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Lighting Different Skin Tones


Sean Rudge
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Hello, 

I'm currently working on my dissertation project where I'm planning to create a guide on how to light all six skin tones on the Fitzpatrick Skin Tone Scale under the three-point lighting setup, also know as the McCandless System. The original plan was to do the tests myself with six subjects, matching the skin tones of the six on the Fitzpatrick scale however due to the Coronavirus pandemic, this has become impossible. In order to continue with this project I have decided to create this guide with methods I would have taken myself, past experience with lighting and potentially some advice from you on this forum!

Camera-BlackMagic Cinema Camera EF

Lighting Fixture- Tungsten fixture 

During the tests, only variables would have been changed in order to find the optimal setting for each skin tone, the lighting setup, lighting fixtures and camera would remain the same. If changing different variables doesn't make a difference and the skin tone doesn't look natural in the images captured, the images would be put into an editing software to essentially "cheat" to see if the skin tone can be truly represented in the image. As a finale for the tests, the lightest and darkest skin toned subjects would have been placed next to each other infront of the same equipment and lighting setup, where only variables would have been changed again to attempt to light both skin tones appropriately within the same frame. 

 

This guide is not only for my dissertation project as I believe it would help any aspiring Cinematographer or DOP working with a variety of talent with different skin tones. Does anyone have any advice on how they would approach lighting the six skin tones presented only using the three-point lighting method and only changing variables such as gels, scrubs, makeup, etc. also what kind of camera and lighting fixture would you use (must be a tungsten fixture). I hope to reference any suggestions made in my dissertation project so I hope that isn't a problem for anyone, if there are any qualms about this please let me know! 

 

Any suggestions/advice would be greatly appreciated on any aspects of the guide, I hope your all keeping safe during this strange time.

Thanks 

Sean

 

 

 

 


  

 

fitzpatrick scale with uv.png

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 I think the main question is does there need to be different lighting in the first place, you need to see how the camera responds when everyone gets the same light (color and exposure) before you decide what to change. You don't want to just make everyone look the same through correction.

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Hi Sean .. maybe more than the feature film people here , I have done many hundreds or probably thousands of 3 point lighting , or more recently I only use one light .. interviews from the Arctic to Africa.. and for sure every type of skin color on the planet .. a variety of camera,s but 90% have been video 3CCD ENG type and last 8 years CMOS debayer type.. and honesty Ive never changed anything for the skin type ..  dark skin is dark..  some skin tones in Africa are so dark they are also blue..  you dont want to change that.. the white skin is white .... you might think about the background more.. but thats it..

what do you mean by the skin tone not looking natural..  don't mean to be a downer and maybe I haven't grasped something else you are studying..  

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Hello all, thanks for replying!

In my initial post I don’t think I’ve explained my plan  too well so I’ll just give some more information... 

The subjects would all be placed infront of the same setup to start with, if they look well lit then I wouldn’t tamper with the setup, however if I believed that there could be improvement, I would then begin to make some changes. For example, if one of the subjects looked overexposed or underexposed, I would try to treat that by changing different variables affecting the light, not the obvious choice (camera settings), hence creating the ‘challenge’. The camera would be set to standard settings for the controlled environment (studio, tungsten fixtures). 

 

David, that’s the question I was trying to answer with these tests! And yes I was going to put all subjects in front of the same light before making changes, I forgot to mention that l in the original post. 

Robin, that’s very surprising to me, would you mind if I referenced your comment in my dissertation as a contradiction to my discussion?

AJ, thanks I’ve found the topic really interesting and thank you for the suggestion I’ll definitely check it out!

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I think it is important to keep in mind there is all highly subjective. any sort of "guide" may generalize greatly. For example that you need more light to properly illuminate darker skin tone is certainly not always true. Also important to keep in mind that this subject intersects big with racial issues. 

 

 

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Hi Sean .. Sure you can use it no problem.. I think AJ,s video is more like comparing different camera sensors ,or film types, but that will effect the whole image not just specifically skin tones ..that video goes into some of the history but really any professional or even prosumer camera sensors  now have a decent DR and you can get a good picture out of any of them.. very different from some of the older video camera,s..  but if you are talking about changing the lighting ,filters ,or some intrinsic difference in lighting someone with very dark or very white skin.. then no I don't ..obviously you set the exposure ,but you don't have to make a dark face somehow lighter .. or a very white skinned person less white..   ..I would consider what color/brightness.of background maybe due to skin tone .. this is in the documentary style though .. simple one / two light interviews .. or just daylight .. I just don't think there can ever be a "guide" or manual set out with "types" of skin tone..and how to make them look "natural'..  it smacks of the old, now very much redundant "how to film" books written by electronic engineers or companies that made lighting equipment .. used to be tons of them in the 80,s 90,s.. probably way before your time 🙂 ..   In a feature film environment I would imagine it matters even less.. it would be dependent on the mood you want for that sequence .. again Im not wanting to be downer .. Im just giving my 2 cents from seeming to have done what you are saying you want to do in your experiments ..in shooting thousands of interviews with pretty much the same set up every time..  ie I haven't found the need to change intrinsically any settings for different skin tones .. or have any saved camera setups for types of skin tone..  a dark surface / skin will reflect less light than a light one .. thats all..  my question again would be .. what do you mean by trying to achieve a " natural " look ..  .. I mean if its only exposure then its a short experiment .. 

Edit .. maybe the historical side of different racial groups getting exposure ( pardon the pun)  on TV / Film  is interesting too..

Edited by Robin R Probyn
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Post edit .. Im not saying you shouldn't do your experiment .. just re read my post .. just saying that through doing many simply lit interviews, in many different countries /skin types  over 20 years +.. I feel I have sort of done the experiment you describe .. if I have got it right .. and just give you my own findings ..as you have asked for any input ..  but its only my 2 cents ... 🙂 

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  • 5 weeks later...
20 hours ago, Stephen Sanchez said:

@Sean Rudge, would it be better to correlate the skintone/exposure levels to IRE values? For instance, pale white at 70, dark African at 30?

Because someone using a 2x3 softbox will have a different fixture solution than a 6x6 rag.

Totally depends on the gamma curve you are using .. there is no set IRE for White or African .. as much as there is no "African" skin type either ..  ?

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22 minutes ago, Robin R Probyn said:

Totally depends on the gamma curve you are using .. there is no set IRE for White or African .. as much as there is no "African" skin type either ..  ?

I was talking about for his experiment: finding an IRE for each skin tone on he Fitzpatrick scale he posted. The topic of exposure is subjective to each shooter, but it shouldn't keep someone from experimenting.

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11 hours ago, Stephen Sanchez said:

I was talking about for his experiment: finding an IRE for each skin tone on he Fitzpatrick scale he posted. The topic of exposure is subjective to each shooter, but it shouldn't keep someone from experimenting.

Yes agreed sir 

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  • 2 weeks later...

Hello all, thanks for replying. 
Had the tests taken place, it was planned that I would look at the IRE levels to see if the tests where successful using a false colour chart to determine if the subjects where receiving the correct exposure. However due to Covid-19 shutting my University, changing the direction of the dissertation project, my time and research needed to be placed elsewhere meaning I couldn’t research the uses of false colour to the extent I wanted to. I was under the impression that no matter the skin tone in the shot, the ideal IRE reading needed to be around 70 with the false colour chart mostly showing grey meaning the shot is exposed correctly? However after the  comment Stephen made about different ire levels for each skin tone and Robin’s point of there being no set ire for each tone I’m not to sure I have the right grasp of what IRE levels would be perfect for each skin tone, I suppose the tests would have shed light on this. 
 

Hopefully I’ll be able to get back into a studio soon to find out!

Thanks again 

Sean

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Every face is different, 70 IRE is just some general idea of a light-toned face receiving full exposure (most dramas would rarely get a Caucasian face to 70 IRE unless in a bright day interior.) 70 IRE is sort of what you use in an interview or news broadcast for a Caucasian face in frontal light.

If you want to see what IRE values faces actually are in full exposure, light an 18% gray card to whatever is middle gray for your gamma (45 IRE?) or get ahold of an 11-step gray scale where usually the lighter Zone after middle gray is 70 IRE. Expose the gray card / gray scale correctly and then put a face in that same position, same light, same exposure, and see what their IRE level actually is.

I think there is a conceptual problem here if the goal is to find some sort of ideal exposure standard. It doesn't exist. What exposure tools are good for is consistency between set-ups, so maybe in the wide master, the subject's face was 65 IRE, for example, so when you go in for. close-up, you can get the face back to 65 IRE even if you change the lighting.  Or if you are shooting a series of interviews with the same presenter and they look best at 60 IRE because of their skin tone, you'll know every location you go to, that you'll want to light and expose that presenter to 60 IRE.

But in a drama, the same actor might be at 70 IRE in one scene and at 45 IRE in the next scene, depending on the mood and situation.

 

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Hi Sean:

It seems to me that you are attempting to quantify a question that is entirely qualitative.  What is "normal" in a skin tone?  What is representative?  As a formula,  (3 lights) + (Camera type) + (% grey skin tone) = N   is a bit silly.

I have spent a lot of thought during my time behind a camera thinking about how mediocre the craft becomes when formulas for composition and lighting are applied regularly (far too many of us learn a 'method' and creativity ends right there).  The one formula I know of that almost always works is to examine what it is that I and my director hope to accomplish and then use whatever experience and empathy I have to then craft a shot that is more than just OK.  With the pressure of schedules and budgets and egos it can be really hard to stay focused and work toward a creative result . . .  It is way easier and mighty lazy to apply a formula and just accept the acceptable.

When the fantastically smart and creative Cinematographer John Schwartzman turned me loose as 2nd unit DP on a big Warner Bros 2nd unit for him he made me promise to "**(obscenity removed)** it up".  When I laughed and joked that I wouldn't have any problem doing that  he got a little serious and told me he meant that he would much prefer an interesting mess rather than a super polished mediocrity.  

Best of luck in your studies. 

Neal Norton
DP - Florida

 

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