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Would like your tips for lighting dark complexions

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Mark Suszko
Would like your tips for lighting dark complexions
on Aug 18, 2010 at 10:37:35 pm

What I do now is, I like to use a large bounce card, preferably with a gold foil, or maybe a straw gel on white card, as close in as possible, to bring out facial contours without over-exposing. You don't blast this kind of skin head-on with more light, but hit it more from the sides, to scatter the light into the translucent layers of the skin, and use backlighting to add shape from behind. Other than that, what other tricks do you folks use? What else can I try? Main shot is a portrait-style composition, medium to full-body shot.


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Bill Davis
Re: Would like your tips for lighting dark complexions
on Aug 19, 2010 at 9:39:43 am

Mark,

Decades ago, I asked a really well known top lighting pro about this exact subject.

Never forgot his answer. He said "If you're lighting correctly, you should be able to take a subject with fair skin, substitute someone with a much darker complexion, open the iris a bit and both photos will be perfectly exposed."

It was nice to hear because what he was saying was that if your lighting ratios are correct, they'll work for virtually any subject.

We did continue the discussion for a while and he admitted the one area where issues arise is where you have little or no control over the range of contrast in a single shot - essentially pointing out that, if, for instance, you have a bride with the kind of skin tones associated with some african peoples - that extremely dark, almost blue black tones that brings to my mind the actor Yaphett Koto as an example - AND that bride insists on wearing a pure white wedding gown with fine lace detail in a veil- then you're going to have to work VERY hard with both directed light, shadow, AND negative fill to bring the range of contrast in the overall scene to the point where you can both expose skin AND lace properly and capture all the detail required for a really good shot.

Those are the exceptions, tho.

I still take comfort in his belief that if you're achieved truly good lighting - which is to say light that defines, separates from the background and creates the illusion of 3 dimensional modeling of the shape of the face and/or body - key, fill, rim, and/or highlights as needed - that that's going to work with most of your subjects with just minor changes.

So that's what I've done my whole career. Never lit one type of "person" differently than another - just lit one type of "scene" differently - depending on those things like contrast elements that are sometimes unavoidable.

FWIW.



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Todd Terry
Re: Would like your tips for lighting dark complexions
on Aug 19, 2010 at 3:01:28 pm

Hey Mark...

I'm with Bill... I've always basically lit the same for all skin types, just tweaked an exposure thing.

As he mentioned, the problem comes with contrast. I've been on a couple of news sets where they had a fairly medium-dark skinned African-American anchorwoman invariably paired with some very pale Caucasian dude. In those instances, just lighting as "normal" was the base plot... and then adding a little special near her usual key to give her just a bit of a kick usually helped enough.

I never thought about this too much when I was predominately shooting film, since the exposure and contrast latitude is so much greater than video. It has become more of a concern though now that the the film cameras have become giant expensive paperweights here and we're predominantly shooting HD. More than tweaking my lighting theories though, I find myself taking a little more time painting the camera once a shot is set. I can usually take care of differing skin tones that way easily enough, rather than having to re-think the way I might light something.

More than skin, I worry more about wardrobe. When we are using actors, of course we have total control over wardrobe... but often times we have to shoot "real people," who show up wearing whatever. Although we always give our usual wardrobe speech in advance to them ("Please no pure whites, no pure blacks, color is good, and no tiny patterns"), the women will invariably show up in black ("It's so slimming"). Not on TV it ain't, sweetheart. We had one exterior bright sunlight scene one day when the client (a bank) provided their own talent. This woman was very fair-skinned and blond. She was just two pink eyes away from albinism. What did she wear? This head-to-toe jet black full length belted jump-suity sort of thing. Our producer thought she was in costume as some Star Trek character. Sheesh.

T2

__________________________________
Todd Terry
Creative Director
Fantastic Plastic Entertainment, Inc.
fantasticplastic.com



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Dennis Size
Re: Would like your tips for lighting dark complexions
on Aug 20, 2010 at 3:40:50 am

Great commentary Bill.
Yaphett Koto is the perfect example also.
I must add that if I were lighting a Diane Sawyer interview with Yaphett Koto (who would probably be wearing his white suit) I would most assuredly use additional lighting for his face.

Obviously if I were just shooting him with a single camera it would be a no brainer, and everything that was said applies. When using multiple cameras however, it's important to balance the 2 shot so both subjects appear equal. There's no way his face would be equal to Diane's without additional lighting. He would merely be a black ball on a white suit in the 2 shot.

The same holds true for every local news anchor desk where station mangers in every affiliate I've ever lit seem to enjoy pairing Yaphett's "look-a-like" with an attractive co-anchor who's always a blond albino girl.

DS



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Bob Cole
Re: Would like your tips for lighting dark complexions
on Aug 20, 2010 at 6:57:22 pm

Interesting to see the differing approaches.

I tend to use Mark's approach, treating the darker face as a reflector, lighting from behind and to the side, creating a "shelf" of light that reveals facial structure. I take it that the other ideas are basically to use more light, same set-up?

What costume do you recommend for light- and dark-skinned subjects?

Bob C


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Bill Davis
Re: Would like your tips for lighting dark complexions
on Aug 21, 2010 at 10:43:05 pm

Bob,

It isn't so much "use more light with the same setup."

It's that the overall goal of traditional 3 point lighting is to model contour and a present to the audience a sense of realistic depth to faces so that they appear less "flat" and more 3-dimensional. In 3-point that's typically a large soft light anywhere from 15 to 40 degrees off axis to one side from the front. That key casts shadows from "stick in or stick out" features from the plane of the face such as the nose, eye sockets, lips and or chin. Since each face is different, the angle will vary depending on whether you want more or less cast shadow - which itself is a judgement on how pronounced the features of the subject and whether you want the subject to more or less dramatic. A fill light brings details into the otherwise dark shadow side of the face - more fill - more even the appearance and less dramatic. Finally the halo or rim light separates the shape of the head from the background.

The point is that ALL of these things work NO MATTER the complexion of the subject. You can use this approach on an onyx or obsidian statue face OR one of white marble and the result is precisely the same - you create the illusion of depth on your flat (TV screen) surface.

Yes, if the face reflects more (light skin tones) or less (dark skin tones) light - then you will likely have to work with the exposure to get the same amount of light hitting your sensor from the two different reflectivities of the subjects - but the basic light plot remains the same precisely because the TASK remains the same - presenting cues to the viewer about the depth of what they're looking at.

As other's have indicated - combining light and dark subjects in the same shot - whether it's two news anchors with diverse skin colors - or two kitchen appliance variants, one white and one black - brings you to another level of required balance. Then it's important to look at the individual elements in the frame and either add or subtract light (AND control REFLECTIONS) as necessary to both balance the illumination level AND to shape the objects for the camera sensor.

A good grip catalog has hundreds of devices, purpose designed for masking, scrimming, diffusing, reflecting, coloring and directing light.

There's a reason for that.

; )



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Mark Suszko
Re: Would like your tips for lighting dark complexions
on Aug 22, 2010 at 1:15:36 am

This is all good background, but back to my specific situation; portrait single medium shot of a very dark African man against a medium blue backdrop, I don't know or control what he'll be wearing, though I've forwarded the client a detailed memo on dressing for TV. Any other pointers relevant to that, beyond what's already been covered? To reiterate, I'm probably going to use one Rifa 88 softbox key and one large crinkle-foiled bounce card fill, plus a small back/hair/rim light. Any alternatives or tips?

Thanks!


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David Johnson
Re: Would like your tips for lighting dark complexions
on Aug 22, 2010 at 2:40:58 am

I too try my best to primarily adjust iris as needed rather than base lighting too much on complexion. As others have pointed out, the biggest challenge is proper contrast so perhaps focus on controlling that rather than worrying too much about the lighting instruments, etc.

Todd Terry said very well that "More than skin, I worry more about wardrobe".

Seems the point is there's far more control over the latter. Most of my shoots are in a business context of some sort so the subjects are often wearing suits. I almost always recommend they wear a colored shirt instead of a white one, but definitely make a point to do that if they have a particularly dark complexion.

I know you said you "don't know or control what he'll be wearing", but beyond the techniques others have mentioned, that's the area where you can most influence the shot so perhaps try to stress the importance to the subject.


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Bill Davis
Re: Would like your tips for lighting dark complexions
on Aug 22, 2010 at 10:22:11 am

Mark,

If it was me, I'd probably bring along a second active light. Something small - perhaps a 150 fresnel or small open face light and either a softbox or a silk to diffuse it. If the subject's skin color turns out to be very dark, you might not be happy with the amount of reflective fill you can bounce off a card - even a shiny one.

There are sometimes issues with subjects faces, anything from big stick out ears or a prominent nose that I need to de-emphasize as to shadow - or blemishes that might dictate a more "straight on" key - if so, it can be VERY hard to use that same light as the fill off a reflector since the angle of incidence is so small on a more frontal key. The geometry of grabbing the key with the reflector can get squirley.

I also VERY seldom do an interview without a tall stand/grip arm/fabric flag combo nearby.

If the guy turns out to be folically challenged, it's typically MUCH easier to leave the rim light alone and move in a cutter than to climb up and down something trying to futz with the barn doors of a small flying rim light.

YMMV. Good luck and let us know how things work out!



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Dennis Size
Re: Would like your tips for lighting dark complexions
on Aug 22, 2010 at 11:07:51 pm

take a Source 4 Jr. 26 degree @ 375w, or a dedo light, or a 150 Arri Fresnel, or some such fixture stand mounted at the camera to "pop out" the dark face.

DS



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Craig Alan
Re: Would like your tips for lighting dark complexions
on Aug 23, 2010 at 3:42:47 pm

this is for a digital still cam but I think it could be useful.

http://www.nyip.com/ezine/people-and-pets/peopleofcolor.html

OSX 10.5.7; MAC Book PRO (EARLY 2008); Camcorders: Sony Z7U, Canon HV30, Sony vx2000/PD170, Canon xl2; Pana, Sony, and Canon consumer cams; FCP certified; write professionally for a variety of media; teach video production in L.A.


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Mark Suszko
Re: Would like your tips for lighting dark complexions
on Aug 24, 2010 at 2:12:03 pm

That link is close to what I do now, so at least it gives me some affirmation I am on the right track here. I'm surprised though that nobody is giving up any more detailed tricks. I promise to take the Magician's Assistant's Oath if it will help. ;-)


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Alan Lloyd
Re: Would like your tips for lighting dark complexions
on Aug 26, 2010 at 12:30:07 am

I've had to do things like this. Worked for a while with an on-camera talent who was a medium-complected black guy who shaved his head. Had to do things like lighting him in rooms where lots of the room was lighter than his skin tone, and it usually worked out OK.

Large sources are the first thing. You already knew that.

A tiny bit of warming doesn't hurt. And maybe just a hint of cool in the backlight. Think squeezing your dynamic range, really, and maybe using subtle color shifts for shape. Smaller differences between key and fill, stuff like that.

The wardrobe thing is critical. Darker solid colors are best, of course. Someone showed me a clip of a black guy wearing a white shirt (no jacket) standing in front of a white wall, and someone just decided that pouring more light in on the guy was the way to go - and you could tell the poor guy was cooking.

And if he does shave his head, as my colleague did, have him not shave it on shooting days. Helps with the pings off the pate.


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Mark Suszko
Re: Would like your tips for lighting dark complexions
on Aug 30, 2010 at 1:49:21 pm

Follow-up to this job, you'll appreciate this: The shot I was so worried about went off fine, using two Rifas, a backlight, and some cutters.

Then they sprung a bonus problem on me, without any advace warning: In the twelve minutes we had left before the speaker had to leave, they wanted me to light the speaker standing right next to a white projection screen, with a powerpoint slide show projected next to him. To be shot by a consumer mini DVD camcorder. "You know, like the weatherman does on TV". Can I light it so he casts no shadow, he looks good, and the powerpoint is readable? In twelve minutes?

...I'm not charging enough.


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Alan Lloyd
Re: Would like your tips for lighting dark complexions
on Aug 30, 2010 at 2:06:01 pm

[Mark Suszko] "...I'm not charging enough."

Are any of us, really?


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