CreativityWonkish: on skin tones in photography

Wonkish: on skin tones in photography

Reading time: 2:45min | With the development cycles in imaging technology, I digest in waves my life-long search for the perfect skin tone. My endeavour with skin tones started in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall on a Sony Betacam camera, upgraded steeply when I switched to film and took with the digitalisation in the imaging technology sector a new path.

Recently, I sold my old and somewhat trusty Red Epic Dragon, a digital film camera I purchased nine years ago from the Californian manufacturer Red. I liked that this camera can extract the sensor’s data directly in the form of raw files. The manufacturer’s raw importer allowed for convincing skin tones that look natural and cinematic with some texture and a wide range of deep, rich colours. But it never reached or even surpassed Arri Alexa’s fidelity which is the undisputed industry standard. Why I didn’t buy an Arri in the first place had to do with price, bulkiness and weight.

Now, that I don’t have a film camera anymore I’m thinking of renting one for specific projects and getting myself a professional photo camera for photos I’m shooting more and more lately, and that can shoot video for my personal video projects or even professional projects that don’t require a proper cinema camera like an Alexa.

Which brings me back to square one (have been there a few times). Is there a camera that isn’t a bulky and super expensive Arri Alexa and still allows for convincing skin tones that look natural and cinematic with texture and a wide range of deep, rich colours? Most likely not. There are a plethora of reasons why an Arri costs the 10th fold of a flagship photo camera. Ok. For now, I leave all things video where they are and focus on stills photography.

Since I find myself more and more taking photographs, I’ve expanded my desires for convincing skin tones to stills photography and have evaluated parts of the market. While there are similarities to film/video like raw workflows vs baked-in-colour RGB workflows, substantial differences are being one very obvious. There’s no benchmark camera in photography land every other manufacturer will be measured with as we have it in the film industry with the Arri Alexa.

I got myself a Canon flagship, a Nikon flagship and a good Fuji camera with matching, professional lenses of the respective brand (all three with many decades-spanning backgrounds in photography as opposed to Sony and Panasonic) and spent a few months with each camera. My findings are these: While they are quite different in handling, speed and results, they all do a solid job for their target group. But neither camera delivered in colours as I wished. Skin tones were all friendly and healthy, and in the Fuji’s case offered a variety of colour interpretations, but were not quite the convincing skin tones that look natural and cinematic with some texture and a wide range of deep, rich colours I’ve hoped for.

But I don’t give up that fast and tried a new approach. I changed the raw importer by swapping Adobe’s Lightroom for Capture One, the other professional photos editing software. For some reason, the Danes use for their Capture One software different colour interpretations as Adobe does, which appeals to me clearly more. Am I there? Of course not (will I ever be?), but I’m in peace now with Nikon, which I wouldn’t say I liked when working in Lightroom. Canon still feels a tad too healthy and happy to me, and Fuji doesn’t lose its somewhat artsy approach in any of its variants, but skin tones overall look more sophisticated with either camera.

So, what am I doing next? I’ll probably get me a Leica camera to test. That is due to their lenses (which also have a say in skin tone reproduction) and the company’s engineering heritage to strive only for the best (which makes them ridiculous expensive). Whether that will pan out, I don’t know yet. But I have high hopes. And perhaps, perhaps they will be getting video right too. When the next wave comes (probably sooner than later), I’ll let you know.

(What is convincing skin tones that look natural and cinematic with some texture and a wide range of deep, rich colours? I can’t say for sure but to read the piece about skin tones might be a good starting point. It’s all in the eye of the beholder and somewhat not. Complicated.)