Skin Tone Shootout – Analysis of the poll results and more

by planetmatt3 Comments

planetMitch note: This is a follow up to the poll planetMatt posted last week

As of this writing, we have had 317 votes, broken down as follows:

C 133 votes (Blackmagic Cinema Camera Rec. 709)

D 113 votes (Blackmagic Cinema Camera film gamut)

B 47 votes (Sony FS100)

A 24 votes (Canon 5dmkII)

Some people correctly pointed out the color balance was not correct on all of the images in our skin tone shootout – mainly on the 5dmkII. Color balance is indeed scientific while a color grade is more drawn to personal taste. Even in shows like “24” (where action industrial scenes often contained a lot of blue tints) or horror movies (where more green tints and shadows are emphasized) the skin tone of the talent remains very similar to real life – often having some orange flesh tones apparent. We do not see overly blue, green or red in talent's faces, unless something went seriously wrong.

Let's talk about Skintone and Color Grading

First, this is a great test to take to see just how accurate you are at perceiving tints and shades of color. Again, color balance is indeed SCIENTIFIC. (Don't remind me of spending an entire semester with color theory in my design classes!) PS: I scored a perfect score! (Vain right?)

Second, Pantone is getting on board with releasing new skin tone colors. Just perceiving the different hues and shades within ethnic groups is educating.

Third, Steve Hullfish (check out his books on color grading) has some grading tips on using scopes to get an accurate color balance in this video.

Finally, for us still photographers, Smugmug has a great tutorial on proper color balanced skin tones. Using the eyedropper tool in Photoshop and the principle that Magenta cannot be greater than Yellow (especially in fair skinned people), I PROVED scientifically that the 5dmkII shot was not color balanced properly.

Look here:

Magenta is greater than Yellow

So I took a stab in Photoshop at getting the color balance better.

5dmkII not looking as bad, but not so good

Now, you may be saying, “Matt, she has a lot of green in the shadows!” I would agree. But let's look at our 5dmkII blue channel.

5dmkII blue channel

There is some serious data missing and blotchy codec corruption, meaning the green channel had far greater value than the blue to neutralize the shadows. Contrast this with a screenshot (meaning not RAW, not DNG but a jpg) of the BMCC frame I was working on:

BMCC Blue Channel

What this shows is that in color balancing for proper skin tone ratios (a fair-skinned Caucasian adult could be as low as 20% magenta, 25% yellow while a bronzed Caucasian could be as high as 45% magenta, 62% yellow), a corrupted or poor blue channel makes it far more difficult to balance and grade than a channel with more data involved.

My Personal Color Balance and Grade

Here is Adam Robert's video, download it for higher quality. Also, feel free to download DNG's from the Blackmagic Cinema Camera to balance and grade yourself: [tentblogger-vimeo 57472828]

With that shown, I decided to grade the Blackmagic Cinema DNG in Adobe Lightroom as a photographer, then opened in Photoshop to slightly color balance it.

Original DNG and after in Lightroom

The final image is color balanced and graded from the Blackmagic Cinema Camera DNG in Lightroom and Photoshop:

Lightroom Color Grade BMCC

And now my grade in Davinci Resolve. A moving image vs a still image will have a different grade. I feel for a cinematic image, creating a darker mood with less flair and surreal colors feels more ‘filmmick' to me and less like a staged photograph session. This would be the part of a grade that is subject to interpretation. However, in both the Lightoom grade (for still photography) and my Resolve grade (for motion photography), the skin tone is balanced properly.

Davinci Color Grade


Having more data to work with is always going to render a better color balance and grade – if done properly. Using the BMCC and the “film” color gamut setting renders an extremely flat image in Davinci Resolve but the DNG comes in quite nicely in Lightroom. Davinci Resolve is a beast of a program that is just going to take time getting to know.

In Resolve, I recommend creating one node, opening your scopes and then getting your black and white point set properly (once the DNG has the setting ‘BMD film' selected in its gamut). Then in another node, I added a film LUT and balanced more. In a third node, I worked with curves. This is far harder than using Lightroom I must say, but different and better for a feature obviously. Again, Lightroom can be used to grade BMCC footage which is neat.

The tone, detail, color depth and data within each frame of the BMCC allows for far greater manipulation in post than the Canon 5dmkII. But if you watch the video, the ungraded footage of the 5dmkII looks really good too. It is soft, fair toned with a blurred background – an aesthetic that for the model and setting may work just fine.

In the end, if you grade the 5dmkII footage – or any footage – wrong, the talent and skin tone will always appear mediocre. Even if done with a $100,000 Arri Alexa.

Feel free to tell me what YOU think about the different color grades!

Matt Battershell is a professional graphic designer, web developer and photographer who studied filmmaking since first getting his hands on a Media100 workstation in 5th grade. Applying design principles to typography, motion design, editing, color grading and cinematography has been a rewarding experience as he continues to use HDSLR's and other tools to hone his skill. Understanding technology is a passion, so whether he is building a custom hackintosh to run Davinci Resolve faster than a MacPro or learning about CMOS sensor designs, there is always room for is inner nerd to geek out. View some of Matt's photography.

(cover photo credit: snap from the video)


  1. Wow!
    I knew 5d is missing a lot of information but did not know about that blue channel test. Thanks Mitch, this was educational!

  2. I can tell you that canon footage not shot in standard mode can have really hard skin tones to fix if your basic WB isn’t on the money. neutral tends to skew the basic color balance in such a way that you can waste a lot of time getting back good skin tones…. so I never use it anymore.

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