©John Gress

Light to Dark

Every day, photographers are hired to photograph multiple people together who may have different skin tones. It happens so often in advertising that not having this skill will hinder your success. I’ve worked as a commercial photographer for more than a decade, and I’ve photographed so many diverse groups of people that it almost seems like second nature. But I know for some people it may be challenging.

The tonal difference could be slight, as with two people with similar pigment levels, or they could be great as when someone who is pale is paired with someone with a dark complexion. 

The first skill you need to master is exposure. Greatly overexposing or underexposing a diverse group portrait is going to lead to disaster, so make sure whether you’re using a light

meter or examining the image on the back of your camera, you’re within two-thirds of a stop of where you want to end up. I’ve found that it works best to expose people with pale skin accurately and add 50% more light for people with deep pigment—everyone else will fall in between. We’ve all seen solo portrait images where lighter people are underexposed to make them appear tan, and people with darker skin are overexposed, which makes them appear lighter. When photographing people together, we have to work diligently to portray them accurately, which is what I strive to do with single subjects as well. 

The second skill needed to create a successful image is knowing how to employ one or more of three lighting techniques: positioning, grids, and multiple light placement. 

With a light in the boom position, the model with darker skin and darker hair is placed slightly closer to the light.
©John Gress

Positioning means placing subjects with a darker skin tone closer to the light and subjects with a lighter skin tone farther away. If you’re photographing a person with medium to dark skin and a person with light skin, you’ll need to position them accurately in relation to the light so that the darker person gets about two-thirds more light than the lighter person. This isn’t too hard to accomplish due to the fact that light gradually falls off the farther away a person is from it. To begin, place the people next to each other and the light where you think it should be, and then move the light away to decrease the difference or closer to increase the difference. Remember to increase or decrease the power respectively to get a proper exposure. 

If you have people of various skin tones, position them as well as you can from darkest to lightest and understand that you may have to mix up the order for aesthetics or other practical considerations, but keep the side of your frame with more light about 2/3-stop brighter than the darker side. Don’t place the lightest complected person on the side with more light or the darkest complected person on the side with less, that way you’ll at least have a fighting chance to balance everything in post. 

Here are examples of the position technique being used. In each, the subject with a darker skin tone is positioned closer to the main light. When a hair light is used, it is also effective to place the subject with darker hair at a level closer to that li
©John Gress
©John Gress
©John Gress

In a lot of situations, you are going to be using more than one light in your scene, so you need to think about positioning when it comes to hair and edge lights as well. For hair lights, the same general principles apply—darker hair will need more light and lighter hair will need less, so you may have the person with darker hair stand up and the person with lighter hair sit down, or you might place them so that the darker haired person is on a high stool and the lighter haired person is sitting on an apple box. 

With edge lights, you might run into a problem because you’re usually going to put the edge light opposite the main, and then you’re going to end up with the lighter person right next to it. In that case, try pointing the light more toward the darker person or people. Or you can try putting the edge light farther from the people so that the amount of light falling on each is relatively equal. However, in some instances, including with hair lights, you might have to give up because you can’t move the light farther away or position the people more precisely. If that’s the case, then get in there and try to fix those variables in post. What matters most is that the main light is exposing the subjects correctly.


The second strategy is to use a grid on your lights. If you place a grid on the main soft box and feather it, the person on whom the light is pointed will be able to see through the honeycomb grid and therefore see more of the white surface area of the soft box than the person or people who are at an angle to the light. The surface area of the soft box face that’s visible to each person, and their distance to the light, will determine their total exposure. You can fine-tune the exposure by making tiny adjustments to the position of the light and where it’s pointed. 

This will work well if you want to place a darker person farther from the light or if you need to photograph a group with the light coming from one side and you want to even out the exposure. 


The third strategy is to deploy multiple main lights such as umbrellas on boom stands to deliver precise amounts of light to different areas of the image. You could even use soft boxes with grids for more control. 

Both the multiple light method and the grid method are good, but they often involve more effort and gear, so I tend to use the positioning method because it’s easier.

All photographers should strive to capture every subject accurately. Your ability to work with more people will naturally lead to booking more jobs, and you’ll never make someone feel underserved or unwelcome. 

John Gress is a commercial photographer and director in Chicago.