Getting Good Skin Tones in Camera, without Raw Editing

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Achieving accurate skin tones in photography can be a life’s journey. Even the most dedicated and technically proficient portrait photographer spends significant time lighting for skin tone and then adjusting the raw images in post-production to get the look they are after. While there is no substitute for accurate lighting or digging into a raw file to make those adjustments, most photographers do not have the skill set or even the time to dedicate to such a workflow. However, there are ways to improve skin tone imaging “in-camera,” using the basic controls that most contemporary cameras, even point-and-shoots, offer.

Raw Format

For starters, and without going into too much detail, it’s necessary to understand that the purpose of raw image formats is to save data obtained from the sensor, with minimum loss of information. A raw file is not a rendering of an image that provides verisimilitude or even exacting colors. The raw file is converted, either manually or automatically, to become an image file that we can see as a “color-accurate” image. For example, when we take a photo in raw and see it on our camera’s LCD screen, the camera itself has automatically converted that raw file to a viewable file. Ideally, when a photographer shoots a raw file, they will then open that file in an image editing software system and tweak its colors and contrasts to create the preferred tones.

Again, this can be a time-heavy process, and most photographers want the “final” image directly from camera; they do not want to manipulate the file for better results. Fortunately, there are ways to adjust color settings “in-camera” and produce a JPEG file that offers an accurate skin tone.

Point-and-Shoot Cameras

If you are using a standard point-and-shoot camera, raw imaging may not even be an option, but you can consider using the portrait mode found on many such cameras from different manufacturers. The modes adjust several camera settings—autofocus, aperture, white balance, flash—for an “ideal” portrait. Nikon’s “Smart Portrait System” can detect faces in your shot, make sure they’re sharp, fix red-eye in-camera, smooth their skin, snap the shot when your subjects smile, and even let you know if they blink. Sony’s “Skin Softening,” for example, supports built-in face-detection technology to ensure smooth skin tone on the faces of your subjects and can be applied in a choice of three adjustment levels to optimize results to your liking.

Portrait Mode icon from a point-and-shoot control dial
Portrait Mode icon from a point-and-shoot control dial

DSLR and Mirrorless Cameras

White Balance: One setting on your DSLR or mirrorless camera’s main menu that affects skin tone in a JPEG image is White Balance. Because the white balance setting affects the color cast of everything within your frame, not just skin tone, it is the subject of a much longer discussion than we can have in this piece, but the correct white balance setting is a must to get accurate skin tone in-camera. White balance can be easily set once you understand your light source. If you are shooting in sunlight, shade, fluorescent light, or flash, set white balance accordingly or set it to Auto to allow the camera to read the light and make the setting. Of course, white balance can be customized, as well, and set at such a color temperature to get the exact skin tone you want. To achieve the most precise results, use a colorimeter to set your white balance.

White Balance and Picture Profile Settings on Sony mirrorless camera
White Balance and Picture Profile Settings on a Sony mirrorless camera

Color Profiles: Most DSLR and mirrorless cameras provide a set of color settings that enable the user to establish a look they want their images to have. These settings are found in the camera’s menu and each manufacturer calls them something different. Nikon, for example, calls these settings “Picture Control” and Sony calls them “Picture Profile.” Olympus uses “Picture Mode,” and Pentax has “Custom Image.” They can all be found in the camera’s “Photo Shooting” menus.

Nikon’s menu system illustrating the various “Picture Control” options
Nikon’s menu system illustrating the various “Picture Control” options
Nikon’s menu system illustrating the custom adjustments within Portrait mode
Nikon’s menu system illustrating the custom adjustments within Portrait mode

Using a Nikon DSLR as an example, the camera offers several preset profiles with “Picture Control” including Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, and Portrait. Nikon describes the Portrait setting as “imparting more natural appearing skin, so skin tones are more lifelike, projecting a real sense of depth.” Within Portrait, you can then adjust sharpening, contrast, brightness, saturation, and hue to get the exact skin tone you would like in your image and then save and name these custom presets in “Manage Picture Control.”

Canon calls its version of this menu control “Picture Style” and describes the Portrait function thusly: “Optimizes skin color tones and saturation. Reduces edge sharpening for smoother skin texture.”

Fujifilm Simulation Mode menu
FUJIFILM Simulation Mode menu

As most FUJIFILM camera owners know, FUJIFILM cameras provide a wonderful selection of color profiles for JPEG shooting called “Film Simulation Mode.” The reason for this name is that the profiles are based on the famous film stock that FUJIFILM had produced in years past. According to FUJIFILM, the “Astia” setting is considered ideal for casual portraits, but many photographers also like the PRO Neg Standard profile. Check out this article to get a sense of what each film simulation setting offers or simply try each one for yourself to find what works for you.

Nikon Standard Picture Control setting (left) and Nikon Portrait Picture Control setting (right)

These color profile settings are primarily meant for casual portraiture in JPEG format and are a simple way to let the incredibly complex technology of modern cameras do the work for you to get the results you want. They are also a path to explore the controls that digital cameras offer, to understand custom camera functions, and to expand your skill set.

Let us know about your experiences with the color profiles on various camera models you have used in the past, and feel free to ask questions in the Comments section, below.

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