Jorge Cevallos's picture


Dear Friends,

As a beginner photographer, one of the hardest things for me is taking a portrait that retains the skin texture. What is the best ISO to do it? What is the level of underexposure for the original shot? I took this shot of my wife, but the skin on her face does not look as I wish.

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Samuel Flores Sanchez's picture

Hi Jorge.

I'm a beginner too!

First is important you use a good camera with a good sensor. The opinions about the gear you can get away with are endless, basically every photographer has his own. I'm working with micro 4/3 and my opinion is that with the actual technology you can achieve that even with some point-and-shoot cameras. Said that, the better the camera the bigger the margin for error. If you want to do that with an iPhone you have to know very well your lighting.

Second is your lens. For optimum results, you need a fast and sharp lens. Said that, some kit lenses are sharp as hell. Like I said before, you have to know your gear and experiment a lot and compare results.
The aperture of your lens is important too. The Sweet Spot of every lens is different but generally, 3 or 4 stops up from the bottom and you are ok. Full stops I mean: 1 - 1.4 - 2 - 2.8 - 4 - 5.6 - 8 - 11 - 16 - 22 - 32... For example, if your lens starts in 2, the SS is somewhere around 5.6, 8...

Second thought, firs the lens and second the camera. Almost every camera in the market today can achieve greatness at some point with the right conditions... and a great lense.

ISO, of course, the less real ISO you can use the best. Some cameras have 200, like mine, some have 50... in 200 you are all right in general. Said that, the technology today allows shooting at high ISOs with minor if not nothing increase of noise. Every camera is different, you have to know yours and experiment to see what can get away with.

Underexposing if you are trying to bring skin texture into your file is not the best idea. The correct technique if you want the most information possible is overexposing all you can without clipping the highlights. I use my histogram for that and I know that I can even pass a step or two due to that the histogram is generated by a jpg rendering so I have some room for overexposing. If you have histogram in live view, use it and experiment with it comparing the histogram you see on camera with the histogram in your RAW processor and see what room you have. If you don't have histogram guide yourself with your exposure compensation levels, take one shot with the correct exposure, another with one stop over, another with two... see for yourself when you start blowing up the highlights. Every situation is going to be different but with practice, the process becomes very intuitive.

In this shot I think that you underexposed and then try to bring light in the post? that's a terrible idea. Not only your shot is going to end noisy, but the effect you achieve when you try to do your lighting in post is fake and your brain knows that. I recommend for a shot like this that you use flash or every other source of light to properly illuminate your subject. Also lighting is fun as hell and the way you learn and understand photography.

Said that, some cameras today can get away with a lot, but does that not mean that is the correct way to do things, certainly is not the best. The great flexibility cameras offer today have his place and purpose, but some ways are simply wrong. You don't use photoshop so you can create a good image from a bad RAW. You take a good shot, a really fantastic one, and then you enhance that shot with your software of election.

Like you see there's a lot of things that have to come together so you can create a great shot. If you feel overwhelmed with all the information my advice is that you learn one at a time. Start taking some shots with a proper exposition and some with one and two stops overexposed, analyze the information you obtain with that in your RAW processor. Then you can start illuminating the scene with a source of light of your election. A simple candle can give you great shots

I hope this can help you

Jorge Cevallos's picture

Samuel, thank you very much for your elaborate answer. Indeed, I underexposed the original shot. It has always been a challenge for me to come up with right level of underexposure to keep skin texture visible. I think I really need to know my gear better because my camera is a NIKON D810 and a 50mm 1.4G lens. I enjoy retouching pictures more than actually taking them.

Samuel Flores Sanchez's picture

Hi! With that camera and lens it shouldn't be a problem! just go step by step, one thing at a time.

If you enjoy retouching skin, I recommend Michael Woloszynowicz channel:

Everything you can see from Natalia Taffarel. Here's a fantastic video:

And everything you can dig on from Julia Kuzmenko McKim:

And Pratik Naik:

From these four people, I learned most what I now know about retouching skin.

And this sadly canceled mag:

You can download the first issue for free

I hope you enjoy!

Jorge Cevallos's picture

Wow! I really thank you for your information. It is just what I need now. I hope I can also be of help for you some day.

Jon Miller's picture

In addition to what Samuel has stated, one of the main things you'll need to understand is lighting, as stated you underexposed the image, using a reflector or adding some light to the subject and making sure you do not go too far one way or the other is going to help maintain the skin tones and textures. Initially if you are not good with flashes, use either a continuous light source so you can see this through the camera or if using daylight grab yourself a few white foam core boards and set them to bounce light. If the light is too harsh use larger boards to block (no everyone has a scrim) the harsh light and then add light to the subject. Measure the light on your subject by getting in close and meter her face (fill the camera frame with her face) then back off to get the shot.

Jorge Cevallos's picture

Thank you, Jon. I have a speedlight and will put your advice into practice.