Excuse me, would you mind handing me my sunglasses? Those dark ones over there? Thanks. I’m trying to look at some portraits online and I’m being BLINDED by ghostly white skin tones! Here’s an example of the kind of thing I’m seeing over and over again:
Wow! Pretty bright, huh? Let me illustrate the problems I see with the skin tones in this image. A properly exposed version is next to the overexposed version for comparison. You can see that the skin tones have been brightened so much that the facial features almost blend into invisibility. Even the whites of the eyes are hard to discern from the surrounding skin. The lack of shadows on the face makes the subject look ‘flat’ – not three dimensional. And the highlights (the brightest part of the image) are “blown out” – which means that they are overexposed so much that detail is completely lost, and the area appears solid white.
So you may be asking, WHY would someone choose to overexpose the skin like this? I believe that the genesis of this type of post-processing lies in fashion photography. Skin looks smoother when it’s on the bright side. Pores are minimized and fine lines and wrinkles *poof* disappear when there are no shadows on the face. For a dramatic, young-looking complexion, fashion photographers light their subjects carefully, with skin tones that tend to the bright side. This type of lighting migrated to portraits of high school seniors, who are always fashion conscious and very aware of how models look in magazines. They want that same polished look.
Somehow, in recent years, the carefully lit fashion skin tones have become simply overexposed – and overused. Now seen in family portraits, childrens portraits, and even baby portraits, the Casper Effect is in full swing. It’s easier to overexpose the skin to get rid of pesky undereye circles and little wrinkles and even dirt or blemishes on the face, as opposed to correcting those issues in image processing. So you’ll see images like the next two.
1 – No detail in face or body, too bright to see individual fingers/toes, skin is almost entirely blown out/solid white, facial features faded out, whites of eyes match skin tone, bow and diaper cover blown out, eyes unnaturally dark and bright against white skin.
2 – No detail in face or body, hand blends into background, skin is almost entirely blown out/solid white, facial features faded out, whites of eyes match skin tone, bow and diaper cover blown out, eyes unnaturally dark and bright against white skin, background blown out/no detail.
I wonder how many hours I’ve spent over the past decade thinking about skin tones in photography, talking about skin tones with other photographers, researching skin tones and how to optimize them, and playing with images in Photoshop to try to get the skin tones perfect. I think it’s safe to say that if I had a dollar for every hour spent on skin tones, I could buy a lifetime supply of chocolate covered raisins….and I really, *really* like chocolate covered raisins. Of course, there is no one perfect formula for awesome skin tones. It varies with every image, every lighting situation, every person I photograph – because they all have unique skin tones to start out with. I have to take into account the background, the clothing the person is wearing, and their skin tones, and make a decision on how to optimally expose all of them at the same time. Then, when I put those images on my computer for post-processing, I’ve got more decisions to make – would a little more contrast in the skin improve the image? What about warming up the color temperature – would that show off her eyes better? Ghostly, overexposed images take none of these details into account – and the resulting images suffer.
As always, the issue for consumers with this photography faux pas is that the images will not print well. Prints made from files like the overexposed ones above will lack depth, detail, and texture. When looking at photographer’s websites, the people should look like *people* – not ghosts.