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Book Review: Skin: The Complete Guide to Digitally Lighting, Photographing, and Retouching Faces And Bodies 2nd Edition by Lee Varis

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What is the color of skin? That is the question that Skin: The Complete Guide to Digitally Lighting, Photographing, and Retouching Faces And Bodies tries to answer. Lee Varis, a Hollywood photo-illustrator who has been involved with commercial photography for the past 30 years explains the techniques of capturing of human skin in all of its variety — young, old, male, female, color, with makeup, without, and even tattooed skin.

Skin is more than just a book about skin, it is a technical book about professional digital photography. While it is aimed toward the commercial world of professional shooters, the technical applications are just as valid for fine art photography as well as your own home hobby. The author’s intent is to fill in the rather large holes found in most other books on the subject of people photography.

This is not a book on basic digital photography or on using Photoshop. It is about using photography and Photoshop to learn professional quality techniques for creative images. This second edition has been enhanced to update many techniques and to add new ones because of the new software and the improvements in hardware. Skin is 368 pages and contains eight chapters.

Chapter One, “Digital Imaging Basics, Workflow, and Calibration,” begins with a basic explanation of concepts used throughout the book. These include chips, pixels, dynamic range, and compression. You will also learn about the hardware; such as cameras, memory cards and computers, and software such as Adobe Photoshop and Bridge as well as calibration software to make your screen correctly show your images. This chapter further explores the task of making sure that when you look at the image on the screen, it is the image that is in the graphic image file. Here the author explains workflow, calibration and color management.

Chapter Two, “Lighting and Photographing People,” examines how digital photography is the process of recording the focused light that falls on an image sensor within a camera. You will learn about lighting technology and equipment. You begin with basic portraiture technology and equipment. You then move into the basic setup for portraits and the various lighting techniques. From there you look at more advanced techniques. Within each segment are excellent illustrations that show you how each photo was set up.

Chapter Three, “The Colors of Skin,” is about the variations of skin color. According to Varis, “Most people will say they want ‘accurate’ color, but what they prefer (and what clients buy) is ‘pretty’ color – not wild surrealism, but usually some departure from reality.” You begin with white points, black points, and the points in between. Then you will look at the Zone System and how it takes in contrast and tone. Next you will look at Photoshop’s curves as the primary tool for color and tone manipulation. Finally you will see how to use some other Photoshop techniques to fine tune those skin colors.

Chapter Four, “Tone and Contrast: Color and B+W” will show you that creating a black and white image is more than just mode change. Photoshop provides many different methods for recreating monochrome images. Here you will learn of the types of controls that are available as well as how to apply the black and white tonality to color images as well. You begin by learning how to convert to black and white through several different approaches. Then you will look at some toning effects, and finish up by exploring what a good image development strategy is.

Chapter Five, “Retouching,” explains the techniques that purveyors of commercial photography use to ‘clean-up’ a photo. This can mean anything from removing things from an image, cleaning blemishes, fixing color, and sliming and age restoring techniques. Here you start with basic repair. Then you will learn what to do when the color of an image needs work. You will work with skin correction, beauty retouching, subtle touches, and thinning techniques,

Chapter Six, “Special Effects,” is all about digital trickery. These are techniques are uniquely digital even though they may emulate traditional effects. The kinds of effects that you will work with here include soft focus, film grain, cross-processing and working with tattoos – even faking them.

Chapter Seven, “Preparing for Print” takes your final form of digital image and readies it for the printer. Here you will learn of color management for printing, sharpening and soft proofing. In this chapter you will begin by looking at ways to sharpen your image, color management for your print, soft proofing, desktop printing, and creative print finishing.

Chapter Eight, “Parting Shots,” finishes up the book with some additional food for thought. The author touches briefly on digital workflow, and a short discussion on future developments in digital capture technology.

Skin is a book for someone who is comfortable with both photography as well as their Photoshop skills. This does not mean you have to be an expert in both, but you need to understand your gear as well as be able to work with curves, levels, and other fundamental Photoshop functions.

The book is well written and easy to read and as stated before, Skin is meant to fill in the gaps that are not sufficiently addressed with other books on portrait retouching. He also goes beyond the norm and does an excellent job of addressing the tonalities and colors that the human skin can have and he does it in a realistic way – by getting to what the subject wants it to be, not just an exact replication.

I think that Skin is a great reference book that you will go back to often to work out the problems that arise from job to job. If you own the first edition should you purchase this one?  Probably not, but check it out at your local bookstore to be sure. On the other hand if you work with people or portraits and do not own a version of Skin, I think it is one you must have, and so I highly recommend this book.

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About T. Michael Testi

Photographer, writer, software engineer, educator, and maker of fine images.