A Cool Recipe for Better Skin Tone Colours

31 12 2007

Several people emailed me after my previous post enquiring about the skin tone recipe, so here it is. I learnt this in a Lynda.com tutorial by Chris Orwig. It sure has helped me get my skin tones much more accurate.

It sounds like many of you are like me… have a tough time getting good skin tones right. It’s amazing how your eye adapts and you pretty easily think that you have good skin tones when in fact you don’t.

This recipe is not a silver bullet, but it is a great starting point. So here’s the image I am going to work on. This image was taken with fill-in flash while standing on a tennis court, so the colours are definitely not right, although at first glance they are not too bad.

As with all the blogs, click on the thumbnails to see full-size images).

Before I start colour correcting, I am going to just do a simple level correction by adding a levels adjustment layer and bringing back the white level.

OK, Now this is where we set up to do the measuring for the skin tone recipe. What you want to do is put a “Colour Sampler Measurement” on a diffuse highlight of the skin. See the image below, you can select this tool from the eye dropper menu on the left (choose the middle tool)

then click on a diffuse highlight of the skin. You should also make sure your sampling size is around 5X5 pixels (see the tool option menu) to make sure it is sampling and averaging a reasonable number of pixels.

Once you click on a diffuse highlight, you will see the colour sample reading in your info palette.
It normally reads out RGB values by default. However this recipe uses CMYK, so we are going to change the readout to show us CMYK values (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow & Black). To change from RGB to CMYK, click on the little eye-dropper next to your sample readout in the info palette.

If you have done this correctly, your info palette should look something like this. It is these percentages that we will be focusing on.

OK, So here’s the recipe that I was given for white Caucasian skin… you will need to adapt this as necessary, but it is a good starting point. Write this down.

Cyan Should be a third to a fifth of Magenta

Magenta and Yellow should be almost equal

Yellow should be a little higher than Magenta

blacK should be zero.

Thats it… thats the recipe… now if you look at the readings in our sample they are

So working through the recipe… Cyan should be around one third the value of Magenta, so we need to lower the Cyan as a starting point.

To do this Add a Curves Adjustment layer (we will use curves for adjusting the skin tones). Normally I will do a black and then white balance first using curves (this often does most of the skin tone corrections for me, but to demo this, I am only going to correct the skin tones).

Now that we have the Curves adjustment layer, we need to remove Cyan. Our curves adjustment works with Red, Green & Blue. However fundamtentally
Red also adjusts Cyan
Green also adjust Magenta
Blue also Adjusts Yellow.

So to remove Cyan, I am going to boost the red channel.
From the Curves adjustment layer I am going to change the curve from “RGB” to “Red Channel” (shortcut for this is Cntrl+1). You will see the red histogram appear. Now we are going to put a control point on the red curve that corresponds to the value of the skin tone we are adjusting. To do this automatically, hold down Cntrl and click on the colour sample marker. You will see that Photoshop automatically puts a control point on the red curve that corresponds to the skin luminance level.

Now if you use your “Up Arrow”key, you will start lifting the red curve (and hence lowering the Cyan values)…. Keep moving the curve up until the Cyan values drop to about a third of the Magenta values. Then go to the blue channel, repeat the process (and in this case I had to lower the curve) until my Yellow values were slightly higher than my Magenta (as per the recipe).

So if you look at the finished adjustments, they now read

So now if you apply the recipe, you will see it fits….

  • Cyan should be a third to a fifth of magenta (15% is around a third of 46%)
  • Magenta and Yellow should be almost equal (46% is almost equal to 47%)
  • Yellow should be a little higher than Magenta (47% is a little higher than 46%)
  • Black Should be Zero (which it is).

The image below shows you a before (left) and after (right) shot. What I always find amazing after correcting the colour is how bad the original actually looked (but i wasn’t aware of it). Your eyes have something called local colour adaptation (from memory) which means if you brain knows what the colours are (like skin tones or white), then the your brain will will “see” those colours (even if they are not right).

I have found this “recipe” really helps me get my skin tones in the right ballpark… and then it is pretty easy to fine tune it from here.

Happy New Year.



10 responses

13 02 2008

In my opinion, the result looks horrible and rather red.
The rules do not really apply to ‘caucasian” skin, as we whites are actually quite variable in all lighting conditions.

C’mon, this is really easier than you make it—

Go to GettyImages.com. Select a few high-end lifestyle and fashion images. Sample the skintones and average for what YOU like. Aim towards that using a Selective Color Adjustment layer.
Simple, and it works fast, plus it is editable.

13 02 2008

Nice post. Chris Orwig is a fantastic educator isn’t he? I don’t know anyone else who can teach you more about life while teaching you photography and photoshop.

Unlike the previous post, I do think that this technique puts the image more in the ballpark for better Skin Tone. It may not be perfect yet, but thats exactly the point, its a general recipe. I know that I often change a recipe to whip up a meal depending on whats available and what I feel like at the moment. I think the same is true for skin tone.

13 02 2008

It’s a perfect starting point for good skin colors. Thank you Chris – I really appreciate your work and didactic skills!

Greetings from Germany

13 02 2008

So humans only come in one race and even they have the exact same skin tone?

btw – the kid looks like he got beat up on the bus.


14 02 2008
Christopher Briscoe

I am amazed and sadened by what people say to others annomously. Kind of like writing on a bathroom wall.

14 02 2008
Brent Pearson

Hey Chris

Thanks for your comments.

Yeah, I agree with you, some people are pretty low, I guess it takes all types.

I’m not going worrying about these sad individuals. I reckon they must be pretty unhappy characters.


15 02 2008

I think this is indeed a useful starting point for correcting skintones.

Does anyone know of a similar technique that you can use in Lightroom?



27 01 2009

You know what they say about opinions…People can be real idiots.

Thanks for taking the time to make this blog. I’ve been having trouble with skin tones and I think it is a great starting point!

5 03 2009
Theo van Stratum

I followed some lesson from Chris on Lynda.com and came there in contact with this technique. Now I use it for all my portraits and you can’t do it wrong.

This is one of the best techniques I know to colour correct your portraits


3 04 2009

This is a way that works fine and Chris does mention the diffrent numbers for different numbers with some beautiful Nubian woman I might add. Anyway I have been shown The RGB method Which is done similarly and I am sure there is a way to do it in Lab. I utilize them both. It is a good technique especially if there hard to get right using the RGB and Switch CMYK and usually get it. I bet if I look there is a way to do it in Lab. It’s all good thank-you Chris and all educators that put up with all this negativity.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: