography, always used to refer to Afro-Caribbean’s as 2 stops under.

I've never found any reason to argue with him.

So, do we have a Michael Jackson syndrome creeping in here?

To me a one stop difference in skin tone indicates a person of Middle or Near East origin.

What do YOU think?

Are we exposing skin tones correctly or are we falling under the PC spell?

I'm sure that this will join the many other messages that I've written but never posted


Geoff Boyle FBKS

Director of Photography
EU based

The Vietnamese who are featured in the film I'm shooting have skin that tends to read within maybe 2/10 stop of 18% grey.

When I film them my grey card can stay in the kit bag.

I'm aware of the difference between specular and diffuse reflection but the tones seem perfect to me in dailies.


-Sam Wells

Blain says that most people expose African-Americans as Zone 5 but that just isn't right, Terence Donovan, a God of English fashion photography, always used to refer to Afro-Caribbean’s as 2 stops under.

Awfully sorry to quibble, Geoff, but to be more precise, I said "There is a greater variation in non-caucasian skin and so there is no one standard, however many DP's take Zone V as a starting point for African-Americans."

Actually I've spent all this week shooting African-Americans, and the variation can be extreme, as we are all aware. This is true of most groups other than caucasian or Asian. On movies I've shot that had mostly or all African-American casts, I've even run into situations where I had to use nets with two black actors in the same shot.

The Zone V thing I picked up from Ernest Dickerson on Malcolm X (I was just an electrician on that movie); a fine cameraman and a heck of a nice guy. The Zone V thing usually works for me but ONLY as a starting point. I tend to Polaroid a lot when shooting African-Americans.

I think Donovan is correct concerning folks from the Caribbean in my experience they do tend to be on the darker end of the spectrum. Africa is a big continent, obviously there's going to be variations of all sorts.

There's another factor: there is a good deal of variation in the reflexiveness of their skin; apart from the lightness/darkness. There also tends to be a good deal of shininess. This can be a great advantage when photographing black men (great for kickers and highlights) but can be a problem with women when you're going for beauty shots (as I just finished doing). Always have lots of powder standing by; have them reapply frequently. If you don't have powder, have them use a paper towel on their faces, it can really help n a pinch. These were singers and dancers so they were working hard.

Although I'm not normally a "fill light" kind of guy, in situations like these, a good bit of fill is usually helpful. I tend to light them much "flatter" than I ever would with light-toned people. I learned this not only from Ernest but also from a black photographer/director I've done a dozen or so projects with. I love the way their skin "takes" the light; actually, photographing African-Americans is one of my favourite things; especially men when you're going for a dramatic look.

Never a good idea for an author to start an argument with someone who is currently reviewing his book (just kidding), but just wanted to put in my two cents worth in rebuttal. Hope I don't sound too awfully defensive.

That being said, however, I welcome all corrections, criticisms and suggestions for future editions; we just did a second printing and there were a number of typos corrected as well an error in the Zone System illustration. CML members were a major resource as I was researching and writing; both for their technical knowledge and the two dozen or so CML’ers from all over the world who read and commented on the manuscript. Sorry I couldn't list them all in the acknowledgments, but I did include a thank you to Geoff and CML in general.

Blain Brown
Los Angeles

Geoff Boyle wrote:

>Blain says that most people expose African-Americans as Zone 5 but >that just isn't right

We once shot a large part of a film in a classroom lit by mixed fluorescents and window light (no possibility of using any lights ourselves) and were filming both very dark African-Americans and very pale Caucasians. And we were shooting 7250, pushed one stop.

There was really no room for error -- 1/2 stop one way and the white faces lost detail, 1/2 stop the other way and the black faces blocked up. (We did some tests the first day.)

It's a lot easier these days...but 7250 had a great look for cinema-verite shooting.

Jeff Krines

Last month I set up a 2-camera interview situation. It pre-lit so beautifully and evenly with existing practicals that I confidently left my lighting kit in the car.

Stupid move. Nobody had bothered to tell me that the interviewee, a Dr. so-and-so who had a very Belgian name, was in fact a rather dark-skinned African gentleman who happened to have taken a very Belgian name for professional reasons, as his original name was unpronounceable by Europeans.

By the time he arrived, the interview had to go forward, with no delay and no excuses. So all I could do was tweak one of the practicals to get an extra stop or so onto his face... which wanked the interviewer's lighting around embarrassingly.

(She's the hardest-to-light individual I've ever encountered to begin with. Don't ask...)

This was what pushed me over the edge to invent my axially controllable Chinese lanterns (see cml-lighting a few days ago), which set up very fast and can put two different light levels on two different subjects.

Necessity. Mother of invention.

Dan Drasin
Marin County, CA

>This was what pushed me over the edge to invent my axially >controllable Chinese lanterns

A new solution? Any pictures or diagrams. I'm always interested in innovative responses to lighting problems.


I didn't mean to misquote Blain it's just that that section triggered off a thought process, that thought started with a conversation with a director about the look of black skin in current music video's.

People have fallen in love with the DaVinci skin diffusion and are using it to an extreme at the moment.

Combining that with serious overexposure and you end up with skin tones lighter than my neighbours!

> Oh and I've finished "reviewing" the book

I thought I'd published my review, get it!

I'm sure I said I wished that it had been around when I started.


Geoff Boyle FBKS

Director of Photography
EU based

I have always wondered about the need for knowing how many stops over or under a particular skin tone really is. Surely, if we use an incident meter the skin tones will just be reproduced correctly?

As Jeff pointed out, exposed correctly he could make an entire mixed classroom look right. I can see the point in portrait photography to achieve a certain effect, or in video where you can zoom in on a face, press the expose button and zoom back out; but in normal feature and TV drama work, I just rely on my incident meter and let the skin tones come through naturally.

I once operated for an obnoxious little DP who spent his entire time spot metering the actresses, even during takes, as he subsequently didn't make any lighting adjustments but kept muttering numbers to himself I imagine it was his only way of daring to look at actresses!

Great book, by the way, Blain

Roger Simonsz

>I have always wondered about the need for knowing how many stops >over or under a particular skin tone really is.

Well yes and no…

"Correctly" yes but do we want them to be "correct"

I was trying to make the point that we generally expose so that dark skin reads lighter than it actually is.

I'd quite like to quantify how much lighter.

I'm guessing that generally it's about a stop hotter than "real"

although in the case of recent music video's it's more like 2 stops.


Geoff Boyle FBKS

Director of Photography
EU based

In my experience dark-skinned blacks tend to benefit from about 2/3 to a full stop more light than the "average" caucasian skin. But, as we all know, there is a large variation in skin tone among blacks, so a rule of thumb is a tricky thing. If caucasian skin spot reads at about 2/3 above key, then pleasing exposure of black skin can vary from 2/3 above (very light-skinned blacks) to at key, to a stop under key...Skin hue can vary a great deal, too...sometimes you can get a very bluish cast that can benefit from some warming gel.

Geoff wrote:

>I was trying to make the point that we generally expose so that dark skin >reads lighter than it actually is.

IMO, that's sometimes true, especially in music videos, but generally I think it's more accurate to say that we are exposing so that dark skin reads to the film more like our eyes see/interpret it, rather than overly dark.

Also, FWIW, one of the major challenges for me is when I need/choose to use backlighting. If the talent has jet black hair, it just soaks up all the light.

Mark Schlicher

Mark Schlicher wrote:

>Also, FWIW, one of the major challenges for me is when I need/choose >to use backlighting. If the talent has jet black hair, it just soaks up all the >light

Having spent 16 years in south East Asia, I don’t think I have lit anything else in all that time - someone send me a blonde!

Kindest Regards

Laurie K. Gilbert s.o.c.
Motion Picture Director of Photography
HD Electronic Cinematographer
Global Web Site

For a while I occasionally shot various actors against a white BG for TV promos. Always the same set-up: bust shot to MCU with a white Cyc or white stretched silk in the BG. And the white had to be a consistent white. Not lighter on some and darker on others. After a couple of these jobs I established that Caucasian skin was best shot with a grey card lit 2 stops under the white by reflected reading. I metered this by putting my grey card at the actor's spot and reading it, then reading the white directly behind them.2 stop difference = proper exposure.

I would confirm this by flipping the grey card over and reading the white side where I'd get the same reflected reading as the BG. This 2 stop difference gave me the most latitude in telecine sessions to balance the brightness of the white and the various color/brightness of Caucasian skin. On some of these shoots we'd shoot 4-5 people one at a time in rapid order.

After a couple of jobs I started shooting African-American actors. On the first one I thought it seemed reasonable to use the same set-up; I may have spotted the key just a bit. It made sense that if the reflected readings were balanced then it made little difference how light or dark the person in that spot was. Their brightness relationship to white would be represented on film. When I got into the transfer session I realized how wrong that assumption was. Eventually the colourist was able to get the white BG right while still making the actor look good and their skin color/brightness "feel" right. But it was not nearly as painless as the previous sessions.

After that when I had a shoot with multiple skin colors for this client I would light for Caucasian skin tones with a double in the key light. When a black actor stepped in the double was removed. This approximate 2/3 stop difference made all the difference in the world in the TK sessions. I never tested with an even brighter key than that and I never had to shoot a very dark black actor. If I had been faced with that situation I'm sure I would have added another 1/3 to half stop to the key.

My point is that there wasn't room for PC issues when shooting their skin color or brightness in this case. They were well known actors and people expected them to look a certain way. At the same time the white BG had to be consistent and couldn't be fudged to accommodate the face on the screen. What this means to me is that average Afro skin is at least 1 zone less than Caucasian skin and must be allowed for in lighting and exposure.

I think what Geoff may be feeling is caused by the creative choices being made more and more these days to ignore what has traditionally been "proper" exposure, the use of hot rim and back lighting that plays on the face in uncontrolled ways, etc. The music video/beach by-pass, this isn't going to look traditionally good if-I-can-help-it look that has become a popular creative approach. This style affects the way skin tones are represented and may have its biggest effect on the non-Caucasian faces.

A side note that I always found interesting was during a seminar sometime or another dealing with the skin detail circuit in Sony cameras. The presenter said that the color vector of Caucasian and Afro skin is the same. The only difference was the saturation and brightness of the skin.

Sorry this was so long winded, it didn't start out that way.

Randy Miller, DP in LA


Thanks for a very informative tech look here!

White BG's for your promo's certainly was the acid test.

Jeff Barklage, s.o.c.
US based DP

Once a long time ago I was fretting about having a dark black skinned actor and a white skinned actor in a white room dappled by shafts of light and dark corners that needed to be seen slightly. I was checking all elements with my meters and calculating on paper, When a master cinematographer put his hand on my shoulder and said" John…learn to trust your eye". It took me a few years, but that advice has never left me.

John Lazear, SOC

"Luke, trust your feelings..."

>the color vector of Caucasian and Afro skin is the same. The only >difference was the saturation and brightness of the skin.

Empirically, over the years, I too have found this to be true.

Great post.

Bob Kertesz
BlueScreen LLC

> the color vector of Caucasian and Afro skin is the same. The only >difference was the saturation and brightness of the skin

What do you mean by "color vector" of the skin?

Az. D.P.
12 On / 12 Off!

>What do you mean by "color vector" of the skin?

The hue, as displayed on a vectorscope.

Bob Kertesz
BlueScreen LLC

Roderick E. Stevens writes:

>What do you mean by "color vector" of the skin?

Imagine a color wheel in which the names of the various primary colors (the "hues") are arranged like the numbers on a clock face. Red is about 11:30. Blue is about 3:30. Green is about 7:00, and so forth. The color vector is like the angle at which the hour hand is pointing.

The radius -- the distance between the central hub of the clock and the numbers -- represents the saturation (color-intensity, not luminance!) scale. For example, halfway out represents 50 on a saturation scale of 100 .

This saturation value is independent of the hue.

That's essentially how a vectorscope displays the color values of a scene.

Dan Drasin
Marin County, CA

Earlier I wrote...

>Skin hue can vary a great deal, too...sometimes you can get a very >bluish cast that can benefit from some warming gel.

FWIW I probably overstated it when characterizing it as "a great deal" I don't mean a great deal in terms of what the vectorscope has more to do with subtle undertones and the reflectivity that was alluded to in another post. Seems that specular reflections off of dark, shiny skin can seem a bit bluish, and a slight warming can be called for.

Mark Schlicher

I've been playing with rice-paper lanterns (the vertical oval is my favourite shape), and have found a way to make them not only brighter but more directionally controllable so you can properly illuminate two different skin tones with one lantern.

What I've done is to slip a piece of Reflectix (aluminised bubble wrap) insulation inside the lantern, between its wire frame and one side of its interior, covering a little less than half the lantern's circumference. The wire frames are usually a little extra long, so they bow in one direction when tensioning the lantern -- that's the side were the Reflectix goes.

This creates a reflector that increases light output on the light side by about 1/2 stop. It also allows you to control light output and distribution by simply rotating the lantern. If I'm using these lanterns in 2-camera interview situations I place one each on opposite sides of the line between the participants, then rotate them to balance the illumination on each person's face -- works great for lighting two different skin tones without burning out the lighter one.

The Reflectix piece is about an inch shorter than the height of the lantern. Its maximum width is a tad less than twice the diameter of the lantern's bottom opening, so it can be inserted easily by first folding it in half along a vertical crease. It's widest at the bottom to keep it from falling out, and narrowest at the top to make inserting and aligning it easier. All corners are rounded to prevent damage to the rice paper.

I suspend the lanterns from 10" boom arms made from 3/4" PVC pipe. A tee on one end of the boom (drilled out to 5/8" I.D.) pops onto the top of the lighting stand, and the other end terminates in a downward-hung tee, which can be rotated. I make a loop in the lamp-socket's power cord so it lassos over the tee. (Another loop hangs the cord over the top of the stand so it hangs down out of the way of the lantern.) These booms, and the lanterns, are so light that I don't need to sandbag the stands to keep them stable.

When I get a free moment I'll post some pix of this and other lighting prototypes I'm working on.

Dan Drasin
Marin County, CA

>are we falling under the PC spell?


>I've just spent today sitting on my cliff.

I want my own cliff - (Still, "Sittin' on the edge of my cliff", doesn't have the same ring as "Sittin' on the dock of the bay", though the view is probably much better!)

Brent Reynolds
Tampa (The closest thing to a cliff here is the highway overpass) FL

DP / Film maker

Reynolds, Brent wrote:

>I want my own cliff - (Still, "Sittin' on the edge of my cliff", doesn't have >the same ring as "Sittin' on the dock of the bay",

who's Cliff ?

Mike Southon

Brent wrote :

>I want my own cliff

Mike wrote :

> who's Cliff ?

He's that guy that takes all those notes so you don't have to read.

Roderick Stevens
Az. D.P.
12 On / 12 Off!











 © copyright CML - Cinematography Mailing List all rights reserved