Lonestardigital Banner

Digital Photography
Opinions, Observations,
Articles, Insights, and Tutorials

How to tackle harsh, unnatural looking skin tones.

Certain lighting conditions can give skin tones a harsh, unnatural look. Flash lighting is the most common cause, followed by late afternoon direct sunlight. The result is often an uncomfortably strong orange, yellow, magenta, or red look to skin in an otherwise well balanced, natural looking picture. Some cameras are bigger offenders than others. (The more saturated the camera's color output, the worse the effect.)

Software required: Adobe Photoshop

Original Skin Tones

At left: Original Nikon 880 indoor fill flash photo. This particular shot was the most intense example I've ever encountered.

Orange skin tones, looking much like heavy pancake makeup, ruin the picture.

Corrected Skin Tones

After correction, the skin tones are back to normal.

The rest of the picture's colors are unaffected by the procedure.

Step by step process -

First, select "Color Range" in the drop-down menu bar, as shown.

The mouse cursor changes into an "eyedropper" as your sampling tool to target the offending color areas.

Setting the fuzziness to around 20 seems to work the best for most pictures.

The fuzzy factor expands the color target so that you won't have to click on so many areas to get all the skin tone variations. On the other hand, too big of a fuzzy factor will pull in some colored areas that you don't want.

Click on the middle eyedropper box (the one with the + sign, as shown below) to make it additive, so that every time you click on a different area of the skin coloration, it adds to (expands) the selection.

Click "all over the place" on the skin. Arms, face, hands, ears... until virtually all the skin colored areas light up in the color range box, as shown below. Sometimes it takes just a few clicks to get it, sometimes it takes a lot of clicking around before you get it all.

This procedure targets only the offending color ranges, and leaves the rest of the picture alone.


Once you have this completed, click on OK, and the "marching ants" outlines of the selected areas show up on the picture (as shown below).

Then it's best to uncheck the Selection Edges line to make the distracting outlines disappear. (Shortcut keystroke Control-H does the same thing.)

Now you're ready to dial the skin color in.


Go to the Hue/Saturation adjustment selection in the drop-down menu bar.

Selective saturation reduction is the key to correcting the problem.


Picture 6


Decrease the saturation as necessary to achieve the desired look. This picture looked best at -22, most pictures require much less of a reduction. (-8 through -15 are typically used values.)

Notice how the "Orangeness" goes away.

Picture 7


Other minor adjustments might be necessary to get the final accuracy you're looking for.

On this picture, I found that a slight Levels midtone adjustment to 1.10 (as shown) lightened the skin color just right, and nothing else was necessary.

On other pictures, I sometimes make some minor selective color adjustments to slightly reduce magenta, yellow, or cyan if it appears as a problem cast.

Picture 8


Finally, click on "Deselect" to return the picture to a normal state.

Save your corrected picture under a modified file name so the original picture stays "original".

Here's another example, before and after saturation (only) correction.

For this Canon D30 flash picture, I reduced the skin tone saturation by 15%.

It helps to remember what your subject looked like... the original picture looked pretty good, but in the real world, this cowboy was pretty much of a paleface.

Picture 10A

Picture 10B

Return to Top of Page