Skin Lightening in Photos

Raven Skin Lightening

This model was photographed under studio lighting. She has a relatively dark skintone in this photo.

One of the most controversial topics in contemporary photographic post-production is that of skin lightening in non-white models and personalities. There have been several major uproars, particularly in celebrity fashion about this. Personally, I’m big on celebrating ethnic diversity and I endeavor to maintain natural skintones in the photos I work on. However, there are a lot of variables to deal with when working on any skin tone from very pale to very dark.

Truly embracing ethnic diversity is something I ultimately want to see the entire photographic community do–from the portrait world to the high fashion world. On the other hand, I would urge the public to become more educated about the multitude of variables that go into creating a true reproduction of accurate skintone in a final print or digital image before getting whipped into an uproar about a photographer or retoucher’s alleged ill intent.

Yes, some image creators are out there deliberately lightening skin to fit Western beauty ideals. This is incredibly problematic and racist and I won’t excuse it.

That being said, skintones do change under differing lighting conditions and are also influenced by a number of image processing factors.

You can observe how lighting changes skintones for yourself using only your cellphone camera or any basic camera. Take a picture under your household lights and then go outside and take another picture. Chances are, your skin will look different. It may be darker or lighter or it may be a different color. If it doesn’t look different, it’s likely good luck.

Our eyes are very sophisticated and naturally adjust for lighting and color so we are less likely to observe the same skintone differently under different conditions. We think it always looks the same, though it actually doesn’t. As our brains process visual information (in this case the color and tone of someone’s skin), we interpret it to be the same as we last saw it. Basically, we mentally average it out. If we’re looking at something under yellow lights, our brains ignore the yellow. Green, we ignore the green. Brighter or darker, we adjust. Machines are generally not this smart. I’m talking about cameras.

It isn’t so much a phenomenon now, so if you are younger you won’t remember it, but in the film days, if you didn’t switch the type of film you were using, you would get completely yellow photos if you shot daylight film under household lighting conditions (or green under office lighting). This is because the color of different lights are completely different.  And of course if you don’t adjust your exposure with any camera, new or old, your photos come out lighter or darker than they should be.  (You know how you sometimes have to tap a different part of your cell phone screen to tell your camera which part to make brighter?) Our eyes just automatically compensate for these things.

Digital cameras nowadays do a decent job of adjusting for color and brightness automatically, but they can’t do it perfectly in all situations. Cameras are indeed getting smarter, but they still aren’t as smart as the human eye and brain. They likely never will be. (But never say never, right?)

Ok, so what are some things that might contribute to making skintones lighter in a photo aside from bad intentions?

First, let’s assume we’re working on a studio portrait or fashion set. We’re probably working with extremely bright lights. This tends to gravitate toward lighter skin tones. Not as a rule, but as a trend. It creates hotspots with a majority of setups. There’s one variable that makes darker skintones a bit lighter.

Then we get the photo to the processing stage. This may not always be done by someone who actually saw the person in front of the lens, but rather by an independent retoucher, so it’s a guessing game in some situations. Another variable.

Raven Skin Lightening

This is the same model, photographed on the same day, under different lighting, with slightly different but similar processing. I honestly do not remember which photo is closer to her true skintone, but I did nothing to lighten her skin in post-production.

Their inclination is going to be to bring out every detail so you can see all the person’s features really clearly. This sometimes means a little bit brighter. Another variable.

When working with small details in Photoshop, I also find that my instinct (and many retouchers’ instincts) is to lighten darker spots rather than darken lighter spots because there are fewer dark spots than there are light spots on the skin in most images. However, this also has a slight lightening effect on the skin. There’s yet another variable. (For retouchers: this would be your dodge and burn step.)

Some retouchers also do something called contouring. I will do it occasionally depending on the lighting. This brightens the highlights and darkens the shadows to add drama and definition. However, the overall effect is that part of the skin gets lighter. Again, more variables added to make the skin even lighter in some areas.

There can be even more things that affect the photo that inadvertantly contribute to a skin lightening effect, but I’ll stop there. As you can see, it can be a slow creep toward lighter skintone. Tiny incremental steps. Most of these things are innocent, but they contribute to something that is systemically problematic. That doesn’t necessarily point to malicious intent where we need to whistleblow and point accusatory fingers. On the other hand, I would urge photographers and retouchers to be conscious of all the little things I’ve listed above that might accidentally contribute to unrealistic skintones.

I try really hard when working with darker skin to keep it dark, even if I haven’t seen the subject for myself. Honestly, I usually have no way of knowing what the person actually looked like in a lot of my work. I just know that I don’t want to be accused of skin lightening because I find that practice to be, quite frankly, Eurocentric and racist. That’s not me as an artist or a person, though mistakes do happen because I just don’t know.

On the other hand, I do have a much loved client who is black who often sends me photos of black subjects who are slightly over-exposed.* He specifies that he doesn’t want tonal or color work. I respect that and who am I to tell him what skintones are appropriate for his photos? I am a Caucasian woman and frankly, given that, he is much more qualified to make those calls about his skintones. I only dial them down when they need it for technical reasons or when he specifies. His photos are gorgeous by the way and his lighting style works for him.

Skin lightening in photography and post production is and should be a hot button issue. Those doing it deliberately in order to mimic European beauty ideals need to stop. I consider these photographers and retouchers a black mark on our industry. However, there can also be innocent pitfalls that lead to lighter skintones or just simply differences in lighting from what you’re accustomed to viewing your skin under. It’s not always malicious.

This is one of those situations where I ask for something from both sides:

Photographers and Retouchers: be careful about your exposure and retouching when working on medium to dark complexions. Try to stay on the darker side even if you don’t know the true skin tone unless you have solid stylistic or lighting justification.

Photo Subjects and Media Consumers: try to take a breath and consider that skin lightening may not have been malicious before jumping to conclusions and declaring scandal. Perhaps talk to the people who worked on the image first if you can to find out what happened during the processing. They may correct it if possible if something hasn’t yet gone to press. If it has gone to press, it still may be innocent. At least consider accepting an apology as sincere if a mistake has been made.

*I know many of you prefer the more PC “African-American”. However, this client and the majority of his subjects are neither African nor American, so I will not be using that term as it is inaccurate.

Photography and Retouching: Stephanie Maulding

Hair and Makeup: Amy Lawson

Model: Raven Hera

The Tactful Retoucher

In a perfect world, as retouchers, we would just spend all of our time in a Photoshop vacuum: nothing but us, some photos, and a Wacom tablet. Maybe some coffee or tea. For me, I’d have my cat by my side and some good music too. However, it’s not a perfect world and retouchers have to venture out of their Photoshop bubbles from time to time to deal with other concerns as well. More important concerns even. Namely: clients. We have to interact with them constantly and we have to keep them happy. Knowing how to navigate a client relationship successfully, in my opinion, is far more important than your actual retouching skills (as vital as those are.)


However, as retouchers, when talking to clients, it is essentially our job to tell people what’s bad about their images. That’s tough. How do you maintain a good relationship when you’re consistently delivering negative messages? Well, just like you hone your retouching to an art, you’ve got to hone tact to an art.


There are times when a client will deliver an image to me completely marked up with what they want done. However, just as often, I will receive images with few to no instructions. It’s up to me to determine our retouching strategy. For my own business, I almost always give my clients a rundown of my vision for the image and what that’s going to cost them before I get started. This, unfortunately, basically amounts to a critique. It’s telling them everything I see as a flaw in the image. That’s the bottom line and there’s no way around that no matter how much I sugar coat it. But it must be done.


So if it’s a critique, let’s start there. Do you know how to give a proper critique? The most basic formula for a good critique is compliment-critique-compliment. Great. We can work with that.


First, tell your client something you like about their photo or project. BE SINCERE. Remember that I’ve said if you can’t find beauty in something you’re retouching you never will no matter how much you work on it. Find that beauty in your project and let your client know what you appreciate. You don’t need to be wordy or flowery. Even a simple “Hey, these are great photos!” can suffice.


Then you can move on. “I have a few notes and questions.” Questions are a great way to critique gently and without making assumptions or judgments about a photographer’s intentions. Remember that you are not the end client whose vision needs to be realized, as much as your artistry is key to the process. Some things that you may see as flaws could be intentional and you may be able to finesse them to work with the image even if they wouldn’t be your first creative choice.


Once you’ve delivered and requested all the information necessary, end on a positive note. Perhaps tell them again that you like the images or that you’re looking forward to working on the photos or even that you’re just looking forward to hearing back from them.


There you go. Basic critique translated into a client e-mail consultation. You can do it over the phone or in person too.


Let me give you a working example from a recent job of mine. It was an ad campaign with a number of images. I was given pretty much no instructions upon image delivery, so this is an example where I’m working off of no info on a pretty critical job. I am going to change the wording slightly for client privacy and this is not quite as specific as the email I ultimately sent.


Hi there,


Wow! The photos came out great! I’m excited to finally see them. I like what you did with the light and the styling is fantastic. Even with other top stylists I’ve worked with, I usually have a lot to do on this part. I think the retouching will be pretty minimal on our main component. Shot XXXXXX is especially impressive. I’ve never seen a photo like that needing so little work.


Here are some initial thoughts and questions:


1. The skin on the models could use a decent amount of work on some of the shots. It varies from model to model. The makeup is a little spotty in places as well. This is the first thing I’ll deal with.


3. For the backdrop: how do you envision the tone? I like it as is, but my taste tends toward softer tones rather than starker ones. We can take it bright white if you prefer. Alternatively, we can keep it off-white (how it is now) but remove the color cast so it’s a true light gray.


4. Are we doing any other color work besides the basic subtle skin smoothing stuff I always do in fashion? It looks really good now, but I want to make sure you want to stick with the tones you’ve sent me. What I would ask to do is to make sure they all have the same color balance using the average as a baseline. A few of them are a little off of the others and could match a little better to look like they go together perfectly.


5. The skin is pretty shiny in some of the photos. I want to at least make them all similar in how shiny the skin is, but do you want me to tone down the shine in general or was there an intentional dewy skin look for the campaign?


Those are all my questions. In general, these are gorgeous and are going to be fun to work on.


Best Regards,
Stephanie Maulding


Notice that I use a lot of questions to find out my client’s intentions. I may want to make certain changes, but I have no way of knowing what my client has in mind and I don’t want to judge the images without knowing. That said, I personally think that because I’m an artist as well (whose aesthetic I’ve been hired for) I can voice an opinion on certain things like I did on the backdrop. I can also make firm statements and assert that certain basics need to be taken care if I know that they are essentials (skin, color correction, improving cohesion, etc.) This is especially true if you’ve been working with someone for a while and know them and their style well. Don’t be afraid to let your client know if you strongly think one course of action is the best, especially if you’re dealing with budget constraints and one technique will keep you in budget and another will not.


Also take note of the tone that I maintain throughout my e-mail. I try to remain assertive, yet not any more judgmental of the photos than I need to be. I try to keep everything on a positive note or to adopt a neutral attitude when an upbeat one isn’t called for. Some negative statements are unavoidable where there are obvious problems. For instance, this set had some skin and makeup issues. I tried not to dwell on that and simply stated it and moved on to points that were more neutral.


You do need to be assertive about what needs to be changed in the images you’re sent. You can’t be timid. If you’re timid, you’re either not making the necessary changes for fear of insulting your client and your photos won’t get the retouching they need or you run the risk of making changes your client won’t approve of because you’re just guessing without asking or discussing first.


For instance, my client came back and told me to keep the backdrop off-white, but remove the color cast. If I’d been timid and not asked and either left it alone or just assumed it should be bright white, my client wouldn’t have been happy with the results. That’s a very specific instruction that had no correct or incorrect aesthetic answer. Having seen the photos, I can tell you that all 3 options would have looked good. Don’t be shy and don’t assume.


Similar story with the shiny/dewy skin. That’s the sort of change that can go either way and people have strong aesthetic opinions on it.


That said, some assumptions are okay, especially with long term clients. This same client often sends me less critical jobs and just tells me to do my thing and I ask him few to no questions. You can get a feel for this on a client to client basis and an image to image basis.


Side note: I highly recommend using bullet points or numbered lists in your e-mails. I have gotten far too many responses where it’s clear that my client has lost track of what I’m telling them or asking them and missed things so I have to repeat myself. Lists, especially numbered lists, make it easy for them to respond point by point by just glancing back at your original message. I’ve found this just streamlines my communications. It’s a very small thing, but helpful.


Because I’ve figured out how to be gentle and tactful, I generally find that I have very few communication problems with my clients and in fact I consider many of them friends. When I first started out, this wasn’t necessarily the case. I, personally, tended to come down on the side of being too timid. Timidity and tactlessness are both equally dangerous traps for retouchers. You can grow your confidence by remembering that people are coming to you for a reason: they value your opinions and your expertise. You can hone your tact by considering some of the suggestions above and thinking about how you’d like people to talk to you about your own work.


Client relationships are probably the most important aspect of being a professional of any kind. When you’re a professional who has to navigate delivering potentially negative messages to your clients, that can become touchy, but there is a way to do it while not only avoiding hurt feelings, but even cultivating positive ones.


When it comes down to it, your retouching clients want you to look at their images and identify problems. They’re already semi-prepared to hear about them. Just the same, it can sting and hurt your relationships if you present image problems in a tactless and unkind way. Becoming more tactful can take practice, and growing your relationships can take time, but in the end the payoff is huge. Happy clients will always come back to you and as a professional of any kind, there is nothing better than a lasting client relationship with someone you really get along with. Over time, you can build a real rapport with people and even build friendships. Yes, your retouching skills are vital to your business, but in the end the people are even more important.

“Have You Lost Weight?”

This is a common and usually well intentioned question. However, we rarely stop to think of the fact that it’s kind of a loaded compliment. Weight is a complicated issue in our culture. We attach all sorts of value judgments to it, whether conscious or unconscious. Whether you’re attached to the bias that you can’t be healthy large or you’re a subscriber to the new Fat Acceptance Movement, weight is a fraught issue and weight compliments can’t be divorced from that. There are so many other compliments we can pay each other, but we almost compulsively focus on each other’s waistlines even when we mean to be kind.

Weight Loss Mannequin

A very good friend of mine recently lost quite a bit of weight due to a health issue. He’s been posting a lot of selfies to let people know how he looks now and people are understandably surprised at his new appearance. I, myself, haven’t seen him in person in far too long and am also surprised, so I get this. The loss was rapid and he now looks different than I’ve ever seen him before. He’s currently getting a ton of compliments on his weight loss. “You look great!” people are telling him. However, he didn’t lose weight for the sake of his appearance. He lost weight because of his health and as a HAES (Health At Every Size) advocate, he feels uncomfortable with the compliments. A few days ago, he put up a post requesting that everyone stop complimenting him. I have a huge amount of respect for this and it prompted me to write this post.

What do weight compliments tell people who have lost weight? Well first and foremost, the message is “You looked worse before and better now.” That’s, at best, a backhanded compliment. Second, they send the message that if someone backslides, they will be less attractive again. This applies a lot of pressure. Many to most people who lose weight re-gain weight at some point. In fact, in cases of obesity, it is incredibly difficult not to re-gain weight. Do you want your compliments to make people feel pressure or would you prefer your compliments be 100% kind with no strings attached? Weight compliments are based on a temporary and highly changeable appearance variable. Our weight commonly fluctuates at least 5 lbs. throughout a single day. Attaching our sense of attractiveness to that number can become dangerous and obsessive and I think we all know that. Weight compliments when we lose weight can make gaining that weight back feel even more hopeless and tragic because it makes us assign an even higher value to being skinnier.

And what of heavier people observing or overhearing these compliments? What does this say to them? It tells them that they aren’t as attractive or valuable or triumphant as others because they aren’t as slim or they haven’t made any weight progress (an ever moving target). These people may be perfectly healthy and attractive the way they are, but their self worth and happiness take a hit when someone smaller than them is told they are more attractive for becoming even smaller. Why resort to compliments that can potentially be hurtful when there are such a wide variety at our disposal?

As someone who’s struggled with eating disorders, I’ve also faced a different kind of weight compliment discomfort. You’ve probably so far been imagining that I’m talking mostly about overweight people. I’m not. It’s also important to realize that you never know when a weight change is dangerous either due to a medical condition or a psychological problem. In the case of eating disorders, it’s very awkward when you’re putting yourself through something you shouldn’t or you’re in treatment and someone raves about how good you look skinny. At my smallest I would get comments on my figure all the time. “You’re so tiny and beautiful. Are you a model or a ballerina?” (Not even looking at my face.) I’ve often thought at my smaller sizes “Actually I need help/am in treatment and this is terrible for me and I can’t tell you that you’re just enabling.” Weight compliments enable people with eating disorders. It affirms for them that what they’re doing is right and important and that they’ll be less worthy if they stop what they’re doing. It tells them to fight treatment and keep on their current trajectory. People need to be aware of this and realize that they never know what’s going on in someone’s head. In the case of people losing weight because they’re sick, well…you’re basically saying you’re glad about an aspect of their illness. That’s an unhealthy attitude that tells someone that superficial cultural biases are more important than their physical wellbeing.

We know that focusing on someone’s weight as the cornerstone of their attractiveness, health, or worth as a person is not the best thing for self esteem. And yet even people who know this and preach it persist in counting weight compliments among the best compliments to give or receive. I urge people to at least think about this and consider their intentions before commenting on someone’s weight. I’m not saying never do it. I’m not perfect and I’ll certainly occasionally say something about someone’s weight, especially if I know them well and know they have specific weight or health goals. However, at least be conscious of what you’re saying and who you’re saying it to.

I have commented on my friend’s weight to him. I’m very proud of the health changes he’s had to make for himself due to his individual medical needs. However, I’m proud of him due to insider knowledge I have as his friend. I’m not proud because he looks different; I’m proud because I know he is healthier and is doing right by himself. At the same time, his weight loss and medical issues haven’t changed my belief that you can be healthy at any size. I know that his situation is specific to him.

Consider this when confronted by a friend’s changed appearance: First, we CAN separate health from size in our minds. Our culture has instilled in us the bias that weight and health are directly and universally correlated, but medical science is finding that this isn’t always true. Size does not always indicate health. It does in some circumstances. It doesn’t in others. Given that, we should leave those judgment calls to the doctors assigned to an individual and trust that if there’s an issue, it’s the doctor’s concern and not ours unless we have insider info as friends and family. Second, we can express surprise without assigning a value judgment—either good or bad. “You look so different!” is not the same as “You look so good!” or “Congratulations on your weight loss!” Not commenting at all is also an option that some people don’t even consider. We feel compelled to comment when confronted with change. We don’t have to. We can simply leave it alone or issue a compliment on something else altogether.

So if weight compliments aren’t our best bet, what are some alternatives? Here are some great appearance neutral compliments that I love (obviously re-phrase these as appropriate for more natural conversation)

  • You’re fun to be around/I love spending time with you
  • You’re so funny
  • Congratulations on your big accomplishment!
  • I like your strong opinions
  • You have a nice laugh
  • You’re really good at _______
  • You’re so kind to people
  • You’re a really capable person
  • That was well said!
  • I like that project you’ve been working on. Keep it up!
  • You always work so hard
  • I’ve missed you
  • I can always rely on you
  • Did you make this? It’s great!
  • I like your outfit/jewelry/shoes/hairstyle/makeup (This is my favorite way to make an appearance based compliment. It is and yet it isn’t. These are things someone puts effort into styling or selecting, so they’re great to appreciate as an expression of their taste, skill, or creativity. You can comment on how they look while still complimenting their mind as well.)

If you really want to make a truly appearance based compliment, realize that not everyone likes them so sometimes you can’t win there. Some people just don’t like having their appearance commented on and there’s no way around that. Remember that compliments aren’t about the giver. They’re about the receiver. So, you just have to deal. However, if you really want to compliment someone’s physical appearance I suggest picking things that don’t really change over time the way that weight changes. Eyes are great. Everyone has beautiful eyes in my opinion.

Another suggestion: Be specific and creative. You’ll stand out and really make the person’s day because they’ll feel like you really gave the compliment some thought and tailored it to them. I have to give a shoutout to my friend and her “regal scarf”, which was the most creative and fun compliment I heard while working on this blog post. (Compliment given by her co-worker.)

I know that weight is hard to get past when it comes to compliments. When someone’s weight changes drastically, it’s very in-your-face and difficult not to comment on. Our culture also heavily biases us toward valuing thinness over everything else, though this has not always been the case and extreme thinness is also frowned upon depending on where you come from. There seems to be a perfect target when it comes to weight and it’s hard to hit. It can feel like you can’t win. That feeling that we can’t win when it comes to weight is why weight compliments may not be the best thing for us as our go-to first choice. There are just simply better options that don’t carry so much cultural baggage behind them.

In the end, you don’t have to agree with me 100%, but I ask that you give it some thought and maybe see what other creative compliments you can come up with to brighten someone’s day.


A Compliment Disclaimer: My compliment suggestions are mostly for people you know or have some relationship to. I’m not encouraging anyone to shout compliments at random passerby or corner people on the bus. Catcalling and harassment are bad. Don’t be that person. Use some discretion. That’s not to say I’ve never told a barista she has a cool hairclip, but scale your compliments and be appropriate and always give people an out. Don’t force them to stand there talking to you just because you’ve said something you consider nice. Compliments aren’t always welcome and compliments are not currency. I shouldn’t have to say this, but experience tells me I do need to say it.



*A special thanks to some friends of mine who contributed to this list. I don’t think most of you want to be named, but you know who you are and I appreciate your help and suggestions!