Lighting Black Faces: Mic Interviews 'Insecure' Director of Photography Ava Berkofsky

Any photographer who has photographed or recorded multiple skin tones on film will know that lighting suitable for one skin type won't always work for another. Exposing for a dark skin tone may blow out a lighter skinned companion, and lighting for a pale skin tone may leave a darker skinned person in the shadows. So how do you properly light dark skin? Xavier Harding recently interviewed Ava Berkofsky, HBO's director of photography for the show "Insecure," for Mic to find out what her techniques are for lighting the show's black actors.

In the article, Berkofsky mentions several techniques she uses to properly light, but not over-light, dark skin, which was a hallmark of TV sitcoms like "The Cosby Show" where the sets were brightly lit to compensate for the actors darker skin. Employing these techniques could be as invaluable to photographers as cinematographers, since balancing light between subjects of different skin tones is a common stumbling block, and people of color can often be over-lit when photographed next to their lighter counterparts, causing their faces to lose depth. To give "Insecure" a cinematic, rather than a sitcom, look, Berkofsky varies the light, using more subdued light for the interiors and lighting her subjects separately. The result of such careful planning and attention is that the actor's skin tones are beautifully rendered and each scene has a painterly quality.

[via Mic]

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16 Comments

Samuel Flores Sanchez's picture

I didn't understand why she uses the polarizer. for eliminating reflections and glares?

Leigh Miller's picture

That was literally explained between 1:00 and 1:17. Specific makeup was applied to the talent in order to add depth, brilliance to the skin which reflects light. That light is then tamed down to an appropriate cinematic level using a polarizer...which reduces reflections etc.

Personally I use banana boat lotion to achieve the same thing...even on white subjects.

Wiki FFS...

Kirk Darling's picture

Phooey. I suspect they were talking specifically about the dark venues used in that particular production. Don't try that at home, kiddies. Your black subjects will not appreciate how they look if you use reflective makeup on them in conventional lighting for conventional portraits. Dark skin does NOT need any special makeup to add anything. Dark skin brings its own "depth and brilliance" to the game--but it takes a photographer with real skill to handle it. Take a look at JoeyL's work with villagers in Africa--no special makeup there, as natural as it gets.

Leigh Miller's picture

hmmm I'm black. Are you?

Kirk Darling's picture

For over 60 years, yes. I've been photographing black people for more than 40 years. My early training included photographing eggs on black velvet and keeping detail in both--which was possible on film materials even 40 years ago--if the photographer knows how to use light.

Leigh Miller's picture

So then you understand that there are many ways to light a subject, some of which you may not agree with. Show us your example (your work) of a better way to do it while maintaining the look and feel of that referenced series?

Kirk Darling's picture

I pointed out an example. That video was talking about how a cinematographer lighted a production for a specific kind of nightclub mood, but it's presented as though it's THE way black people should be lighted, and that everyone else has been doing it wrong all these years.

Leigh Miller's picture

I didn't get that impression at all. It's her methods for lighting dark-skinned subjects for those particular scenes. The lesson does carry over to shooting AA's in other environments etc. though. Study African culture...many tribes would apply light oil to their bodies...Egyptians too. Guess why?

William Howell's picture

I’m interested in this for my subjects. What do you mean Banana Boat, which product from Banana Boat and what effect does it give you?

Leigh Miller's picture

Just Google it man....it's a pretty popular suntan lotion.

I find it adds a nice sheen/reflective quality to darker shades of skin. Particularly with us so-called AA's, typical studio lights "can" render our skin flat.

Kirk Darling's picture

Reflective makeup? No. Just no. Well, maybe if you intend to use purple light.

It is a recent myth that "Kodak would check the color accuracy of their film against pictures of women called Shirley cards."

That's just false. I suspect someone who was totally ignorant of color film formulation saw a Shirley card and made up a story about it.

First, the Shirley card did not even appear until the 1950s. It was used as a reference for consumer color print labs using Kodak color printers, not for film production.

Notice I said "print"--I didn't even include color transparency material, because Shirley cards were only used in printing. Notice I also said "Kodak"--it had nothing to do with GAF, Agfa, Ansco, Fuji, and other companies in various countries producing color film over the last 75 to 100 years. Nor did the movie industry use Shirley cards.

The film scientists of all those companies used highly controlled color patches and measured the color accuracy of film by the numbers. It wasn't a matter of reproducing a caucasian woman's skin, it was a matter of reproducing all colors accuracy.

The largest single customer for American film manufacturers was the US governent, which demanded accuracy of ALL colors, particularly for reconnaissance imagery intended to detect enemy camouflage, deception, and concealment efforts, where slight variations of green or brown made the difference between fake and real.

For sure, Fuji wasn't using Kodak Shirleys.

I've been photographing black people for more than 40 years. For a long time now, films have been able to capture the dynamic range of black skin shadows and white skin highlights, as long as the photographer didn't make the lighting too contrasty.

And that's the basic secret--keep the lighting contrast low. There are some other tricks with short-dynamic range materials (I'm looking at you, Kodacolor), such as placing the darker skin subjects closer to the light. I guess they don't teach young photographers anymore how to shoot an egg on black velvet and keep detail in both the egg and the velvet.

Nicole York's picture

Great info, Kirk, thanks for sharing!

William Howell's picture

I’m glad I didn’t know about the “problem” of photographing black people when I shot this guy. If I had have known that there was such a thing it would have screwed with my thinking, you know over thinking things.

Leigh Miller's picture

His skin looks pretty flat....

Know what, you should check out Dallas Logan's work. He can shoot dark skin like nobody else I know of.

I seems counter intuitive to use CPL filter to reduce reflections, and yet add reflections with shiny makeup, where did I get it wrong?
Thanks!