Whether you color grade in Adobe Premiere Pro, Apple Final Cut Pro, DaVinci Resolve, or some other video editor, the importance of the Skin Tone line is critical to getting your skin tones to look “normal.”
For those new to color correction and grading, a “color” is actually composed of three values:
For the purposes of this tutorial, let’s assume you want your characters to look “normal” or “realistic,” as opposed to a clandestine meeting in a dance club at 2 AM.
NOTE: This is also the same reason we use make-up on actors; to minimize imperfections and provide the illusion of normalcy.
Let me also state up-front that our goal in color grading is NOT to make people “look like they look in real-life.” Rather, our goal is to make people look “believably normal.” As you watch folks walk by on the street, everyone looks a bit different. But, we all fall into a very narrow range of skin hues.
Why? Because the color of our skin is caused by the color of the red blood flowing through it. And all our blood is the same color. In general, skin is a translucent gray. You know this yourself when you get cleaned up in the morning. You see a piece of dead skin and, surprisingly, it’s gray. That which gives skin its color is the red blood underneath.
Alexis Van Hurkman created an outstanding reference to color correction and grading in his “Color Correction Handbook.” In it, he showcased all the different ranges of human skin tone. What he discovered is that skin gets shades of light or dark from the melanin in our skin, while the hue comes from blood.
Here are some examples.
On the left is the vectorscope from Premiere Pro. On the right is the vectorscope from Final Cut Pro. Notice in both cases (red arrow) the skin tone line going up left.
NOTE: In Final Cut, you need to enable the display of the Skin Tone Indicator from the Scope menu. Which is silly. This indicator should default to on.
Here’s our first example, a young woman wearing a light-colored top. We would call her “white,” but she isn’t white. The background is white. Her top is beige. Her skin is clearly a mid-tone value that ranges from about 50% to 80% in gray scale.
In both Premiere (left) and Final Cut (right) her skin color is right on the skin tone line in the vectorscope. While her saturation varies, as indicated by the distance from the center of the scope, her color does not.
NOTE: To simplify the images in this tutorial, as both Premiere and Final Cut show the same scope values, I’ll use the scopes in FCP to illustrate. However the results apply equally to all video editing applications that have video scopes.
An older caucasian woman. Again, skin tones are right on the line.
An older caucasian man. The lower image crops to his face to better illustrate skin tone values.
An Hispanic woman.
An Asian couple.
A black woman.
In all these cases, while the grayscale value of each person’s skin is different, the color values are remarkably similar.
HOW THIS MATTERS
While all of us would like to create perfect images, life intervenes. Vagaries in lighting or exposure or costume can cause color values to change. Knowing where to set skin color values allows us to quickly compensate for these changes and make our on-camera talent look “normal.”
Again, “normal” is not appropriate when you want to set a certain mood – like late at night or illuminated by garish lighting. But for interviews, documentaries, and other conversational environments, we simply want our on-camera talent to look “right.”
QUICK SELECTION TIP
A fast way to determine and set skin color values is to crop the image so that only well-exposed skin is visible. Here, I cropped on her throat in Premiere and, as expected, the skin color values are right on the line. If they aren’t, the vectorscope indicates exactly what you need to do to correct them.
NOTE: It is a good idea to avoid selecting portions of the face due to the use of makeup. I tend to crop into a bare throat, arm or leg, which is more useful as a color guide.
A HELPFUL TABLE
Alexis compiled a very useful table of skin tone values in his Color Grading Handbook that can help you put values in the right spot.
|Female Caucasian||50 – 70%||On to 2° above skin tone line||40%|
|Male Caucasian||45 – 65%||On to 2° above skin tone line||35%|
|Female Asian||40 – 60%||On to 2° below skin tone line||35%|
|Male Asian||35 – 50%||On to 2° below skin tone line||30%|
|Female Hispanic||35 – 50%||On to 2° above skin tone line||35%|
|Male Hispanic||30 – 45%||On to 2° above skin tone line||30%|
|Female Black||15 – 35%||On to 2° above skin tone line||20%|
|Male Black||15 – 35%||On to 2° above skin tone line||15%|
NOTE: These values are guidelines, not absolutes.
While the gray-scale and saturation values of human skin can vary by individual, hue (color) values are remarkably consistent. Which is a pretty cool thing to know.
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