Wedding Photography and the Challenges with Lighting Darker Skin Tones Uncovered | with Jide Alakija

 

Can I recommend a photographer who can light ALL skin tones.

 

Alongside make up recommendations, this is THE biggest question I get from Nu Bride readers. It might sound like a contrived request, I mean one might assume all professional photographers can work with a variety of diverse couples, but finding an inclusive photographer who can shoot, light, edit and work with ALL skin tones and demonstrate it within their portfolio is a challenge for  many of you.

Why? Because Technology has a bias towards lighter skin tones and not everyone knows it. There I said it.

This is the second attempt at writing this article. The first one was refused to be edited by copywriters who felt I was bashing the wedding industry. SO I thought the rightful place for this content is on my blog with people who care about better representing couples in the wedding industry and understanding some of the challenges some of you face with your wedding photography. To help, I had a chat with legendary photographer,  Jide Alakija of Alakija Studios, who is a bit of an international celebrity in the photography industry and works with stylish couples all over the world!

Finding an inclusive photographer who can light and capture darker skin tones without me looking like a shadow, was something I first discovered was a “thing” when I worked in the acting industry when a lighting director told me how important it was for me to chase the light and after many terrible headshots. This concern followed me as bride-to-be and is something that still concerns many of you today.  I get it. You simply want to be able to book a professional photographer and be assured that they will be able to capture whatever subject is in front of them, regardless of their melanin perfectly.

One would assume this was straight forward right?  Wrong. I have to turn down so many wedding submissions on Nu Bride when ethnically diverse couples are not lit properly. It is such a great shame.

Now if you’re in an interracial relationship you may have noticed one of you is lit perfectly and the other is either blown out or in the shadows and blending into the background. This is common. So today Jide is going to talk about why this happens, how to avoid it and how to choose a photographer who knows how to light, edit and manipulate their technology to make everyone in shot look epic.

Before we get started – I invite you to take a quick history lesson with me around photography and the history of lighting skin tones.

I always knew there was a disparity, but it wasn’t until I saw this video by VOX that clearly describes the inherent bias that technology has towards lighter skin, that I realised mine and others concerns were not down to paranoia or being fussy, but completely warranted. It is completely eye-opening.

This video will blow your mind

 

Over to Jide!

Jide bust the myth that is the challenge with lighting darker skin tones, technology bias, lack of skill or post production?

A combination of all three (Nu Bride: How did i know you would say that!)

This is a real issue in the wedding industry. There are a lot of photographers who come up against this problem. It’s very easy to take the differences between lighting lighter skin and darker skin for granted. A lot of our equipment and presets are not geared towards dark skin, so we have to understand how to use our kit and experience to counteract this.

There is something called preset – (a pre-configured look that you can apply to any number of photos with one click used during the editing process in layman terms think of them like instagram filters – but miles better! ) Up until I created one this year in collaboration with DVLOP there was not a single preset for photographers to use that catered to darker skin tones.

Editing and Lighting

What about lighting and editing?

Camera’s are naturally drawn to light – so if the person you are capturing has lighter skin –  they will often be the brightest part of the picture.

The challenges come when you are indoors and you’re shooting someone who is dark against a white wall for example. They are likely to come out looking  really dark, almost silhouette like. Which is why couples of colour can often look so dark. But not everyone can see it. Black people tend to recognise it straight away even if they can’t put their finger on why it – others don’t realise it’s a problem until it is highlighted. I like to liken this skill to music and dancing – some people have rhythm and feel the beat in a way and some just can’t!

Overcoming Technical Challenges

So what can photographers do to counteract this?

OK, we’re going technical…

When exposing, photographers have to expose all of the skin and not just the white shirt, otherwise you blow out the shirt…which is why you have to approach shooting couples with darker skin differently to couples with lighter skin. Ultimately you have got to change your approach to lighting in a very different way.

That’s something a lot of photographers don’t know or simply don’t have experience of working in this way.

People often say to me “Oh my God a your images are so vibrant” (Nu Bride: That’s because they are)

Black people (generally speaking) are very expressive and often wear bright clothes and at Alakija Studios work to highlight this vibrancy, it’s part of our brand aesthetic. My couples also have a good sense of style, the couples I shoot during engagement shoots for example, want to dress up in a very glamorous way. They wear expensive clothes and want to look stylish, so we accentuate this in our images. These shoots are about another expression of love, perhaps one that photographers are not all used to. These different cultural expressions all come into play with how I present my images.

Experience and Training

Another thing to consider is that as an ethnic minority, we’re surrounded by a dominant group, so it’s not uncommon to find that black photographers already know how to shoot for lighter skin tones, more-so than a non-POC photographer knows how to shoot a black or interracial wedding. They automatically know how to shoot all skin tones. I believe this is because 80-90% of images that we consume in western society do not feature people of colour. This filters into training, we learn the skill of photography predominantly using references featuring white imagery, budding photographers learn from photographers who are predominantly white, photographers then learn how to shoot, generally speaking, by practicing on white models. Photographers learn how to shoot with a default setting of working with lighter skin tones. So being aware of how to capture various and contrasting skin tones takes experience, skill and understanding the very real differences.

Nu Bride: To give you factual context – it’s worth noting, historically film and photography has been calibrated for white skin – the default setting for what was depicted and labelled for decades as “normal” perhaps influenced by the history of film, due to the fact people of colour were not allowed to be on TV and not shown on-screen for quite some time (certainly not in mainstream TV) and thereby, actors who were white became ‘the default’ setting in both film and photography. But as more integration happened, technology remained the same and that’s when companies like Kodak (referenced in the VOX video above) started running into problems with how it captured darker colours. It’s not exclusive to photography either and impacts film , it continues to be a challenge for some, even in Hollywood . It was even referenced during a blended family portrait session with an adopted black son, where the images of the son came out dark, in a brilliant episode of the smash hit This Is Us.

Skin

Understanding the differences in skin tones helps photographers to know how to take better images of couples.

Skin texture differences is something we must also consider.

For example; imperfections tend to show much more on dark skin than light skin. As such, there is more of a need to aim for overall ‘smoothness’ to balance this out. Lighting hides any imperfections on light skin more so than on dark skin. so photographers should have an awareness of this when editing.

Diversity

Understanding how to photograph in a way that’s flattering and what’s important to different cultures is also key. Checking that the photographer is aware of the significance of different cultural traditions and even attire, so they know how to style and light couples need to be taken into consideration.

Thinking about diversity in body size too is also key. Using lighting to flatter is also vital. You may be capturing the things that a bride or groom may not want seen or highlighted, so you have to learn how to capture differently, be aware of what you’re photographing and how to flatter.

 

Lighting couples in interracial relationships

This is where the challenge can often arise. I want to highlight that the camera is NOT the issue.

Photographers have to know how each person likes to be photographed. It is my job as a photographer to guide my couples on this and to know that if I am working with a couple with contrasting skin tones I can’t put them in extreme light, because one will blow out. And if I place them in shade one will be too dark and the other will be lit. It is my job to find the right time and lighting conditions to capture them properly.

For example, if I am in a room or area that is shaded,  I would need to put the person with darker skin towards the light or have a flash on them to better light them. I would then bring out any of the shadows in the edit of the person with darker skin and even out and hide a lot of the highlights on the lighter skinned person during the edit.

 

Presets and Helping Photographers

I had already developed my own preset  to use for my black couples and couples with darker skin tones. This happened because every time I outsourced my editing to another company, my black couples always came back looking incredibly dark and well, just bad. So I went out and developed my own preset to stop this from happening.

When I was asked to develop presets for DVLOP we noticed there weren’t any presets for darker skin.

So our preset has been created to enhance the skin and the colour better automatically specifically to complement dark skin and it’s now available for other photographers to use to enhance their images.

I get a lot of photographers asking me how to edit photographers to get colours and skin so vibrant, now means photographers can just use the preset and apply it. I hope I have made the job ten times easier for them!

Nu Bride: Thank you Jide –  All I and some of my readers know is that images look terrible, we don’t know what the problem is, but we can just see that somethings not right.

Some editors don’t see it and not everyone gets it, this is half of the problem. It is almost like being tone-deaf. If you can’t hear you’re singing flat, how can you improve it? If you’ve never shot couples of colour before and you don’t understand the nuances of working with different skin tones, sometimes it’s about self-awareness recognising that sometimes you’re not the photographer for the job and just refer onto someone else who has the experience.

 

So there you have it – to my readers who have been worried about looking blown out, embalmed, dull or hiding in the shadows, it is NOT your imagination. There are barriers with technology to be aware of, there are differences to lighting darker and lighter skin tones pre and post edit that your photographer should be skilled in and should be representative in their portfolio. If you need a recommendation of inclusive and highly skilled photographers PLEASE reach out, explore Nu Bride’s Little Red Book  and head on over to Alakija Studios  Jide – thank you so much for your time and patience trying to explain this all to me! 

For more information and to see more of Jide’s incredible work please visit:  Alakija Studios,

 

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