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