Skin Tones in Photography is adapted from the Digital Photography for Moms Guided 365 photo project. It’s one of the 51 lessons devoted to putting YOU in control of exposure.

One of the trickier areas of proper exposure is to be aware of is blown out colors. Blown colors can make a photo unusable. Unfortunately, they aren’t always obvious on camera.

The worst case is when you a photograph a person and the red channel of her skin blows out. The skin will end up having a light glow that is hard to describe. Sometimes it has tints of yellow, blue or purple. Once you learn to recognize it, however, you will start to notice it when you see it on camera.

Skin tones in photography

In the photo above, the histogram is measuring the selected rectangle only. See how the red is completely climbing the right wall?

Here is the entire photo:

blown skin

At first glance, the photo doesn’t look terrible, right? Or at least it looks editable. Neither exposure nor colors are extreme. However, because of those red values in her skin, this is never going to be a great photo.

Compare that photo to the next one. Notice how the red channel isn’t climbing the right wall? Again, I used the marquee tool in Photoshop Elements to measure only the selected area on her forehead.

Here’s what that photo looks like zoomed out:

Skin tones in photography

Her skin is plenty bright, right? But there is nothing blown out in the red channel.

In general, I don’t want the red channel for skin to go beyond 90% of the way from the left to the right of the histogram. 

Poor white balance can contribute to the likelihood of having blown colors. That’s what we are seeing in the top photo. She was facing a large bank of windows on a stormy day. Tungsten lights were shining down on her. So this was an case of mixed lighting color, and it was a low light situation to boot.

Skintones whose red channel is blown can’t be edited well.

Blown colors can also happen in very bright, saturated or neon clothes. Here’s an example:

blown colors

The histogram is reading only the colors under the dotted rectangle. Notice that we don’t see any blown out magenta on the histogram. However, magenta’s opposite, green, has a tall peak on the left wall. This represents completely underexposed green pixels, or its converse, completely overexposed magenta.

On this zoom in, you can see that we are lacking detail in the brightest parts of the magenta. This neon glow is typical of a blown color channel. Now, this shirt can be fixed in post-processing. It’s not a major enough part of the photo that the edits would be obvious. If, however, this had happened on her face with the red channel, the edits wouldn’t look natural.

blown zoom

So, the only way you can really identify this issue, until you get used to recognizing it, would be to use the RGB histogram on your camera. Remember to check both the left and the right sides, and, if you are shooting a portrait, look at the red channel in particular.

Skin Tones in Photography: Adjust Camera Settings for Blown Color Channels

So, you’ve checked your histogram and it appears that one of your colors is blowing out in an important area. Use these tips to control the color:

  • Analyze the colors of your light. Can you turn off artificial lights and rely on natural lighting?
  • Pull out your gray card and set a custom white balance. Take a test photo and see if the custom WB reigns in your blown color channel. If you don’t have a gray card, use the white balance preset that most closely matches the predominant light in your photo. For instance, if you are in the shade, try the Shade setting.
  • If changing your white balance doesn’t help, adjust your exposure settings. Make your photo a little darker. Or even make it a little lighter.
  • Finally, remember that there are some lighting situations that will never make a good photo. Move your subject to a better location if you need to.

Do you like lessons like this? The Guided 365 Photo Project will re-open for registration soon. Put your name on the waitlist here.

Each of the 365 lessons in the Guided 365 is accompanied by a homework assignment just like the one below. Feel free to turn in your assignment using the Instagram hashtags to be part of the community.

For today’s assignment on skin tones in photography, try to get a bad photo. For real! See if you can push a photo to the point where you’ve blown one color, but not the rest. Check your histogram, then examine the photo for clues that will help you identify a blown color without the histogram in the future.

Today’s Assignment

  • What to Shoot: A person, if you can.
  • How to Shoot: On Manual mode. Try to get a bad photo. Put your camera on Sunlight/Daytime white balance (if you know how) and shoot inside under your most unattractive tungsten lights. Play with various exposures levels & check the histogram between shots. Try to find a photo where just one color is blown.
  • Hashtag: #Guided365, #Day73Guided365
  • Include with Post: This is a hard assignment and you might not be able to recreate it. But if you can, study the photo and look for anything that would make it easy to identify blown colors in the future. Describe what those signs are in your post.
  • Carry forward from this assignment: It’s worth checking the histogram quickly before a series of shots, especially if you are in a tricky white balance or exposure situation. Also, if you have a photo that looks off and you just can’t edit it (after you’ve learned everything you can from my editing courses, of course!), do a check or two to see whether you have blown out colors.

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