Working on Skin Qualifiers

Skin qualification has been one of the more challenging skills to develop along my journey in color grading. The one thing that separates beginner to intermediate in my opinion is the ability to separate the skin tones and apply the grade to suit the look you want on your images.

Over the past year working with colorists in grading sessions on films and commercials I’ve worked on has taught me a lot about the process: that it isn’t easy and that it does require a good amount of skill. I recently worked on a tiny project where I got to practice more of this skill.

This project was shot on an Arri Alexa Mini with Arri Log-C color space, using DaVinci Resolve 16. The first image is a simple color space conversion from Arri Log C to Rec.709.

My current preference is to use a base LUT that is somewhat neutral (Rec.709 or a film emulation within Resolve) and build a look from there, versus relying on creative LUTs that you can purchase on the internet that apply different types of looks without any real skill involved. I spent a few years randomly scrolling through creative LUTs and picking ones without any real rhyme or reason, just thinking ‘I guess it works for this image.’ After some time, I really started dreading this process and started to try to look at reference images that had similar color tones that I could create in the grade.

The next step is I applied the standard Rec.709 LUT from Resolve to the image. This applies contrast and saturation. But you can clearly see that the windows are now way overexposed and need to be fixed.

With a power window, I selected the window part of the frame and lowered the exposure to balance the image.

Some tutorials I’ve seen say to balance the overall image first which I would normally do, but this time I did it out of order to see what would happen and it was fine. The next step was to lower the overall exposure. This is simply where taste comes into play. Some people would have been happy with the previous image’s exposure, but after studying certain images I like, I’ve found I prefer lower exposure on the overall image to give a more ‘cinematic’ feel. This may sound completely subjective, but when comparing the parade waveform of the image below with some other images I referenced, the exposure is close.

Now for the skin qualification, the most important part of the process in my opinion. I spent a long time trying to figure out hacks to dial in skin qualification after years of having messy qualifiers. My experience working in color sessions with professional colorists is that it really is a skill – there is no substitution for simply working in whichever color suite you’re working in and continually practicing separating out the skin tones. I wish there was an easier way, like an automated tool, but there isn’t.

After the skin was qualified, I then applied a warm pastel look that I thought suited the image. Again, this step is completely up to taste. Since this was my project, I was following my own direction and aesthetic preference. I thought the warm pastel on the white walls would add a nice touch of warmth based on the fact that it was a scene where it was a sunny day, plus an element like the pink teacup help give the scene a bit of warmth overall.

I tried one other look just for fun. The blue/orange look is such a popular look that I always just try applying it on images to see how it works out. This was just a test. You’ll see I pushed it a bit too much in this image as you can see the qualifier on camera right on her forehead start to pick up a bit of the blue. A little more finesse would have to be applied to the qualifier if I wanted to use this look. Luckily, this was not the look I was going for.