Thread: Filming African American skin

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  1. #1 Filming African American skin 
    Senior Member Linda Barzini's Avatar
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    Are there any differences between filming black and white skin? Anything I need to know in advance regarding lighting, diffusion, back lighting, hair lights, traditional lighting of black actors? I know separation is always important with brunette hair and dark backgrounds, but any thing else I should know for traditional soft lighting, especially with close-ups? There will be about 6 black actors/actresses with a variety of skin tones.
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  2. #2  
    Senior Member Steve Sherrick's Avatar
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    Yes, there are definitely differences. However, just as there's not a one size fits all for lighter skin, same goes for darker skin. I think you have to study the skin tones you are dealing with, study the environment they are to be placed in, and assess what the style/tone is supposed to be and light for those specific needs/desires. Darker skin tones look amazing on film. There are some technical things you'll want to do when it comes to exposure and color temperature. For example, if you have multiple actors you may want to light for the darkest skin tone and then use scrims, flags, silks, dimmers, etc. to modify the light hitting the lighter skin tones. Getting the right mood or tone might require gelling/filtering. Darker skin tones will absorb more light, but don't overlight to the point you take away from the true tones.

    There's a lot to this particular subject and a lot of talented DPs on here who can give you better technical advice. I would just say be careful about one size fits all techniques, as you'll find it's the subtlety that really gets you the art.
    Steve Sherrick
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  3. #3  
    If the skin is very, very dark-toned, you have to think of it more like lighting any dark surface in that you don't so much shine light ON the subject as reflect light OFF of the surface of the subject.

    For example, if you pointed a bright but small hard light at a black car, it would photograph black with a bright dot in the center of the surface. Now go completely the other extreme and surround the black car with giant soft boxes or white cloth frames and what you get is the reflection of those sources in the surface of the black car. The actual amount of light hitting the car might even be quite low but the car looks well-exposed because it is reflecting brighter objects off-camera (the lights).

    This is one reason why using large soft lights are effective for dark-toned skin, particularly when some are at a "kick" angle of reflection to the camera, but even frontal soft sources create a nice glow by reflecting in the surface of the skin. It also helps if the skin is not overly matte but has a natural gloss to it.

    Other than that, avoid underexposing too much, perhaps use a lower ISO so that the lower reflectance values are less noisy and have more detail IF you need more flexibility in post color-correction. However plenty of good cinematographers expose exactly for the look they want and therefore don't need that extra room in post to push the signal around.

    There is another issue where some dark-toned skin has a bluer color-bias that some people like to reduce by using warmer lights from a reflective angle, though I usually don't mind preserving those color differences.

    Remember one thing: the point isn't to make everyone look like everyone else.

    Of course, in reality there are many degrees of reflective values in flesh tones so you have to be adjust your approach for each situation and subject.
    Last edited by David Mullen ASC; 08-29-2017 at 05:37 PM.
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  4. #4  
    Senior Member Brendan H. Banks's Avatar
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    Incredible advice and help above. To chime in, I shot a music video on S16 a few years ago with a very dark skinned artist and after some tests I found that exposing +1/3stop when metering off of the face gave me consistent results. I actually just decided to open up that extra 1/3stop on the lens and I was frequently pushing the stock anyway which helped some detail/texture.

    If you use a meter, just mentally adjust or input it into your lightmeter and that should at least get you off the ground.
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  5. #5  
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    For fashion shows where I have had liberty to suggest lighting test models having light skin caucasion and deepest tone african walk side by side allows all lighting issues to be resolved very quickly
    Also as one famous cinematographer observed (forget who), average skin moisture is a difference also -
    I sometimes ask african ethnicity actors to moisturise - adds almost a stop (well didn't measure) in highlights
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  6. #6  
    Senior Member Bill Totolo's Avatar
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    I remember reading one of the tricks used by the DP on the Bernie Mac Show was to lay white show card on the floor whenever Bernie was in a scene to bring up as much ambience as possible.
    Personally, I find warmer lenses pleasing.
    Bill Totolo
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  7. #7  
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    And whatever you do, hire good makeup people. We have gotten killed in post trying to deal with very light-skinned white people and very dark-skinned black people in the same scene. This is a nightmare, just trying to average everybody out so that both sides have reasonably-identical illumination in the final shot.

    Quote Originally Posted by Bill Totolo View Post
    I remember reading one of the tricks used by the DP on the Bernie Mac Show was to lay white show card on the floor whenever Bernie was in a scene to bring up as much ambience as possible.
    Colorist Andy Lichstein at Technicolor basically used a lot of power windows on that show to help even out the exposure, so there was quite a bit done in post to help out the actors there. I have worked on quite a few shows with African-Americans where we had to do similar things to help bring out faces when necessary. I know the issues: there are limitations as to how close they can get the light to the actor, plus there are compromises between one actor and the other as well as the actors and the background. Key to fill ratio is tricky.
    marc wielage, csi colorist/post consultant daVinci Resolve Certified Trainer
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