The art of lighting dark skin

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.

Your narrative will dictate how a character should appear, whether, vibrant, healthy, exhausted, apathetic, or enlightened. As a cinematographer, I can make any skin tone exude one of those adjectives. Therefore it is basic to choose the proper equipment.


My preference is to light the location first and then make tweaks to accommodate the actor’s skin color, movements and motivations. Below are a few of the things I consider when working with different skin colors.

Study faces like a painter

Painters are fascinated by the nuances in people’s faces. They’re not black, white or beige; Are 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, and lenses can either neutralize those subtle shifts in color or exaggerate them.

Color combinations speak

I choose colors which, when combined with all of the wonderful complexities of a 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. However, when lighting for narrative, commercials, and music videos, you’re lighting to “say something.” The scene may be about love, distrust, community, or frailty. Brown skin combined with warm/gold/peach hues can be luminous. Rich dark skin combined with greens or blues can be equally beautiful, yet alienating.screen_shot_2016-10-06_at_5-04-42_pm

Underexposure: Rich skin tone

Perhaps my greatest pet peeve is when a dramatic film with a predominantly black cast is lit like a comedy: brightly lit, high key, and all of the actors are reduced to the same caramel shade. If our job as filmmakers is to have something to say, lighting all black actors flat and high key is severely limiting our vocabulary.

Overexposure: Don’t overdo it!

I love overexposure, 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. But I’m always mindful of overexposing too much with brown skin. Go too far, and they can appear unnaturally lighter and washed out.blackpanther12_0

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