Lighting: Tone Deft

How to light-and not light- dark skin.

There's no real secret to correctly lighting dark skin. Light normally, meter and expose correctly, and you should get accurate skin tones and fully textured skin surfaces.

That said, there's a real difference between lighting relatively dark skin and lighter skin. Light complexions are somewhat tolerant of underexposure, but intolerant of overexposure. Ever had a pale subject's skin blow out when your flash got too close?

Dark skin is the opposite: It quickly loses texture when underexposed, but is very forgiving of overexposure. It would be hard to overexpose darker skin with a too-close flash.

Tip #1: Expose normally, but bracket on the side of overexposure. Today's flash systems make it easy, thanks to flash exposure compensation-a per-fect tool for lighting dark skin.

In a typical outdoor scene like the one shown here, the "normal" exposure (A, right) wasn't enough to provide adequate fill flash for the subject.

Dialing up overall exposure compensation would have rendered pleasing skin tones, but a washed-out background. Solution: cranking up flash exposure compensation to +1.5 (B, above).

Tip #2: Use broad light sources. The harsh light of smaller light sources (like direct flash) exaggerates the sheen of normal-to-oily skin. With pale skin, the resulting highlights on forehead and cheeks don't contrast with the underlying skin tone.

With darker complexions, however, highlights (sheen) contrast starkly with the skin, incorrectly suggesting an overly oily complexion (A). A larger light source reduces this by producing a more gradual falloff from highlight to shadow (B).

Tip #3: Based on Tip #2, you may think it's safe to shoot dark skin under the broadest light source of all, an overcast sky. In color pictures, however, the bluish light cast by a cloudy sky-or the blue-green shade under a tree-can turn brown skin purple, and seemingly rob darker subjects of their health.

In general, brown skin is complemented by warm color temperatures in both light- ing and wardrobe. So when shooting darker skin under bluish light, pile on the orange gels to compensate.

Saudia Davis, the model photographed for this column, put it well: "If I see blue acetates over the lights in a studio, I run!"