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Here is the second part of Miguel’s simple tips on how to improve your photographs when taking pictures of people with dark skin: Part II - Improving dark pictures.

In the first part of the series I discussed how to take a good photograph of a dark skinned person against a bright background. In this second part I’ll talk about how to improve pictures that are taken in interiors where not much light is available.

I have briefly described in the previous article how the camera measures light at different parts of the picture and select the exposure based on that. We saw that when most of the picture is bright the darker areas become even darker, due to the limited range of light the camera sensor can capture. For pictures that are mostly dark the exposure metering algorithm in the camera will try to brighten everything to compensate. Cameras can do this in several ways, and most of them will produce bad images. Examples of our daughter Feven standing next to a window:

Feven blurred I

Feven blurred II

The two pictures above came out blurred, the first being the worst of the two. This is because the camera decided to use a slow shutter speed to capture more light. Unfortunately slow shutter speeds and children do not mix well, you can’t ask a child to stay still for a picture, so this is almost always not going to work. Also, note how in both pictures the parts of Feven’s face that receive direct light went to white, with all the detail lost. This is the camera’s averaging algorithm, which sacrificed the detail in her face in favor of showing a little bit more of the background. To get a better picture I used the exposure compensation feature, which I discussed in the previous article. This was a process of trial and error, I simply dialed the exposure compensation down in small increments until I obtained this:

Exposure compensation

Notice how the details of Feven’s face are now nicely defined. And the contrast between the light and shadow areas of her face add volume to the picture and make it much more interesting.

Here are another couple of shots of Feven next a window:

Without reflectorWith Paper Reflector

Maybe now I’m being extremely critic of my pictures, but in the first picture above I do not like that the back of Feven’s head receives very little light and the detail in her hair style cannot be seen. With a very simple trick I have added some light and obtained the second picture. Here is how it was done:

Paper Reflector

If you simply point a white sheet of paper towards the darker areas you are effectively reflecting some of the light coming from the window into them. You can use any white surface as a reflector, and if you plan to experiment with reflecting light a lot you can also buy reflectors of any size at any photography shop or even Amazon.

So far I have solved all my light problems by simply shooting near a window. So what can be done when you are shooting at night or when window light isn’t available?

If your pictures come out too dark there is really only one solution, you have to figure out how to add more light.

The simplest way to do this is to use the flash that comes with your camera. In fact, if you are shooting in auto mode your camera will decide on its own when to use the flash. Unfortunately the on-camera flash in most cameras isn’t very powerful, so you have to be very close to your child when you take the picture. Because of the short range of the flash in many cases the background will not be properly illuminated and may even go completely black. Also, on-camera flash creates harsh unflattering shadows which make a picture look more like a mug shot than anything else. Here is an example picture of our son Feromsa taken with the camera in full auto mode with flash:

Auto Flash

Not a bad photo, but those shadows really bother me. Here is a very simple trick that sometimes may improve the quality of a picture taken with on-camera flash. Take a business card with a white background and position it in front of the flash at a 45 degree angle:

Camera with card reflector

In the picture above I have made two small cuts in the card so that I can mount it directly on the camera. This should be possible for most DSLRs, for point & shoot cameras you may need to hold the card in place with your hand while you take the picture. What this trick does is redirect the light from the flash into the ceiling. If your ceiling is not too high you will be using it as large reflector that will send light in all directions, creating a more pleasing image without the harsh shadows:

With card reflector

Note that if your ceiling and/or walls are not white the reflected light will absorbed some of the color and tint the picture. You can also buy a plastic flash diffuser that accomplishes the same thing. Here are another pair of examples:

Auto Flash

External Flash

The first picture was taken in full auto mode with on-camera flash. This time the flash had not enough power to bring the picture to a normal level of brightness, but if you don’t consider that we can agree that it did an okay job. But of course the picture has those harsh shadows that I dislike so much. For the second picture I turned off the camera flash and instead used an external flash unit which I positioned on the left side of the picture pointing up to the ceiling to generate reflected light. An external flash unit has a much larger range than the on-camera flashes, so it would be a great addition to your camera. The prices for small flashes can range from $45 to $500, and can be triggered by most cameras, either by attaching it to the hot shoe connector on your DSLR, wirelessly or with a cable. The second picture was taken with one of the cheapest flashes on the market, a Yongnuo YN-460II, which today sells for $48 at Amazon. Note that this is a manual flash, so it forces you to shoot in manual mode. Automatic versions of this flash for Canon and Nikon DSLRs sell for about $100, while decent Canon or Nikon brand flashes start at $250.

If flashes are not your thing, then any source of light can contribute to a picture. A small table lamp, for example, can add a considerable amount of light if placed properly. The secret is to position it as close as possible to your child’s face.

I would like to end by saying that lack of light isn’t always a bad thing. The next picture of our son Feromsa is mostly dark, yet I consider it my best picture, one that shows how beautiful our boy is:


Next time, I’m going to share ideas on how to take good pictures with people of different skin colors all together.