The Colour Of Skin - Part 2Sunday, June 08, 2014
|Caitlin Legault, Mamiya RB-67 Pro-SD Fuji Reala (the best scan I was able to get after many efforts)|
It may be simply an apocryphal story and it never happened. But one of the employees of an erstwhile photographic lab, G. King once told me that a wedding photographer had left his colour negative rolls of wedding for processing. But let me digress a tad.
One of the advantages of shooting film in that rosy past is that a lab would process your film, produce proofs with pretty good colour and then at more or less reasonable rates provide the photographer with very good custom prints. Today photographers have to sift through hundreds of pictures and somehow must now (because of stiff competition) provide their clients with reasonably fixed proofs. Some photographers send their raw files to fixer-uppers in India who laboriously colour correct and fix bags and wrinkles.
|An accidental exposure, Fuji X-E1 at 5500 degrees Kelvin white balance|
This present situation was mostly the realm of the then ubiquitous photo lab.
The story, the apocryphal one, was that the folks that processed the wedding photographer’s pictures worked all night without being able to give both the groom and the bride a pleasant skin colour.
The problem with wedding photographs is that grooms usually dress in black and the brides in white. This combination is terrible because of the extreme contrast.
When our wedding photographer returned to pick up his wedding proofs he was met by the somber staff. The photographer looked at the pictures and simply said, “The wedding dress was pink, not white!”
In order to make the pink dress white the colour printer had to subtract yellow and cyan (to cool the pink). By doing so the printer made the bride’s face green/blue/cyan. Had the lab known the dress was pink…
Because we humans see the colours on the red side of the spectrum better that those on the blue towards the UV (of which we are blind, unlike dogs) we like the “warm” colours and more or less dislike the “cold” colours. We dislike the cold/cool colours if they are cast on a portrait. If we take a portrait of a doctor in a hospital in a narrow hospital corridor with green walls, our brain will tell us that his skin is just the way it is, but our cameras, even digital cameras (not properly used) will show a face with a green cast.
If you take a portrait of Prime Minister Harper and tweak his face to have a green/cyan cast you will look at it and say to yourself, “What a nasty man.” You are being affected not only by your perception of the man on his actions but also the colour of his skin (without you really being all that aware of) is contributing to your negative take on the man.
In the 80s film, colour film, was made to produce healthy skin tones. Healthy skin tones in the 80s had to be sun tanned. These films were sold as warm films. I wrote about that here.
I have always been attracted to accuracy in colour. I know that when I photograph my blue hostas in the garden they will look bluer than they really are. The reason is that blue hostas have a UV coating that protects them from harsh sunlight. The UV coating bounces off UV and the ancillary blue light. Plus since my blue hostas are in the shade, you will suspect that the light in the shade will be bluer, too.
If you think about this you might suspect that since humans are such a jumble of combinations that human skin is a rainbow spectrum all in itself. Besides a person wearing sun block, and his or her brother not, will photograph differently.
To make this very long story short, I am obsessed with the accuracy of human skin colour. The Holy Grail is to be able to photograph a real red head and get skin and hair colour just right. A red head’s skin has blue in it. If you want to make the red of the hair red you must add yellow and red when you attempt to balance your picture. When you do this you warm up the bluish skin and make it pink. And that is not accurate.
For years my Kodak Ektachrome made my neutral gray studio background (particularly when I used a studio flash) have a blue/green cast. If I tried to make that gray remain gray it would affect the skin colour of my subjects.
The reason is that film is stupid and it is principally balanced for 5500 degrees Kelvin which is the colour of sunlight at noon in Washington, D.C. midsummer. If you read the blog linked above you will note that the colour of light varies with latitude. The light in Whistler is bluer. The light at the equator is whiter.
Digital cameras, even the cheaper ones, have something called automatic white balance. Digital cameras are a lot smarter than film (but I must note here, that some photographers might be smarter than their digital cameras) so they handle most situations better than film. But they have their limits.
Not a few weeks ago I photographed a lovely blonde lawyer standing inside one of the top floors of the Hong Kong Bank, by a large window facing north. It was a dismal and overcast afternoon. I photographed her with my digital Fuji X-E1 and flash. Had I used a film camera with either transparency or colour negative (both films balanced to more or less accurately reproduce that noon sunlight (or a good studio flash) the pictures would have been just fine.
But my pictures were not just fine. The lawyer’s white skin was transformed to skin of someone who likes her claret. This idiot (a photographer not as smart as his digital camera) had set the Fuji for Automatic White Balance. The camera saw the dismal blue background and decided to warm it up with disastrous results.
The next time around I circumvented Auto White Balance and set my camera at 5500 degrees Kelvin. My subject was Caitlin. I photographed her with a new (for me) Fuji colour negative film called Reala. The results were odd and I had to put a lot of effort to get a skin tone that looked right. The Fuji X-E1 pictures were a tad warmish. Next time I photograph Caitlin (soon, I hope) I will see what upping the white balance to 5800 does to render her skin less warm.
But the biggest of all problems is that I do all my balancing on my computer. My monitor is adequately colour corrected, but then who really knows? And there seems to be no universal standard for monitor brightness.
The proof of the pudding, and there is not much of that is to look at a hard copy print. Only then will you and I both be able to assert, what is accurate skin colour.
The Colour of Skin by Ilse T. Hable
The Colour of Skin by Ilse T. Hable