Exposing For Darker Skin Actors


New member
What do you do in situations where you want to underexpose African American actors? I've searched through the forums and found situations where you may underexpose a face 1 stop that is backlight by the sun or 2 stops for moonlit backlight. Do you do the same for darker skinned actors? Or can you lose their face with one stop under?

Yes, you are limited by how far you can underexpose while still holding detail.

However, lighting very dark skin, if it has a bit of a sheen to it, is a little like lighting any shiny dark object like a black car -- the level of the light hitting the object can be less important than the reflectance of the object. A reflective black car can be quite underexposed according to an incident meter reading, yet if it is reflecting a large white surface, it may look correctly exposed and completely visible.

So while I would be conservative when underexposing dark skintone... you may find that in certain situations where you are reflecting soft light across the skin at a kick-angle, that detail will be visible even when it seems that it would be too underexposed. So working with large soft surfaces at a reflective angle to the face can help in dark situations.

Think of a situation where you are shooting an insert of a glass table top in a dark room but there is a distant but large bank of daytime windows -- if the windows are reflected in the glass surface, the image may look correctly exposed even though your incident meter tells you that hardly any light is falling on the table.
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New member
I actually just had an instance with a very dark skinned actor in a backlit night time scene. What I did was I set my backlight about a stop over and filled my actor to key level (using the incident reading to set the stop). The reflected reading of his skin was 2-2 1/2 stops under my incident reading so I figured it would be best not to do any underexposing of my own and that the skin being 2 stops under already would look natural. I also let my darker area's go under 2 stops to play that its suppose to be night. Was this a good way to approach it? (Shot on 7218)

My problem is I'm so used to shooting light skin that for these instances I know if I am to expose at key with my incident it won't look right but with darker skin I always have to remind myself about the reflectance difference in skintones.
Yes, that probably was a good way to expose that shot. At worst, if it looks a bit too bright, it's easy to print it down. But if you didn't have enough exposure, then printing it up could just look like mud.

You certainly don't want to expose a dark-skinned actor's face so that they looked caucasian in terms of luminence (unless you wanted an overexposed look.)

If you are using a spot meter, you figure that most caucasian skin at normal brightness is about 1-stop over 18% grey. Depending on the shade of the darker-skinned actor, it may normally be close to 18% grey or one or two stops under that. And that's in a normally-lit room, not a night scene.

Of course, again, if the skin is very dark, you are talking more about reflecting a light over the surface of the skin, so a spot meter reading could be misleading depending on what part of the skin you are metering.
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