Correct skin tones for print

Updated -

First, the bad news: 99% of all customer complaints about printing are related to skin tones. And it's the subject most likely to make photographers weak in the knees.

Now the good news: Unlike expressions and poses, which are a matter of taste, there's a simple way to measure skin tones and feel confident they're safely in range.

It's Not About Color Accuracy

You're probably shocked to read that headline from the company that provides calibration prints and ICC profiles—and takes pride in offering you the option to print without color correction.

When it comes to skin, however, it's about a pleasing tone. The customer wants to look good, and she's allergic to red.

Measuring Colors

If you're using Photoshop, go to Window > Info to bring up the Info window you see below.

Then, click on the eyedropper tool. If you hover the eyedropper over areas of skin, you'll see the color values in Red, Green, Blue ( RGB—monitor display colors) and in Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, blacK (CMYK—print ink colors).

Stay with us! It's dead simple: Ignore RGB.

90% of all you need to know is that you can never let the yellow % fall below magenta % on anyone's skin unless you're trying to show sunburn.

Your camera may capture images with less yellow than magenta in skin; unfortunately, they won't print without customers complaining if you print them without color correction. Nor will magazines accept them for publication.

Reasonable Magenta and Yellow Values

Exotic flesh tone
C: 19%  M: 33%   Y:50%
Good skin tones
C: 22%   M:44%   Y:57%
Model skin tone
C: 13%   M:28%   Y:33%

A fair-skinned pinkish baby could be as light as 15% magenta, 16% yellow. Most Caucasians fall in the range of 5%–20% more yellow than magenta. A fair-skinned Caucasian adult could be as low as 20% magenta, 25% yellow. A bronzed Caucasian could be as high as 45% magenta, 62% yellow.

We find it's easy to oversaturate African-American skin, so be careful there. Yellow and magenta values should be fairly close. We agree with Lee Varis, in that you might find a yellow bias in African-American skin, which will not look good in print.

Asian and Hispanic skin will typically have 10%–20% higher yellow than magenta.

Too Much Color

In the days of film, we used saturated films like Fuji Velvia for landscapes but less-saturated films for portraits. No one wants their face to go nuclear. If magenta is getting toward 50%, beware of the well-done look.

The Surprising Power of Cyan

On pleasing photos, cyan usually falls between 30%–50% of the magenta value. Less than 30% of magenta makes sunburn; more than 50% of magenta makes makes them ghostly blue.

These three photos have the same yellow and magenta values, only cyan changes. Cyan is 24% of magenta on the left (slightly low), 40% in the center, and 60% on the right (too high).

Too little cyan in skin
C: 6%  M: 25%  Y: 30%
Perfect cyan in skin
C: 10%  M: 25%  Y: 30%
Too much cyan in skin
C: 15%  M: 25%  Y: 30%

Okay, Tell Me How to Fix My Photos the Easy Way!

90% of all skin tone complaints come from magenta values being higher than yellow. It's so common that consumer labs rarely allow you to print without color correction. SmugMug gives you the choice: You can print your photos without any adjustments, or you can easily enable our world-class color correction with a click.

If you use Lightroom, you can download some of these free, skin-specific presets from OnOne. Want to discuss more with the experts? Head over to our Finishing School forum on Dgrin.

Is It Easy to Do with Photoshop?


Yes, and here's how:

Go to Image > Adjustments > Levels. A small window will appear like the one below. Choose the blue channel from the Channel drop-down menu. For input levels, change the center one to 0.90. You'll see your image warm up. (For really red images, you could go to 0.85.) Click OK.

Go to Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation. Choose the red channel from the dropdown-down menu. Shift the slider to -7. Click OK.

That's all there is to it.

Should I Ask About the Less Easy Way to Do It?

Yes, because it's also easy, and you'll delight people with your skin tone mastery.

Go to Image > Mode > CMYK Color.

Now go to Image > Adjustments > Curves. The small window you see below will come up. Choose the yellow channel.

Choose a representative spot of skin, such as the forehead. Move the eyedropper to that patch of skin, hold down Ctrl and Shift (Shift-Command on Mac), and then click your mouse on the skin. The point you see on the line, below, will appear.

(You can configure the eyedropper to sample a 5x5 or 3x3 pixel area to make it representative.)

Even though this shot was taken with a professional camera and good studio lights, with yellow at 18% and magenta at 22%, Kim is bound to think she looks too pale and too pink.

We'll type 30% into the place for output. Then we'll switch to the magenta channel in the drop-down and type 24% in the space for output. Finally, we type 8% for cyan output (33% of the magenta value).

How did we choose those values? They're typical for fair-skinned Caucasians and not too far from the original shot.

Finally, go to Image > Mode > RGB Color. Save.

No skin tone adjustment
C: 6%   M:22%   Y:18%
Tanning salon
Tanning Salon
C: 7%   M:20%   Y:24%
Too much cyan in skin
CMYK Curves
C: 8%   M:24%   Y:30%

Red Spots?

If you still have red issues, we have help.

Thanks to Dan Margulis and Lee Varis for much of the wisdom behind the curves portion of this help section.

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