Skin Color, Racism and Political Correctness for Photographers

Matthew Guy at his nana's house in Hamilton, Victoria, Australia

Now here’s one of my favorite people: my nephew, Matthew Guy. It was great to catch up with Matthew and his brother, James, on a recent trip home to see my mum and jam with the members of my first band Taxi.

Matthew and I caught up a couple of times during my stay, the last time just before I had to return to the city. We went for a quick walk to the Hamilton Botanical Gardens, one of my favorite places, and then back to the family home where we spent about ten minutes making a few portraits.

The light was dim inside but, as I love low light photography, I was up to the challenge. I also thought I’d be able to explain a few concepts to Matt as we went along, making the process informative as well as fun.

Digital Cameras and Skin

You know I much preferred the way skin was rendered in the days of film. Kodak, in particular, made some fantastic film for the professional wedding/portrait market.

It’s my view that all but the most expensive digital cameras tend to exaggerate skin color to the extent of inflaming it. There are several ways to try to counteract this phenomena which I’II outline as follows:

  • When photographing in JPEG mode use the Portrait setting found under Picture Control (Nikon) or Picture Style (Canon) within your camera’s menu. This setting lowers the saturation of colors and, incidentally, reduces the amount of sharpening applied to the image.
  • For either JPEG or RAW files lower the overall saturation of the image in a RAW Converter such as Adobe Lightroom or Camera RAW. Actually I delve into this in far more detail in my ebook Photographing Cemeteries. Strange, but true. This ebook is packed with all manner of information, technical and conceptual. 
  • Either photograph in black and white, referred to as Monochrome under Picture Control or Picture Style, or render your image into black and white in a RAW Converter or image processing application like Photoshop.

In the case of the above photo it’s true to say that, just like a lot of Caucasian folk, Matt has very warm skin. In my case my complexion is somewhat ruddy, meaning I have a lot of red in my skin. While I rarely drink alcohol I’ve got that little old wine drinking me skin tone.

We’re both made for photographing in black and white and, in my case, from a long way away. When it comes to color we’d both benefit by having the saturation turned down as explained above.

Don’t Mention the War

Actually, it’s sad that there’s still this fear concerning the discussion of skin color. I see it every time I bring it up in a classroom context. “Did he just mention the word yellow?”

Now if ever you meet anyone with white skin it’s probably too late. They’re likely already dead.

Well, that’s maybe a bit of an exaggeration. My travels to far northern climbs have allowed me to meet folks from Norway and Finland and, it’s true to say that many of them appear to have very light skin and incredibly blonde hair. But you know what, there’s a significant amount of the color orange in all skin tones? It’s amazing, but true. I’ve proven it when photographing and processing photos of all manner of people from many different parts of the world.

Lightroom, My Application of Choice

Removing a portion of that orange color and, thereby, producing far better skin tone is something I love to share. And I do so whenever I teach Adobe Lightroom. It’s an inexpensive program which I use as part of my processing workflow every time I process an image. What’s more I can bring folks up to a very high standard with Lightroom in just two lessons.

Political Correctness in Photography

By the way, when I do mention the word yellow, it’s often in relation to the changes in pigmentation that occur to many of us, regardless of our ethnicity, as we age. On occasions I refer to the sensitivity folks from certain Asian countries likely feel due to years of racist remarks inflicted on them by folks who look a lot like I do.

I then go on to talk about skin color, from a purely technical point of view, as an introduction to how one might go about reducing the overly saturated color of skin in images generated by common digital cameras. The idea is to teach folks how to produce life affirming images (either in camera and/or on the desktop) that please subject and photographer alike.

I understand the reasons for political correctness, but I despair at how out of control it’s become. The fact that talking about yellow or orange skin, in relation to photography, can so easily be taken out of context is disturbing in the extreme. Once again, there is orange in everybody's skin and, from my experience, many digital cameras amplify the color of skin to the extent that, without intervention by the photographer (in camera or on the desktop), the resulting images may not be pleasing.

I was once called a racist when I pointed to a photo of a dark skinned Indian gentleman wearing a light, textured shirt. I was simply explaining the differences between a shadow and a highlight in photography. The statement was purely objective and made in much the same way I was taught during my own formal tertiary level education. The language hasn’t changed over the years, and neither has the content or context in which that information is presented.

What’s changed is how some people choose to interpret that content and, in doing so, take what’s been said completely out of context. And that’s the scary bit. If I’d used an image of a brightly lit Caucasian wearing a black top, where a brightly lit area on the face of the Caucasian was referred to as a highlight and their top as a shadow, would there have been an outcry. Of course not. Get a grip.

Matthew Guy at his nana's house in Hamilton, Victoria, Australia.

This version of the original color image was rendered into black and white on the desktop. 

A Bridge Too Far

Is it possible that a connection is being made, or invented, to link a dark skinned individual or race with a shadow and, by implication, with evil and maybe even the devil? That’s just nuts!

I remember getting into trouble once when, announcing a break for morning tea, I mentioned that I was going to "enjoy a Portuguese tart" from the coffee shop downstairs. A woman said she was offended by the comment. Amazed, I asked why? She replied that she was Spanish. I kid you not.

While not a married man I can confirm to you that a Portuguese tart is a desert, by which I mean a pastry. On that particular day I had two.

Adaption to the Point of Paranoia

Actually I’m a very reasonable person. Such events are rare, given the thousands of folks I’ve taught over the years. But there’s only so much you can adapt your content to fit in with current social trends before it becomes ridiculous.

I’m fortunate to have grown up in Australia, a great cultural melting pot. Travel has further broadened my horizons and brought me closer to folks of all religions, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. I’ve had all manner of relationships with folks from cultures other than my own. These relationships have added to the rich tapestry that is my life. It’s been a life full of experience and wonder and I hope to continue learning and broadening my experiences through travel, and the people I meet, for the rest of my life.

Solving Image Specific Problems

Even though I’ve desaturated the color in Matt’s skin quite a bit it’s still a little too hot for my liking. That’s largely because of the bright yellow walls in my mum’s kitchen. It’s a wonderfully bright, happy color and a great color contrast with the blue shirt Matt was wearing. That, and the window light illuminating his face, is why I made the photo where I did. But I’m not the fan of highly saturated color that I once was. And I’ve always been averse to overly saturated skin, regardless of the ethnicity of the person with which I’m working.

The solution was to render the image into black and white. I’ve processed the image in such a way to enhance the slight grunge of the ISO 3200 exposure (one of the few times I’ve embraced such a high ISO) while adding a lovely, smooth glow to Matt’s skin. I hope it’s a photo both his mum and dad will like. He’s such a great kid. 

Perfection versus Reality

By the way if you’re wondering about the glass framed photos, and the reflections they caused on the background, I did think about removing them before I made the photo. But, even at 89 years of age, my dear old mum still retains a knock out punch. And, anyway, the slight untidiness of the background adds a sense of reality in what is, by no means, a studio portrait.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru