Jezebel explores lingering weakness in photography: making dark skin look good

by Liam McCabe

posted Friday, April 4, 2014 at 10:50 AM EST

Gawker blog Jezebel takes a broad look at a lingering problem in photography and videography: Cameras often struggle to make dark skin look its best.

In the post, the author argues that the photo and film industry has traditionally treated pale skin as the “default,” so to speak—color cards from the 1940s and 1950s used a solitary, white female as the reference for balancing skin tones. Old, low-sensitivity film stock just did not do a good job of capturing black actors, and it didn’t help that lighting crews had little experience in properly illuminating dark skin. Jezebel cites a Washington Post article in which Steve McQueen, director of "12 Years a Slave,” talks about seeing Sidney Poitier on film in “In the Heat of the Night”:

"I remember growing up and seeing Sidney Poitier sweating next to Rod Steiger in 'In the Heat of the Night,' and obviously [that was because] it's very hot in the South. But also he was sweating because he had tons of light thrown on him, because the film stock wasn't sensitive enough for black skin."

Even today, as digital photos surpass the dynamic range that film was able to capture, and post-production makes it fairly easy to spot-correct lighting in stills and video, there are still issues. The post cites an interview with filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who calls out “Boardwalk Empire” for doing a poor job lighting the black actors in the show. Cheaper cameras can also be pretty terrible at exposing properly when the subjects have very different skin tones. It’s an interesting look at a complicated topic, and it at least attempts to understand the underlying technical challenges.

A little closer to home, at Imaging Resource HQ, we occasionally host delegations of Japanese engineers who come to learn about our rigorous testing process. One engineer asked about a mannequin we use to look at how high-ISO noise reduction can struggle with red or blonde hair, blurring it beyond recognition. Upon hearing the explanation and observing the results, they reacted with surprise, thanked us and said they'd be changing their algorithms and testing. The most common hair in Japan is obviously black so noise suppression algorithms were optimized for this use. 

(Via Jezebel)