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skin tone adjsutments in Photoshop

Correcting Skin Tone with Photoshop

Adjusting skin tone…
one of the most common photo editing tasks.

Many designers simply adjust skin tones the best they can,
using their naked eye, with mixed results.

Photoshop offers a simple way to measure the exact color values in an image and correct the color to a normal skin tone.

As we all know, besides what ancestral background an individual is from, there are also significant skin tone variations within each ethnic group. Both genetics and sun explosure also play a role in the wide spectrum of these variances, making skin tone correction more challenging than some color correction tasks.

Although there is no perfect set of color values for all ethnicities, and under all lighting situations, there are guidelines to follow to make sure the skin tones in your subject are within the range of typical skin color for any particular ethnicity.

Skin Color Correction “By The Numbers”

By measuring the color value in an image, and knowing what the “typical” skin tone value SHOULD be for any particular ethnicity, we have our starting point.

Photoshop gives us the tools we need to adjust the color values to within the normal range of skin color for any particular skin tone.

Once your image is within the target tonal color norm, you can then adjust-to-taste, while considering the lighting circumstances, etc. for the desired results.

Photoshop eyedropper settings

We begin by first checking your settings for the Eye Dropper tool in Photoshop. Make sure it is NOT set on “Point Sample,” as that setting would only evaluate a 1 pixel square.

For this technique, we want to obtain a 5 X 5 average pixel color sample for an average color value in an area.

shift-clicking with the eyedropper

Shift-Click to Make a Target Area
With the eyedropper tool selected, and while holding the SHIFT key, click on an area
that is a diffused highlight (a light area of the skin, out of the shadows, having image detail).

Avoid the specular highlights of the image
(areas where the light source is reflecting off of the skin, which lack image detail).

Start a Curves Adjustment Layer by either:
From the menu choose Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Curves

curves layer select "curves" adjustment layer info dropper image info selector changed to CMYK

or simply click on the New Fill or Adjustment Layer Icon in the layers menu.

In the layers palet, select CURVES from the drop-down menu
of the adjustment layer icon.

With your new Curves Adjustment Layer still selected,
open the Info Pallet. You will see 2 sets of RGB values.

They represent the color values within the target area that you selected
by shift-clicking with the eyedropper tool.

The first set of numbers is the current skin color value;
and the 2nd set will show you the resulting changes when you adjust
the color values using the curves adjustment layer.

Dending on your verson of Photoshop, you may need to click on the little eyedropper in the info pallet and change it to show CMYK values instead of RGB values, and we are now ready to begin changing the skin tone color.

Skin Tone Color Values
Comparing Before and After

curves channels

To begin manipulating the skin tones we inspect the various channels in the curves adjustment layer. Our image in RGB mode, so there are 4 possible curve adjustments. The RGB channel will effects all of the colors globally, either darker or lighter. We can also select the individual channels to make targeted color changes.

watching the CMYK numbers

Remember the numbers on the right are our "new" values after we have tweaked the values in the curves dialogue box, and the numbers on the left are our original values we are trying to correct.

Correction Skin Color
Evaluating Color Values of Skin Tone by the CMYK Numbers

Note: the abbreviations CMYK in Commercial Printing stand for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and “Key” (Black).

Caucasian Skin Tone (under typical lighting conditions) has the following CMYK color values ratios:

before & after curves adjustment

The Magenta and Yellow color values should be nearly the same,
with slightly more yellow than magenta.
Cyan should be between ⅕ to ⅓ of the Y and M numbers.
(Simply multiply C by 3 and 5 to make sure you are within the average range)
Black: Caucasians should have 0 black in the highlight areas.

Reducing or boosting these numbers will adjust the "saturation levels" to alter tones for fair-skin or a more tanned look.

info pallet with CMYK values curves adjustment layer channels

We begin to adjust the curves in the various channels to get the numbers “in range.”

Since the sample we targeted with the eyedropper was a highlight, make your adjustment point in the highlight area (right side) of the curves adjustment dialogue box.

As we inspect the values in this example, the only color that is significantly out of range is the Cyan, which is too high.

Remember that the Cyan should be no more than ⅓ of the values of Magenta and Yellow.

In this example image, the original Cyan value is 16, whereas the Magenta is 34 & Yellow is 36. We know the Cyan is too high since it's current value of 16, and when multiplied 16 X 3 = 48, way more than the Magneta and Yellow numbers.

NOTE – when you adjust one channel, it also effects the other channels too, so you need a bit of back-and-forth to get it right.

In this example, to get the numbers within the "normal range" the red channel was adjusted up a bit, and the blue channel adjusted down. After the adjustments were made it appeared a little over-saturated, so the global image was lightened slightly lightening the color saturation in the RGB channel.

When making your adjustments in the curves dialogue box, you might find it helpful to think of the channels as: the blue-yellow channel, the green-magenta channel, and the red-cyan channel, as that is what they actually effect.

Caucasian Skin Tone Variations

Most Caucasians fall in the range of 5-20% more yellow than magenta.
A light skinned Caucasian adult could be as low as 20% magenta, 25% yellow.
Bronzed Caucasian could be as high as 45% magenta, 62% yellow.
A fair-skinned, pinkish baby could be as light as 15% magenta, 16% yellow.

Common Skin Tone Examples
Various Ethnicities and Tints

Here are a few examples of some CMYK values for various ethnicities and saturations of skin tone, but remember that these values can vary widely, so take them as a very loose guideline only. It's easy to oversaturate African-American skin, so be careful there. Asian and Hispanic skin will typically have 10-20% higher yellow than magenta.

light Caucasian skin example

Lt. Caucasian
C= 3    M=15
Y=16    K= 0

average Caucasian skin tone

C= 6    M=27
Y=32     K= 0

dark Caucasian skin tone

Dk. Caucasian
C=17    M=50
Y=58    K= 0

Asian skin tone example

C= 8     M=30
Y=48    K= 0

light Black skin tone

Lt. Black
C=21    M=53
Y=69    K= 3

dark Black skin

Dk. Black
C=46     M=67
Y=77    K=50

Skin Tone Final Adjustments

Following these CMYK guidelines will help to make sure the skin tones in your subject are within the range of typical skin color. From there simply use your best judgement to fine tune the image. Remember, if you intend to print the photos, change your images to CMYK color mode, as output devices and commercial printing companies can not print in RGB. See Color Gamma.

Credits and Recognition

Chris Orwig

The above skin tone color correction technique is an adaptation of a training video by Chris Orwig. Chris is a photographer, author, speaker and teacher. If you take your Photoshop training seriously, we highly recommend Chris's training. His use of adjustment layers is truly amazing! A word of warning, his enthusiasm regarding Photoshop (and life in general) is contageous.

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