• english
  • spanish

By now we have accumulated enough experience photographing our two Ethiopian children to share a few tips.
Contrary to what many people think, not all professional photographers know how to take good pictures of black people, many even refuse to do it.
I’ve read recently an article by Hanna Pool about why it’s so difficult for black models to land good jobs. There is obviously some racism involved, but also many photographers don’t know how to make a person with dark skin look good, specially when she is photographed along a white person.
Miguel is studying photography and he had the chance to meet a black model who also shared her concern about white photographers not knowing how to properly light and take a good picture of a dark skinned woman. She told him that before she signs a contract with a professional, she makes sure he/she knows what to do. 
Since the portrait photographer in the house is Miguel, and he has learned a lot, I will let him share what he has learned so far and some examples of his pictures. He will tackle the subject by addressing different situations. Here is the first part of the series:

Part I – Bright backgrounds

If you try to take a picture of a dark skinned person in front of a bright background with a camera in automatic mode your chances of getting a good picture are pretty slim. Here is an example of our son Feromsa posing in front of a window on a sunny day:

Evaluative metering mode

Cameras can capture only a limited range of light variation in a picture, much smaller than what our eyes can see. Presented with scenes like the above, the camera will measure light in a number of spots around the frame and compute an average that it uses to determine how to expose the picture. If the picture has a good amount of brightness then the camera will favor those areas, causing the darker parts to go even darker.

For most cameras there are some options that will allow you to get better pictures in these conditions.

If you have a relatively advanced camera (a Digital SLR or high end point & shoot) you can probably change the mode in which light is measured. The default mode is called "Evaluative Metering" and it works as described above. Another available mode is "Spot Metering", in which the camera only measures light in a small area in the center of the frame. To use this mode you will align the center of the frame with the face of the subject and half press the shutter button, to tell the camera to calculate the exposure. Without letting the shutter go you now move the camera to frame the picture as you like and finally fully press the shutter to take the picture. Below is how spot metering mode looks:


spot metering mode

As you can see, now the camera has done a pretty good job reproducing the face of our boy, but the background has lost all detail and is now too bright. The Evaluative and Spot metering modes are the two extreme modes, cameras provide other modes that may allow you to find a decent balance of dark and bright areas.

If your camera does not support metering modes check if it provides Exposure Compensation, a mode in which you can tell the camera to make the image brighter or darker using the automatic exposure settings as a starting point.

So what do you do if you have a lower end point & shoot, or if you are like me and are not willing to sacrifice the detail in the background so that you can see the beautiful face of your child?

An easy way to improve your pictures would be to throw more light on your child, as that will reduce the difference between the brighter and darker areas of the picture. Pretty much all cameras come with a flash, and most can enable it in a mode called "Fill Flash". In this mode the camera will expose for the background but also fire the flash to illuminate the subject. Note that to make use of this mode you will need to position yourself close to your child, since flashes typically have a pretty short range. Below are two examples, of our daughter Feven against a sunny sky. The first was taken in full auto mode and the second with fill flash:

automatic modefill flash

I hope these tips help you take memorable pictures of your children. For me, this was the start of a long path to improve my photography skills, one that led me to build a small studio in our basement. In that environment, I can control much better how much light I use, the background, and all the other aspects of taking a great photograph.
If you want to see more, please visit my portraits set on Flickr.
Thank you!
In part II of the series I will discuss dark backgrounds and how to make your child stand out in front of them.



Fashion probably is a bit racist by Hannah Pool for The Guardian UK
Black Models Still a Rare Sight on Catwalks by Christina Simon