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Elements Tutorial: Skintones by the Numbers

by Erin Peloquin on February 5, 2013 · 9 comments

Last week’s tutorial about using the ExpoDisc to capture good skintones on camera generated lots of interest.  And convinced me that it’s time to revisit the technique behind editing skintones in Photoshop Elements.

The most important tool Elements gives us to correct skintones is the Info panel, which lets us view color measurements.  To view your Info panel, go to the Window Menu and click on Info.

It looks like the screen shot below, when visible.  If the top left quadrant of the Info panel doesn’t display “RGB Color”, select it by clicking on the arrow next to the name of that quadrant.  As you move your cursor over your image, the Red, Green & Blue fields will reflect measurements of the color components of the pixels you are hovering over.

For best results when measuring colors, select your Color Picker tool (the Eyedropper), set the sample size to a 5×5 average, and set Sample to All Layers when measuring.

Go ahead and give this a try, now that you’ve got it all set up.  Move your cursor around and examine the measurements that appear in the Info panel.

Are you ready to learn what those numbers can tell you?

Let’s take this photo as an example.  Start on a photo whose overall white balance is good.

 

The measurements for the pixels at the end of each arrow are in this table:

 

 
RGB Numbers
Description
Point 1Red: 231
Green: 203
Blue: 194
Skin tone & exposure pretty good
Point 2Red: 170
Green: 108
Blue: 79
Skin underexposed in shadows with strong orange cast
Point 3Red: 221
Green: 166
Blue: 137
Skin exposed well with orange reflecting up from dress

We can make these observations about the numbers:

  • Red is always greater than green, which is always greater than blue.  This is good for skintones and you will see this pattern represented in nearly every skin color of every ethnicity.
  • The higher the numbers, the lighter the colors.  See how low the values are on point 2, in the shadows?  RGB numbers run on a scale from 0-255, with 0 being the lowest and 255 the highest.

To repeat some info from last week’s article, you will see neutral colors whenever red=green=blue.  Here are examples of neutral colors:

  • Black – Red 0, Green 0, Blue 0
  • White – Red 255, Green 255, Blue 255
  • Dark gray – Red 50, Green 50, Blue 50
  • Light Gray – Red 175, Green 175, Blue 175

Colors represented by unequal amounts of red, green and blue are, well, colors.  They aren’t neutral shades of gray.  To understand what the measurements mean, you first have to understand that each color, as measured in Elements, has an opposite.

For example, blue and yellow are opposites and are inverse to each other.  At Point 2 above, Blue measures 79.  As its inverse, Yellow would be 176 (or 255-79).  So the lower Blue is, the higher Yellow is.  And the lower Yellow is, the higher Blue is.  This works for these 3 color pairs:

Now that this makes sense (it does make sense, right?), we can make another observation about the numbers in the screen shot above.  Blue is much lower at Points 2 and 3 than at 1.  So yellow is much higher.  And given that Red is the largest number at each of these points, when we combine the Red with the larger than normal amount of Yellow, we get Orange.  Which is exactly what our eyes see.

In this photo, the orange color cast is quite obvious and the RGB numbers merely confirm what our eyes see.  Using the Info panel’s numbers is especially helpful for photos where you know the skintones are off, but aren’t quite sure why.  Unfortunately, problems aren’t always as obvious as they are in this photo!

Once you’ve used the numbers to identify what needs to be fixed, use one or more Levels adjustment layers to fix the affected areas.  For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to assume that Point 1 needs no edits.

To correct the area around Point 2, I need to lighten and remove the excess Yellow.  Using a Levels adjustment layer, I move the middle slider of the RGB channel to the left.  Moving this slider to the left brightens a photo, and moving it to the right darkens a photos.

Next, on the Blue channel, I move the middle slider to the left to increase Blue and decrease Yellow.  When adjusting the individual color channels in Levels, moving the middle slider always increases the color that the channel is named after (Red, Green or Blue).  Moving the middle slider to the right always increases that color’s opposite.  These are my Levels adjustments for Point 2.

 

I tweak both sliders until I am satisfied with the appearance of the dark, shadowed, orange-y area of her skin and finish by using the layer mask to constrain the edits just to this area.

For Point 3, the exposure is pretty good, so I only need to correct the orange color cast.  I do this on a 2nd Levels adjustment layer, moving the middle slider of the Blue channel to the left.  And I finish by constraining the effects of this layer with a layer mask also.

My layer masks for the above Levels edits look like this:

 

After these edits, you can see the following changes in my numbers:



 
RGB Numbers Before Edits
RGB Numbers After Edits
Point 1Red: 231
Green: 203
Blue: 194
Red: 231
Green: 203
Blue: 194
Point 2Red: 170
Green: 108
Blue: 79
Red: 189
Green: 137
Blue: 114
Point 3Red: 221
Green: 166
Blue: 137
Red: 226
Green: 177
Blue: 152

 

And here is a Before and After on the image.  Note that the shadows are lighter in the After and the orange tones are minimized on the bottom half of her face and her neck.  I could do a lot more to tweak the final photo, but this tutorial is plenty long enough as it is!

When editing your own photos, start by reading the color measurements at several points of your image.  If you want to lighten darker parts of your image, start by increasing the middle slider on the RGB color channel of a Levels layer.  Do this selectively, using the layer mask, to equalize lightness around the subject.

To correct the color channels, it will take experimenting and practicing.  If blue happens to be larger than green, add green/reduce magenta and/or decrease blue/add yellow with the appropriate color channels.  After that, explore the R to G to B proportions of various skin points, and try to equalize those proportions throughout the image.  For example, if green is 15 higher than blue at a good point, try to get the same 15 point spread throughout the image.

Do you get the feeling that this iceberg is much huger than the tip you just explored? Oh yes, it is.  But I think this is plenty for one article!

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Leslie February 5, 2013 at 1:14 pm

OMG. Thanks so much. I think I have a much better grasp. However the real test will be when I actually try to use it. Yea!!!

Reply

Joyce February 8, 2013 at 10:34 am

Erin, Finally got a chance to read this tutorial. FANTASTIC!! This makes so much sense and I love how you explain it. I’m going to have to bite the bullet and by flawless. Thank you so much.

Reply

Erin February 8, 2013 at 10:35 am

Thanks Joyce! I am so glad I could help!

Reply

Audrey February 12, 2013 at 11:28 am

There is so much to learn! I’m really trying to get the hang of skintones (something I never bothered with much before) and I love how this explains it. Trying not to succumb to buying Flawless but I think I might have to!

Reply

Joyce February 13, 2013 at 6:05 pm

LOL, me too Audrey!

Reply

Cary April 14, 2013 at 9:51 pm

Thanks for the tutorial, this is something I struggle with..I have a few other questions, 1. I’m not seeing the change in numbers in the screen shot above..the second one is the same set of numbers as the first? Is this correct?
2. When you make the change on the rgb, does it stay when you change the blue # or do you duplicate and then switch to blue? This is confusing to me..if I make a change on the blue layer in PSE 7 it seems that all my #’s change…is this right?
Any feedback/help would be appreciated! I always appreciate your tutorials, this one just has me scratching my head working through it!

Reply

Erin April 15, 2013 at 9:13 am

Hi Cary. After a recent upgrade, my graphic for the screen shot was pulling from the wrong place. I changed it, and you should see the before and after values now. Thanks for pointing that out. And yes, it can be that adjusting one color channel can change the others as well.

Thanks,
Erin

Reply

rebecca October 7, 2013 at 6:48 am

I trip up here:
For best results when measuring colors, select your Color Picker tool (the Eyedropper), set the sample size to a 5×5 average, and set Sample to All Layers when measuring.

When I click the color picker tool in the info screen I only get the option to select RGB/Web/etc. and not the option to select 5×5 and all layers. Are you referring to another color picker tool? Or where do I access those options with the CP tool? Thanks so much. I am trying to master WB and it is so hard for me.

Reply

Erin Peloquin October 8, 2013 at 1:05 pm

Hi Rebecca. I am referring to the eyedropper in the tool box on the left. You can use the search box on my blog to find more info about the various tools. Thanks for reading my blog!

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