This post is for those of you who know how to use your DSLR in full manual mode.  So if you are confused, let me know at the bottom of this post, so I can make a new tutorial about specific questions that arise! Also note that I am a self taught photographer, so there will be people not agreeing with my “Emily” theories.  I just do what works for me 🙂  So if you like my style, read below!


So many…and I mean SO many people ask me, “what kind of camera do you have?” or, “I need YOUR lens”.  Well everyone, I WISH it was as easy as that, trust me :).  Of course I LOVE my Nikon D700, and I leave my 50mm 1.4 G lens attached for those great shots (dreaming right now of the 80mm 1.4G…sigh…), but unfortunately, some pictures sill need some help.  One common example, (which I will demonstrate on the last image below) when you are shooting a photograph of two people, and they have different skin tones…your camera will adjust the exposure to what you have set your camera to expose to!  So as a mom, we read all the books, practice practice practice…learn full manual mode…get GREAT with full manual mode…tuck our camera in at night and load our photo session of our perfect child into our iMac….36″ screen an all….so we can see our fabulous photography skills in all their glory.  Poof!  The photographs should be PERFECT, right?

Well…right…perfect in the fact that you have exposed correctly (I frequently overexpose 1/3 a stop, I’ll explain below), focused correctly (focus on the closest spot towards you in order for everything behind it to be in focus as well)…have your photograph framed correctly (use the rule of thirds…or break the rule and create your own style, like I like to do) and have your white balance correct.  Those are things that take too much time in post processing and you should aim to get correct to being with.  I can always tell a picture that has been over processed with crazy amounts of actions in Photoshop.  There is no action that can replace the knowledge of how to use your camera correctly and well. That being said, actions are fun, and I use them on certain photos!!  Anytime I want a vintage look, or certain color pop schemes, or rustic looks etc.  It’s fun to make photographs artsy.  But for everyday photography, most parents aim to get clean, clear, crisp photos with perfect skin.  That being said,  some people just have an eye for photography.  Some people see in color schemes..have an eye for color in general, are creative and have experience.  Experience allows you to create a vision of how you like your photographs to look.  Then when you are editing, you have direction.  This all takes natural talent,  practice and time.  Now I’m not saying you have to be “Martha Stewart” creative to take a good photograph.  But to get those creamy skin tones we all want, it’s not as easy as picking up a fancy camera and lens and clicking away.  I sure wish it was!  I could then get my post processing done a lot faster!! 🙂  If you want unedited, mall quality, chain photography photographs, you may as well stop reading.  They are a good example of just clicking a good camera, showing your proofs to you in the store, and not allowing your photographs to be shown in their full potential.  Who wants that?  Not me 🙂 Boring.  Blah…:)

So enough about the blunt reality of needing to know your camera, lets get to the fun stuff! 🙂

I will first talk about how to get great skin tones without needing major editing software.  I will show you a photograph, discuss my settings and tell you what I did to get this photo to look like it is. This picture pretty much looked like this straight out of camera (SOOC) with a few tweaks. I will use this term a lot so plant it in your brain 🙂 I will use photos from the shoot I am currently working on because the settings are all fresh in by brain, and he’s so cute I need to look at him again 🙂

Now this picture could of been REALLY bad.  The subject has olive skin, the walls were a green shade and he was wearing a yellow shirt.  Hello possible skin color nightmare due to color reflections (that’s how my brain works, seeing everything in color schemes, which happened after training it too. I drive my husband nuts talking about color schemes and possibilities as we walk outside:))! However, because of the settings and strategies stated below, we can see his perfect skin and complexion without it turning out green 🙂  

Here the deal with the photo above:

Shot with: Nikon D700

Lens: Nikor 50mm 1.4G

Shutter Speed: 1/250

ISO: 800 (I can do this in my camera without it getting noisy (grain) )

FStop: 1.8



When I first started photography, I’m embarrassed to say, I only shot in Jpeg.  Something about shooting in RAW scared me to death.  So if you are an early on client…sorry 🙂  I always wondered why some of my photographs had funny color hues and casts, why I could not edit them without them looking over processed etc.  Now if you don’t have RAW processing software, which is easy to download with a simple Google search, or have no time to sit and tweak all the settings that in Jpeg mode your camera does for you, I can see why you would shoot in Jpeg.  Honestly it takes me forever shooting in RAW when it comes to editing, only because Im a perfectionist.  It was a TON faster shooing Jpeg.  I still sometimes shoot my family in Jpeg because I don’t care about the photographs looking totally perfect, I just want to capture the moment.  Here are the reasons I shoot in RAW for my clients: 1. I can adjust the color temperature and the white balance when post processing. 2. RAW files have WAY more data that Jpegs.  They just do.  So we have much more wiggle room in the color schemes to make adjustments. Most photographers will manually set their white balance to achieve perfect color SOOC, but there are times when we just can’t or didn’t or forgot to change our settings, etc.  Kids move FAST, and changing the white balance may take too long and honestly can just be unrealistic…so in those cases, AUTO is my best friend.  But then I may need to change the color temperature after a shoot to make the skin tones look the color I want.  So for the photo above, you are asking, did I touch the color temperature.  The answer is…..no!  I had the white balance set off of his skin to start this shoot (cloudy with the reds bumped down for his skin color), we were in great light, and I didn’t have to touch the temperature.   Remember this tip however, as the next photo I had to mess with the color curves a LOT…which I could do without it looking fake…because I shot in RAW!


Tip 2. LIGHT

I can’t stress this enough.  Light is my best friend.  Thats an understatement.  I do not use false light.  I just don’t.  Some photographers can use lighting and work in Lightroom or Photoshop and make their images look great, I prefer to stay natural and soft.  That’s just me.

With light we talk about the quantity of light and the quality of light.  Now I use the Nikon D700 so if I were to ever be in a low light situation, I could bump my ISO up to almost 6400 without grain.  That light sensor ability is amazing. I HEART my D700.  My old camera did not have that capability, so I would of had to use a tripod to keep my shutter speed low enough to let in light.  Blah to tripods.  Hence why I don’t own a zoom. I like to be in the action and create my photograph on real life situations and not force boring mall poses where they have their tripods set up and have people come in and click away…again nothing against large chain mall photography studios…they have their place….just not my thing 🙂

Let’s start with the quantity of light. You need it. Period.  Light picks up color as well. You don’t need a ton, but enough to not need a flash, and enough to be able to hand hold your camera and not get camera shake. It can be hard, let me tell ya!  That’s why when clients offer me coffee at my AM shoots I have to say no…even though it kills me….camera shake is a BAD BAD thing 🙂

Now, the most important one is the quality of light.  For fun, grab your child or your hubby…or wife…put them by a window.  Have them face it.  Look how the light hits their face.  It’s bright.  Now move away from the window, still facing it.  It’s softer. Soft light makes for soft skin.  A BIG BIG BIG mistake we all make it to have too harsh of light.  Harsh light causes shadows when over your head (no mid day shoots for me unless we are in the shade), you can see every detail in the skin, veins, blemishes, etc. If you are one of my clients, you have seen me with my frosted shower curtain.  If in your home we are in a room without a thin shade, up goes the shower curtain!  And in enters out perfect, diffused, soft light! Soft light makes for soft skin. Easy. Now, go outside and look at your husbands or wife’s or child’s skin in the harsh light.  If you are alone, look at your hand.  Our hands coloring is very close to our faces.  I do this often during outdoor shoots.  So don’t think I’m crazy when I’m pulling my hands in an out of the light :).  Move from the harsh light into a shadow then keep walking.  Now walk back.  You will notice that the light is the softest right before you enter the harsh light again.  This is call the the “edge of shade” concept. So when you see me walking around and talking about shadows, now you know why!  For soft skin you want to be in the shadow close to the light.  Same concept as indoors.  This will give you soft skin. SO EASY!!!  Who knew we could all have “Dove” skin by just changing the light!



I could write a book about exposure, but I have an 18 month old son running around me and a dog begging for food, and a husband…well being sweet, so I can’t sit here too much longer 🙂  NEVER underestimate good exposure.  It’s not easy, and it takes practice.  I’m always learning and reading about exposure.  It just takes time to learn.  If you can master exposure, you are one step ahead of most intermediate level photographers.  If you shoot in RAW, you can manipulate your exposure, but you would rather not have to.  Trust me.  So learn how to get good exposure.  How does this relate to skin tones you may ask.  WELL…my little self taught trick…which I’m now giving away…is…get ready…I OVEREXPOSE!  Only by 1/3 a stop. Don’t tell, but I do.  Here’s why.  When you look at skin thats bright, it looks smooth.  Your brain confuses the brightness as smoothness.  At least my brain does. I’m not talking about direct light here.  I’m talking about exposure.  Set by you in manual mode. So this can be confusing.  Don’t confuse it with direct light.  When I overexpose, my images have softer looking skin.  I do not use this all the time.  You have to really know your camera, know how it reacts in light, know how it reacts to color, etc.  I never raise it more than 1/3 a stop.  Then my white balance gets all crazy.

Keep in mind I’m shooting in camera RAW.  I would never do this shooting in Jpeg.  In camera RAW I bring back the blacks to make up for my overcompensation, which does not affect the skin. The above picture I overexposed and in the RAW menu I elevated the blacks to compensate for it which then kept the other colors rich.

Now those are the VERY BASIC ways I get a creamy skin tone without having to get all crazy in Photoshop.  In the photo above, I also ran an unsharp mask layer in Photoshop then erased it from the skin and background. That’s what made his eyes pop! This photo is also hyper-sharpened for the web.  When uploading images to the web, you need to sharpen them first, even if it looks goofy 🙂


Ok so there are the basics.  Now I’m human.  I don’t always get it right.  The light is not always right or my settings are not always set quickly enough to capture the moment.  The photo below was a moment where the little guy fell asleep.  We did not want to move him and we were not standing in the best spot for the photograph.  I needed to click it fast.  Well, my camera settings exposed off of his skin, leaving his mom’s too dark and too orange.  This is something that is VERY VERY common and difficult to avoid.  When you have a situation where the two skin tones are different, your camera will expose off of where you set it to.  This situation may happen to you all the time and it scares you to try and fix it, so you say to yourself…how in the WORLD do all the professional photographers get my skin to look like magazine quality?!  Why can’t I do that too?  So you give up and just go to a professional photographer and stop taking all your own pictures, or just assume they will always look like amateur photos, but just accept it, because you are indeed an amateur.  Then you pass out all the professional photos to you family and say, “I should of been in a Dove commercial”…they don’t need to know the small detail about getting a computer facial 🙂

Well moms and dads…you do need someone to take your picture, since you can’t take it of yourself of course, but you DON’T need to give up hope that your everyday photos can’t look BETTER! They can, and it’s EASY…with practice of course 🙂

So I have decided to show you a before and after shot and “teach” you how to get this affect.  At least I will try 🙂 All it requires is that you have some sort of editing program.  Photoshop elements, Lightroom, etc. You don’t need full Photoshop like I have to fix a photo. I just have it because I’m supposed to have it 🙂  So below is that photograph I was just discussing.  This one has not been touched.  Not even in the RAW processor.  I did this so you could see where it started to where it ended.  This is a camera RAW photo SOOC. The second one its edited, and heres what I did.

First, take a good look at her skin tones before.  The baby looks great, but could be smoother.  Thats what my camera exposed off of.  We were in too harsh of light so I will need to tweak.  I just wanted to capture the moment, and I knew since I was in camera RAW I could do some editing. I use matrix metering for those of you who are photographers and are wondering.  I will occasionally use spot, but it would of made this even worse.

Steps I took in Photo Shop:

1. Opened image in RAW.

2. I upped my fill light to +5 to bring more light onto moms face. It also lightened the babies face, and I liked the affect.

3. I DECREASED the clarity to -20.  This is my secret, well not anymore :), weapon to soft skin.  Skin looked soft. Perfect.

4. I opened into Photo Shop

5. Once in PS, I opened up color curves.  I wanted to get rid of that orange that appeared over moms face from improper exposure measurements. Because it was an extra layer, I was able to erase the color correction from everywhere I didn’t need it corrected.  Perfect. Mom looks normal again.  Phew!  Thank goodness 🙂 I also messed with all the color curves to make everything blend well.  Color curves are your friend.  Seriously, learn them.

6. Time to bring back some clarity since I got rid of it all in RAW.  So an overall unsharp layer.  Wow my skin looks bad again!  Never never sharpen skin.  Thats why you do all this in layers.  Here is a good place to learn about layers and layer masks. It takes time to learn but it’s important. So back to sharpening.  Skins bad, so what do you think we should do?  Erase it off the skin!  Yay! Since it was a layer, and not your main image, the original RAW image is still behind the layer and it’s brought back to life when you erase the layer off the top! Yay! Oh…I also used the gaussian blur tool throughout this on the skin.  If you blur the skin, it looks soft as well.  Just be careful not to touch the hair or eyes, etc.

7. The picture looked CLOSE to the above one, but I still wanted some more soft light.  So I used a soft cream light filter from Florabella Collections.  I like an edge burn, so I ran an edge vignette (you can find them free all over.  Google free vignette and someones almost always having a special.  Yay for free!).  I then erased it off the areas that I wanted open.  You can see the light above their heads.  I had erased if off of there to have soft light in the center and dark around the outside.

9.  Save as Jpeg!!!  You cant to anything with NEF (raw) files.


Ok so there you have it!  Let me stress its very important to try to get a good picture SOOC.  You really need to learn your camera and practice in different lights.  My biggest tricks are shooting in camera RAW, using diffused natural light, or right in the shadow past the harsh light. Overexposing 1/3 a stop, lowering the clarity once in RAW, keeping my lens wide open (Fstop 1.8-2.6),, using the gaussian blur tool if needed and really working color curves.  It sounds complicated but with lots of practice, you can do it too.

Now people know why it takes me time to edit.  I really enjoy doing this, and take my time editing.  Newborns take the longest, as I strive to get their skin to look perfect.  Soft newborn skin is so precioius. I want my photographs to really look like what I envisioned for my clients.  I don’t like to rush just to crank out photos.  That’s why I limit my photo shoots each month.  I want to make sure you get more than you pay for.  Like light, quality is a cornerstone in my photography. I try to set myself apart from chain storefront names, and I hope that comes through!

I hope you got at least one trick you can use in your everyday photography! Remember, it takes LOTS of practice, and LOTS of patience.  It’s a lifelong journey that this self taught photographer is still on!

Please let me know if you have any questions about anything above.  I’d love to start a question and answer forum below as I’m sure many people have the same questions.  Also, note that this blog was meant for intermediate level photographers.  I plan on doing more beginner level tutorials for self taught people like myself :).  Free advice was given to me, and it’s time I pay it forward! I’d love to help in anyway I can.  Let me know any good topics you would like to learn for my next tutorial blog!!!  Also, just let me know here on my blog page if you like me doing these.  I want to make sure my followers enjoy them 🙂