Tips for Cell Phone Pictures of your Multiracial Family | Guest Blogger Nikki Dukes

By Nikki Dukes of Purple Lemon Photography

Many families who are brought together through adoption or fostering are multiracial families; and certainly, there are many other families who are multiracial as well or families who simply have a range of skin tones. 

Sometimes I’ve read comments of fellow adoptive parents apologizing for the photos of their kids on social media. Perhaps one kid’s fair face was so bright it looked like a lightning bolt, or another’s was so dark there were no facial features in the shadows. 

Good news: Knowing one simple thing about how cameras work can help even your simple snapshots on your phone work for everyone’s skin. 

Cameras are dumb. Even in a smartphone, the camera is dumb. It knows the same thing that all other cameras know, too. They only really know how to do one thing on their own, and this one thing is what I emphasize at all the photo classes I teach. 

Their one amazing skill is: to make everything gray. Nice and even and mid-range all the way through. A balanced photo of middle-of-the-road gray. Have a darling little one with chocolate-colored skin and afro puffs? Don’t care. The camera wants her to be gray. Blonde little tot running around your ankles with hair as fair as sunshine? Don’t care. The camera wants her to be gray, too. Bright sunny day? Gray. Snow? Gray. Nighttime? Gray. 

We don’t often notice this out of context because our eyes can compensate, but then those photos come up of our cocoa-kiddos on a sunshine-y day and we’ve lost the luster in their eyes and smile gracing their lips.

The great news for families with mixed skin tones is that dark and light mixed together is gray, so as long as your surroundings are in the middle, most of the time you’ll be golden!

Here are a few easy ways to trick that camera and create photos that work for all of your skin tones.

  1. Find shade and have your family stand there. In an ideal situation, find shade near a building with a middle-tone color. Most buildings are not white or black, so the overall color of the wall becomes exactly what the camera wants to see (brown, tan, gray, beige, etc.).  

Bonus: If your crew stands where they are at the edge of the shade, some light will bounce around and jump back into their faces, keeping detail but not washing out or making squinty eyes. 

  1. Don’t position the sun behind your family. It makes light hair lighter and faces with darker skin appear darker. Since the sun isn’t hitting their face, it’s in the shadow. Without adding a professional flash, trying to get a sunset photo of a family with darker skin is just going to look like silhouettes.
  1. Watch out for bright backgrounds or really dark backgrounds around your home. Like windows, blacktops driveways, or even just the lights that are on in the room you are in.

WINDOWS | You’ve seen photographers use windows, sure; but we don’t often photograph towards the windows because the camera sees something bright and makes everything else, like your kids, really dark so it can make gray overall. When photographing, stand close to the window and look back at what it lights up: your kids!

DOORWAYS | Classic Easter or first day of school pictures often have kids at the front door. Perhaps your front door is like mine. The sun shines right into my front door, so going outside usually makes a bright background on our concrete steps and squinty eyes, but if we photograph from the inside looking out, it’s a silhouette. What to do?Open the front door (we have a storm door, but you don’t have to). My kids stand inside, their backs against the open door.  This lets the light stay at one side and come across all of them and the camera can do its job to keep it all even. 

Bonus: Place the child with darkest skin closest to the light.

Cell phone images provided by Nikki Dukes

EXTRA LIGHTS | Often small changes in the camera angle can eliminate the window in the background, the light up on the ceiling, or even a reflection on a surface that’s really bright. By minimizing the brightness of the scene, you can let the subject get brighter. 

  1. Get rid of the background altogether. Squeezing in close together and only having a mix of skin tones can usually create a pleasing tone overall. 
Cell phone images provided by Nikki Dukes

Bonus: If you are a family with only one family member whose skin varies from the rest, it might be a good choice to put them towards the middle of the frame just to keep it a bit more even overall. 

Cell phone images provided by Nikki Dukes

Let’s put it into action! Here’re two normal scenarios with a problem and an easy solution:

OUTDOOR | Soccer Game just finished. Bright sunny afternoon. Let’s grab a shot of the kids and Dad. One kid is red and sweaty from playing, but tan from playing outside a lot. One kid has dark skin, and Dad is pale from working inside all day.  Just standing together and smiling doesn’t work. Bright sun on the bright grass and the soccer player’s red face looks almost purple, and the darker complected child lost facial detail. But if everyone sits on the grass and huddles together you can eliminate the bright sun in the sky or reflected on the grass. Better yet- head to the shade of the bathroom with the gray-brick walls. 

Cell phone images provided by Nikki Dukes
Cell phone images provided by Nikki Dukes

INDOOR | Piles of kids are sitting on the couch for a cousin photo before everyone leaves after a birthday party. But the couch is in front of the big window.  If you tilt the camera down towards the couch instead of straight at it, you can reduce the amount of light from the window and keep the kids nice and bright. 

Cell phone images provided by Nikki Dukes
Cell phone images provided by Nikki Dukes

It’s likely you’ve even been trying to solve some of these simple lighting problems recently during your work-from-home season as we work to keep our families safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hopefully these tips can help, too, with your video chats and conference calls. 

Hopefully, these tips will help you to capture the life of your family together and feel comfortable presenting them to the world without apology. 

Nikki Dukes, CPP, owner of Purple Lemon Photography, located in St. Louis, Missouri is a wedding and portrait photographer. As an adoptive mama, Nikki enjoys supporting the Found Families community as both a photographer and fellow parent through her photography and writing.