A New light: How cinematographers are celebrating black skin

Let’s face it. When we watch movies or check out new TV series’ we instantly think of the film industry as being a perfect place full of harmony. Unfortunately, in reality, the industry is far from this and, whilst progress has been made in ensuring that actors and actresses of different ethnicities are treated equally, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Recently, actors and actresses of colour and in minority groups have been gaining the recognition that they deserve for their talents. At the 2017 Oscars an actor of colour was nominated in every acting category which was a massive step up from the previous. Even more recently at the Emmys Lena Waithe became the first black woman to ever win an Emmy for Comedy writing.

Lena Waithe recently became the first black woman to receive an Emmy for comedy writing.

With recognition of black actors now moving in the right direction, more emphasis is now being placed on the films and TV series themselves and how actors of colour are portrayed to us on the screen. For years the priority has been on making white actors look their best which has meant black actors have been pushed aside.

However many cinematographers are switching their attention to black actors and are using lighting techniques to ensure they get equal treatment and look their best on screen.

One of the cinematographers that has come to light is Ava Berkofsky who has given the HBO series Insecure a more cinematic look and made the actors look more ‘striking’ for its second season.

Issa Rae

Issa Rae stars in the HBO series Insecure which has been praised for its lighting.

She said ‘‘When I was in film school, no one ever talked about lighting non-white people. There are these general rules about lighting people of color, like throw green light or amber light at them. It’s weird.’


Ava Berkofksy is responsible for the improved lighting on the second series of Insecure.

So, if Berkofsky doesn’t showcase the skin tone of the actors in Insecure through ‘throwing green light or amber light’ on them how does she do it?

She firstly starts off by ‘make[ing] sure the makeup artist uses a reflective base on the skin’ and ensures that she gives the skin something to reflect. This simple step has been used for a while now including in Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta have It. The cinematographer of She’s Gotta have It, Ernest Dickerson said ‘I always made sure that the makeup artists I worked with put a moisturizer on black skin so that we [got] some reflection in there.”

she's gotta have it

Berkofksy uses simple techniques such as ensuring the actors’ have had their faces moisturized, which was also used in Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It.

Berkofksy says “Rather than pound someone’s face with light, [I] have the light reflect off them,” she said. “I always use a white or [canvas-like] muslin, so instead of adding more light, the skin can reflect it.” In Insecure whiteboards with led lights called S2 Litemats were used.

Berkofsky also emphasizes how it’s all about the surface area of the light rather than the amount or intensity and explains how she used a polarizer in front of the lens to shape the light.
She says, “People use them when shooting glass, or cars, or any surface that intensely reflects light. The filter affects how much reflection a window, or any surface has. The same principal works with skin, and this can be a highly effective way to shape the reflected light on an actor’s face.”

By using these techniques Berkofksy creates the desired movie-like atmosphere to truly showcase the black actors whilst avoiding the bright garish effects present in series like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
She says; ‘The conventional way of doing things was that if you put the skin tones around 7O IRE it’s going to look right. If you’ve got black skin, [dialing it] up to 50 or 70 is just going to make the rest of the image look weird.’

fresh prince

The lighting used in Insecure produces a very different effect to the garish aesthetic of sitcoms such as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

Whilst Berkofsky has been recognized for her work on Insecure through using these techniques and bringing in her own style, other cinematographers have also been credited with producing work that showcases black actors’ skin.  Bradford Young has worked on Pariah, Middle of Nowhere and Selma and was the first black man to be nominated for Cinematography at the Oscars.

Bradford Young has worked on a number of well-known films and was the first black man to be nominated for cinematography at the Oscars.

Bradford Young

Bradford Young

Matthew Libertaque has also celebrated black actors in Straight Outta Compton saying that one of the reasons he used the ‘Red Epic Dragon’ camera system was because it helped ‘register black skin tones.’
James Laxton chose the Alexa Plus camera for Moonlight as ‘ We wanted to make sure our black-skinned actors would look natural… ALEXA gives a grace and softness to the skin and that was very helpful to us.’



The Cinematographers behind Straight Outta Compton and Moonlight also know how to correctly light black actors’ skin.

It is the Alexa camera that Berkofsky credits with being the step forward for black actors saying, ‘I’d say it turned around in 2010. When the (video camera) Arri Alexa came out, it really changed how people were shooting digital and what kind of results we could get.”

shirley cards

Shirley cards were used to ensure cinematographers could achieve the correct lighting but they only featured white models.

Photo labs established in the 40s and 50s used an image of a white woman, called a Shirley card, to calibrate colours for printing.

Although these are only small moves in the right direction hopefully it is the push that more cinematographers and film makers need to treat black actors equally. The battle to provide the correct lighting for black actors has been one that has gotten off to a slow start.

Until the 1970s, Shirley cards (reference cards used to allow cinematographers to achieve the correct lighting) only featured white models and this only changed when advertisers were struggling to advertise chocolate/wood furniture. However, hopefully with the success of series’ like Insecure and films such as Selma and Moonlight, more cinematographers will set their focus on providing lighting that truly showcases talented black actors.


Text: Chaz Pond

Images: Maarten de Boer- Getty Images, Jason Laveris/Film Magic, Refinery 29, Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, Getty- Contributor, A24, Andrew Toth/Film Mafic, Vox/YouTube, (John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Ar/Getty Images), Issa Rae/Youtube


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