How I Photograph BIPOC For Portraits And Headshots

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Photography knows no bounds. It is a medium that highlights everything from food to war. Unfortunately, photography has also shown bias in its history. This bias has affected how we photograph BIPOC today and previously. As a photographer, my goal is to show off everyone in their best light; to make my images represent the person standing in front of my lens as realistically as possible. 

My goal with this post is to walk through how my BIPOC clients can look their best in images, and also for other photographers to make tweaks to their process to capture these clients better.

First, a lesson from the dictionaryBIPOC is an acronym that stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.

Next, a quick history lesson.

The Historical Bias of Photography

black photographer sits on stool

When Kodak started producing film at the turn of the 20th century, they had to figure out the chemistry for processing their images and also the physical properties of their camera sensors. At that time, the significant majority of images were of White people. And since major advertising agencies didn’t use BIPOC in their content, Kodak decided to bias their sensors and film chemistry for caucasian skin. 

Photographers starting pushing back in the 1970s and asked for more dynamic range in their camera sensors and with the film chemistry. The reason why? So they could better render dark tones in chocolate for food photography and wood.  It wasn’t until digital photography became the norm in the early 2000s that camera sensors had the dynamic range to accommodate a broader range of tones. 

Unfortunately, the industry is still catching up to capturing BIPOC realistically. One such example was when Annie Leibovitz photographed Simone Biles for the cover of Vogue for their July 2020 issue. Regardless of your stance on whether the photographer should have been Black, Leibovitz’s images of Biles’ did not render her skin in a flattering way. Another example is how Instagram, Snapchat, and even professional photography skin presets and filters are built for lighter skin tones. Note: I don’t use presets or filters. This information was provided by several of my peers who do. 

Changes are happening, and people are becoming more aware. From here on out, I’ll be talking about how BIPOC and photographers can get the best images possible.

Selecting Vendors for BIPOC

Review The Photographer’s Portfolio

What you see is what you get. If you want to know if a photographer can photograph you well, then check their portfolio. Go through their websites and Instagram feeds to learn more about their skillset. Find out if they have images from photographing BIPOC and make sure you’re happy with their output.

Rachel, a cosplayer, says, “I go through their Instagram to see what they post and also to see someone with skin tone similar to mine.”

Ask Them About Photographing BIPOC

Once you’ve selected some potential photographers, get on the phone or Zoom, and ask questions. Check if they have experience photographing BIPOC and if they are confident doing so. Even if you don’t understand their answer, ask what they do specifically for subjects with dark skin tones.

From one of my clients, Latesha, “Just also your willingness to hear my concern and assure me that you would be able to capture us both. It’s important to know that the photographer understands what they’re working with. Sharing that you plan to keep the integrity of the essence of the person and giving them a great shot is important for people of color for sure.”

I was also amazed when she told me, “I literally typed into Google, ‘black photographer Atlanta’ to find you.” Sometimes just a simple Google search to find photographers and vendors who specifically speak about working with BIPOC will tell you about their process and experience.

Find A Hair & Makeup Artist With Experience

Just like photographers, not all hair and makeup artists can stylize BIPOC. Check their portfolios, ask for examples, and ask them directly for their experience. In this instance, I’ve found that HMUAs are best for clients similar to them.

How To Photograph BIPOC

black masters graduation student

Avoid Dark Backgrounds

Putting dark skin tones against dark backgrounds is asking for trouble. Your subject will disappear, and that’s not visually appealing. There is a way around this, though. See the next item!

Use A Hair Light

Also known as “Rim” or an Accent light, a hair light highlights the back edges of your subject’s profile, which helps separate them from the background. It also adds a lot of dimension and shape, making your subject look more three dimensional. You can also color that hair light to contrast with the background.

Light The Subject, Not The Background

Speaking of lighting, if using an off-camera flash, try to light the subject only. Keep that light off that background. This will create a more cinematic look and again help to separate the subject from the background. Grids on your light modifiers will be a huge help.

Embrace Silhouettes

Darker tones (clothing and skin) take light incredibly well. Especially light with color. BIPOC are some of my favorite subjects to photograph as silhouettes because that backlighting wraps around and saturates beautifully. This is a personal aesthetic thing, but I highly recommend trying it.

Compliment The Undertones

BIPOC skin has subtle undertone colors, just like lighter skin. They can either be warm or cool-toned and therefore picking backgrounds and colors that compliment the undertones of their skin well is incredibly important. A trick to find out if your subject’s skin has warm or cool undertones is to look at the underside of their wrists. If their veins are blue, then they have cool undertones. If their veins are green, then they have warm undertones. So for warm undertones, I recommend shooting with brown, gold, red type earth tones (clothing, backgrounds, props, etc.). For complimentary cool undertones, find blue, silver, and purple like water tones.

Use Reflected Or Diffused Light

When shooting with natural light or flash, all skin types look better when the light is softer. That means avoiding direct sunlight. Don’t get me wrong, direct sunlight can look amazing, but it’s harsh. So if photographing with natural light, use a diffuser to soften harsh sunlight or shoot in the shade and find natural reflectors like grey and white walls or concrete ground. If using off-camera flash, use larger modifiers. Dark skin has really rich tones that look stunning with soft light.

black director seated in theater

With Group Photos, Place The Darkest Skinned Person Nearest The Light

This is simple physics. Dark skin tones need more light to appear as bright (not whitewashed) as light skin tones. And the further from the light source, the less intense the light. So, for a BIPOC to be properly exposed next to a caucasian person, they need to be closer to the light source than the lighter-skinned person.

Editing Images of BIPOC

Use The Highlight and Shadow Sliders

Typically, when editing images in Capture One (or Lightroom), I will pull down the highlights for light-skinned subjects. This reduces the shine in their skin. For BIPOC with darker skin tones, I’ll do the opposite. I will raise the highlights to bring out the richness of their skin, and I’ll also raise the shadows a bit to bring out some of the darkest tones. Then I’ll add some contrast to bring back some punch to the images since raising the highlights and the shadows can make the images look soft.

Properly Expose In-Camera First

This is a general rule of photography in general, but it’s critical for BIPOC. It’s a common technique with photographers nowadays to underexpose their image (to protect the highlights in the sky) when captured and then lift the shadows later in their editing software to make their subjects properly exposed. Unfortunately, skin does not handle this kind of manipulation well – dark skin tones especially. It gets ashy and muddled. For this reason, I use a lot of off-camera flash to light my subjects so that I can make the background and my subject properly exposed simultaneously. 

Vy is a content manager for a university and had this to say about headshots she gets from her BIPOC staff, “The honesty and transparency that you want to consider for BIPOC is important. I get a lot of headshots for my surgeons and I cringe when I see the BIPOC surgeons’ headshots. There’s only so much editing I can do before I send it back to say they need new ones. Some of them are too dark, and the background is completely bright.” 

For BIPOC seeking a photographer and for photographers in general, I hope this was educational and helpful. As photographers, it is our job to show our subjects realistically and in their best light. Everyone deserves to look and feel their best. Let’s create images that do exactly that.

A Quick Interview

I also did an interview with Latesha Lynch of Atelier (Instagram Here) talking about many of these topics. A repeat client, Latesha was generous enough to talk about her experiences finding a photographer, her views on BIPOC friendly vendors, and the things she did to help find the right photographer for her.

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