The Secret to Setting Skin Colors Accurately

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.


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.”


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.


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.

Skin Type Gray-Scale Color Saturation
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.

NOTE: Here are two articles that explain how to make simple color corrections in Final Cut Pro and Premiere Pro.

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13 Responses to The Secret to Setting Skin Colors Accurately

  1. George says:

    Excellent, and I thought I couldn’t learn anything new. Thank you.

  2. Duane Abler says:

    Well done Larry! Excellent information for editors, even perhaps more significant if it could be understood by all human beings. Cheers!

  3. Michael says:

    As an African American, it’s been time and again brought to my attention that “under our skin, we (all races) are the same color.” And now, Larry, you present a higher-tech corollary of this old adage. Can we march together with this?

    • Larry says:


      Sigh…. I sure wish we could. It would make life a lot easier for all of us. Thanks for your comment.


      P.S. Actually, on top of our skin, we’re all the same color. Just not the same gray-scale.

  4. Maarten Heilbron says:

    Very helpful. Glad to have this guidance and reference.

  5. Scott Pinzon says:

    Larry, I’d love your ruling on where subjectivity enters. I appreciate the point you’re making, and I’ll use the advice! But (at least on my laptop) the woman in the off-white top has substandard skin tone. In the photo, she looks really orange. This is not believable skin tone unless it’s an ad for a bad spray tan. Yet technically, it checks out fine. Can you comment on how to adjust if the scope says you’re fine, but your eyes disagree?

    • Larry Jordan says:


      How do you know your monitor is accurate? How would you know if it wasn’t?

      This is the big advantage of video scopes, they accurately display color information even if the monitor is mis-adjusted. As video creators, we’ve been dealing with inaccurate monitors for decades – this is one of the key reasons we use scopes to verify color information.

      If your scopes are calibrated, similar to calibrating a video monitor, feel free to use your eyes to adjust color to something that seems more accurate.

      But never assume your monitors are correct, unless you verify that they are.


      • Scott Pinzon says:

        Thanks, Larry. Fair point. I also work beneath an east-facing window, so my perception of color probably changes throughout the day.

        Looks like I need to raise my color game. Thanks for the nudge!

  6. Brian says:

    Excellent information, especially after watching the Resolve Color webinar. Thank you, Larry!

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