Deanna Morgan pulled us aside after we took her photos and asked if she could take a peek at them. With a sigh of relief when she saw them, she said she was initially concerned about her skin being exposed properly, and was happy we nailed it. Before her role at Peapod Digital Labs as the Diversity and Inclusion Manager, she recounted working in television as an anchor and dealing with photographer after photographer poorly lighting many of her shots used for publicity. Recognition and image were inherently part of her job, and yet many of her photos looked nothing like her.
This is a deep pain point for our clients, and long overdue for the photography community to address: photographing people of color incorrectly. We often hear from our clients “I came to your studio because I could tell you knew how to properly photograph people of color.” Which might be surprising for a studio of white photographers.
But how does this happen in portrait photography, where taking a picture that looks like the person is… the whole point?!
I’m going to rewind for a sec and recap a brief history of some racial bias in photography. Back when the medium was film and all the colors were created by (get ready for some technical jargon) light-sensitized emulsions on strips of celluloid material, print makers would use color checker cards to make sure the final prints matched the colors on the card in order to make adjustments in development. These cards were first created by Kodak in the late 1950’s and called “Shirley cards,” because next to strips of reds, blues, whites, grays, etc., was what Kodak defined as “normal skin color:” a portrait of some white girl nicknamed Shirley.
This created an inherent bias in photography (or more accurately, it promoted an existing inherent bias) for defining “normal skin tone” as white. The fact that there exists an uncountable number of skin tones spanning a wide range of color in the world was basically ignored by film manufacturers.
Allegedly it wasn’t until the Hershey company complained to Kodak that all their flavors of chocolate looked the same in magazine ads, so they demanded Kodak expand the range of browns in their film stock so people could tell the difference between milk chocolate and dark chocolate. As an unintended result, photography started to better expose the variations in skin tones of people of color. (See also: an intro to interest convergence.)
It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the “Shirley card” was finally updated to include a (very small) handful of women of different ethnicities, but by then camera companies started putting more money into research and development of digital photography.
So we just learned that film stock was originally literally formulated to exclude brown and black skin tones, resulting in decades of improper portrayal of people of color in photography, a medium that played a HUGE role in culture, history, and commerce in the 20th century. Professional photographers, who were predominately white males and often gatekeepers to the art form, tended to photograph more white people than people of color anyway, so learning how to properly expose skin tones other than “Shirley’s” was largely ignored.
Thankfully, the first part of the problem has mostly been solved: digital photography today captures such a wide range of colors and tones that photographers have the means to properly show the beauty of black and brown skin tones and to represent people more accurately in their portraits.
But there are still vestiges of the second part of the problem: professional photographers, especially the white ones, focusing their learning on properly exposing white people over black and brown people. We’re either doing our job or we’re or not, and properly exposing and visually representing EVERY person’s skin tone is our job as portrait photographers. After decades of black and brown communities being ignored, misrepresented, and straight-up traumatized by white photographers and the images they created, the time to do right by them has way passed. The responsibility for white photographers now is to break the cycle of ignorance, educate one another, and refuse to gatekeep “trade secrets” that never should have been “secrets’ in the first place.
In our 17th year of taking headshots and continuously workshopping our techniques, here’s how to correctly expose portraits of people of color:
- Train your eye. People of color have been demanding to be “seen” for decades. In photography, this can mean training your white eyes literally to see and to compute their black and brown skin tones on a technical level. Study your subject’s face: where do the shades in their complexion change? How is the highlight on their forehead different from the one on their cheek and the lowlights of the side of their nose and near their hairline, for example? Make sure these are honored in the image you create.
- Training your eye again, but for makeup and hair: Familiarize yourself with what dry skin on people of color looks like so you can recommend some moisturizer during the shoot, since when skin is dry it can look “ashy” in color and thus change their tone in the photo. Also familiarize yourself with different hairstyles so you can recognize when something is out of place. In your touch-up kit or studio restroom make sure you have products and styling tools for hair and skin of all types and textures. For example, we have Tracee Ellis Ross’s hair care line, Pattern, on hand to cover the needs for our clients with curly and kinky hair. ALWAYS ask for permission before touching anyone’s hair, but especially people of color: there is a longstanding and unfortunate history of white people being fascinated by textured hair and reaching out to touch it without permission, so this experience can be triggering to some people.
- Use multiple monitors. Digital photography is different from film photography because you are at the mercy of thousands of different screens the image is shared on, most of which you will never even see for yourself. Your photo will look different on your phone vs. some dude’s phone in Iceland vs. everyone’s computer monitors, iPads, etc. Make sure your own monitors are properly calibrated with photography calibration software, but then check it on every different monitor you can to make sure the image looks as close as it can to that standard.
- Use a reflective light meter. Especially while you’re still working to train your eye, go old school with a light meter. We bust ours out now and then to make sure we’re starting with a baseline of proper exposure, then we tweak it to our eye when we look at our subject in real life to make sure it matches them. Use reflective and not ambient light metering, because you don’t want to measure how much light is being emitted, but how much light the camera is actually reading. Lighter skin tones reflect more light and will photograph lighter (and overexpose if you’re not careful), and darker skin tones will reflect less light and photograph darker (and underexpose if you’re not careful). Measure the reflected light to get a more accurate reading of how much light is actually making it to the camera’s sensor.
- Check your white balance and know your camera’s color range. Digital cameras have SO many settings for adjusting color, tone, hue, and saturation, that we really have to experiment with them all, familiarize ourselves with them, and know how to adjust them for every image. We make sure we know the color temperature of the lights we use (our studio strobes operate at 5500K) so our cameras are set to match that. If you’re using ambient light or multiple light sources (such as cool window light plus a warm lamp), use a gray card to set your white balance, and color cards to match for post-processing later.
- Know your post-processing. Did you shoot in RAW or JPG? Some cameras process the colors in RAW and JPG differently and you’ll have to adjust in post-processing software later. It’s just like with film photography, where you were given a film stock with certain color ranges, but you still had to use different water temperatures and chemicals in the development and printing phases to finish adjusting colors. Okay, now I feel old because I learned photography on film and I’m pretty sure everyone read this like, “what? Is that how film works? Woah.”
- Check your subconscious bias. When posing your subjects, you can sometimes unintentionally typecast them in the same ways that society or history negatively portrays them in images and popular culture. For example, black, Latino, and Middle Eastern men are disproportionately depicted as criminals in film and television. If you’re enhancing a rough or rugged look for them in your lighting and posing, it could continue that bias and make your client feel misrepresented in a most offensive way. When you’re photographing the black woman in front of your camera, are you making sure you’re depicting her as the experienced professional she really is?
- Get feedback from the client. Build a relationship with the person you are photographing so they are comfortable telling you that you did something wrong and need to correct it. Open that dialogue early and show them your work as you do it, so they can make sure they feel accurately represented. Ask them if they feel accurately represented. If they say no, drop everything and work your ass off to fix it for them.
Our goal is to make proper exposure of all skin types the norm, not the exception. As Rihanna famously put it, “tell your friends to pull up” and please share this post with your community if you found the information valuable. You can also learn more about the history of racial bias in photography from the sources below.
More on “Shirley cards:”
Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol 34 (2009) 111-136
©2009 Canadian Journal of Communication Corporation
More on the consequences of race and representation:
Entman, R. M., & Rojecki, A. (2000). The black image in the white mind: media and race in America. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.
Hooks, B. (1992). Black looks: race and representation.