Does The Color Temperature Of Your Light Affect Skin Tones in Photography?

OK, we’re going to get nerdy here. There are many different kinds of artificial lights, and then there is the light from our sun, commonly referred to daylight. If you want to read up on light color temperature, Wikipedia has a great article.

For artificial lights, they generally fall into a couple of different classes: warm, neutral, and cool.

Warm lights are lights that are tungsten, incandescent, candles, etc. Neutral lights are what you generally see in most retail stores, and nowadays usually consists of fluorescent or LED lighting. Neutral light usually sits between 3800K and 5000K. Cool lights are generally any light that has a color temperature above 5000K.

For photography, if you’re shooting ambient light, it’s going to be all over the place. If you’re shooting with continuous “Hot Lights” then it’s generally on the warmer side (2800-3200K), and if you’re shooting with the newer LEDs, the good ones are tunable, but otherwise they’ll be on the cooler side, and if you’re shooting with a speed light or studio strobe, it most definitely will be on the cooler side, usually at least 5500K, but sometimes upwards of 6500K depending on the quality and power setting.

This all leads to an interesting question: When shooting people, is there a best color temperature to use that renders more pleasing skin tones? Searching Google leads to lots of articles on how to light for skin tones, but very little in the way of whether to use warmer or cooler color temps for your lighting. With that being said, generally, pros tend to err towards warmer color temperatures (i.e. Tungsten) because it tends to look better. This is why much of our indoor lighting for houses is generally pretty warm.

I thought I would put this to the test and take some pictures using a studio strobe at it’s native color temperature, which is advertised to be ~5600K, and then that same strobe, but gelled with a CTO gel to get the color temperature down to roughly what a tungsten hot light would be, which is ~3200K, then compare the two and see what it looks like. Note: the color temperature is going to vary a little depending on the power level of the strobe, but it should be roughly correct.

So lets start with a standard bare strobe with no color correction:

Here’s the color checker chart:


So we can see we’re correctly white balanced for the light in our software, now lets see what yours truly looks like under the exact same light with the exact same white balance in software:


I look like a caucasian guy. If anything, my skin is rendering a bit on the flat or gray side partially because I’m one of those awful people that has a neutral skin undertone. I am however cursed with a pretty bad complexion, so there are parts of my face that are rendering as blotches of color. I guess this is what happens when you’ve been a life long sufferer of super severe eczema.

Let’s look at the same light, but gelled to 3200K:


Again, we can see that we are correctly white balanced in our software. Let’s see what I look like under this same light:


Hmm… that’s interesting.

Let’s look at the two color checker cards side by side. The one on the left is 5600K the one on the right is 3200K:


We can see that even though the the white balance between the two matches, the colors don’t exactly render the same way.

Let’s look at me side by side, again left is 5600K, right is 3200K:


Again, very interesting. Keep in mind some of the color you’re seeing is due to my very unfortunate complexion.

So does the color temperature of your light effect the skin tones in photography? I would say yes. Which one looks better? That’s really a subjective thing more than anything else.

The important thing to take away here is that you should be cognizant of the fact that some people might look better in warmer light and some might look better in cooler light and adjust accordingly.

Till next time.

Petaluma, CA, USA

Author: Adrian Bacon

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