Color Theory + Color Toning

When color toning photos, especially those with models of color, one must be aware of the color theory surrounding skin color in particular. Color toning is a combination of a few aspects: White Balance (WB), Exposure, and Cinematic/Dramatic Color Adjustments. White Balance and Exposure, ideally, should be accomplished in camera during the execution of the actual shoot. 

There are many different skin tones, but my main concern here is to identify the “overtones” and the “undertones”. The “overtones” may be a bit more obvious. Is the person fair, tan, medium, medium deep, deep, deep dark etc. ? The “undertones” may be a little less obvious to identify. Undertones are generally separated into two categories : warm and cool. Most people adhere to the doctrine that cool skin tones range from neutral (as these people will generally blush pink) into pink-red tones. Warm skin tones range from peachy neutral into golden, orange-reds, and golden tones. There are many other colors in between these so undertones exist in a range or on a spectrum with neutral falling close to the center. It is important to be able to identify undertones for a few reasons. However, I find that the most important reason is that you want the models’ tones in your photo to accurately represent the models’ tones in real life. If the model has naturally quite warm tones it wouldn’t make sense to dramatically cool their tones down. Also when White Balancing the photo, often people mistake where the undertone falls on the color spectrum and this can end up with mistakes such as a yellow toned person being White Balanced to having greenish tones or a warm red person being made noticeably orange. 

Warm vs Cool Skin Tones

When it comes to color grading in Photoshop for example, one must be able to immediately identify the undertones in the model. One must learn to correctly White Balance as well as color grade for these different undertones. Often times the White Balance (WB) is off for photos Straight-Out-Of-Camera (SOOC), which will of course create additional work later on in post production. Also, depending on how incorrectly the WB is set, it can also mess up the quality of the photo once the WB has been corrected in Post-Production. The photo may begin to show banding or pixelation because there has been too much manipulation to the original photo’s colors in an attempt to correct White Balance. This severely limits the ability to color tone the photo for drama as now the photo has already been manipulated to a visually obvious extent.  

After having attained a desirable WB, I personally enjoy adding a series of adjustment layers to color tone my photos to enhance the photo, skin tones, and to add drama. My adjustments are not random, they are influenced directly by the overtones and undertones of the model, and, to a lesser extent, by the existing tones in the  surroundings/environment in which we are shooting. I find, especially when color toning photos with Models of Color, I can get away with playing with the tones in the highlights very easily without distorting the skin tones. My rule of thumb is, the deeper the skin tone of the model, the less you can adjust the mid-tones and shadows without influencing the overall skin tones of the model. The opposite holds true for fair to lighter skinned models. If Im working with a fair skin or light-medium model I find I can play less with the highlights and more with the mid-tones and shadows in my photo. I also focus on getting my WB as close to desirable in camera so that I don’t experience as much, if any, noticeable color distortions (such as banding or pixilation in say the shadows) in the photo. 

There are several adjustment layers that I will usually add to my photo. I often begin with a “Selective Color” layer so that I may adjust skin tones as well as what I think of as my “key tones” or my “mood tones” which are tones that I want to accentuate or bring out in the photo. For example, if I am shooting in say a garden where there are bright bold colors in the background, I will bring these colors out in Selective color while leaving the rest of the less attractive background tones alone. I will also add a “Vibrance” layer, often playing with the layer mask as well, to add vibrance to any of these key tones or any tones I want to accent in the model such as their accessories, clothing or their makeup (lipstick, eyeshadow etc). This can also be accomplished in a “Hue/Saturation” layer but its really just situational which one I choose. I will usually then add  one or more “Gradient” layer masks to add some depth to the skin tones if they appear a bit flat or monotonous, as well as to add either some warmth or coolness to the photo. Other adjustments that I will often perform is a “Curves” layer for strategic contrast and a “Color Balance” layer if I my “Selective Color” layer didn’t quite do the trick. 

Below I have 4 photos depicting examples of color grading (before is on the left, after is on the right). The top two photos are more subtle grades that focus on adding some minor contrast adjustments, correcting undertones in the WB and adding some coolness (Photo 1) and some warmth (Photo 2). The lower two photos (Photos 3 & 4) show a more dramatic color grade where I add color adjustments, as well as adjusting the hue of certain colors, in addition to the general contrast and adjustments to skin tones. 

Photo 1 Adjustments : WB (Color Balance & Selective Color Adjustment layers), Contrast (Curves Adjustment Layers) and Hue/Saturation layers + layer masks

Photo 2 Adjustments: Add warmth (Gradient Adjustment layer), and contrast (Curves layers )

Photo 3 Adjustments: Selective Color, Color Balance & Hue/Saturation Layers, Contrast (Curves Layer)

Photo 4 Adjustments: Selective Color, Color Balance & Hue/Saturation Layers, Contrast (Curves Layer), Gradient Map Layer for warmth

I will often group all of my adjustment layers together, as I would all of my retouch/skin layers, so that I can toggle back and forth between the before and after of my grading. I want there to be noticeable changes in the toning but not so dramatic that the toning detracts from the power of the model themselves. In other words, my end goal is to have the color toning to accent the model and not the other way around; to add drama but not overwhelmingly so. 

Using Format