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35. Elements Tutorial: Skintones by the Numbers

Editing skin tone in Photoshop Elements can correct unsightly color issues in your photos. This tried & true method for correcting skin tones gives you objective measurements to help you know you’ve done it right. And while the technique isn’t new, I updated this tutorial in 2016 to reflect the newest best practices for your edits!

The most important tool Elements gives us to correct skintones is the Info panel, which lets us view color measurements.  To view your Info panel, go to the Window Menu and click on Info.

The Info panel looks like the screen shot below, when visible.  If the top left quadrant of the Info panel doesn’t display “RGB Color”, select it by clicking on the arrow next to the name of that quadrant.  As you move your cursor over your image, the Red, Green & Blue fields will reflect color measurements for the pixels you are hovering over.

For best results when measuring colors, use  your Color Picker tool (the Eyedropper) to hover. Set its sample size to a 5×5 average, and set Sample to All Layers when measuring.

Go ahead and give this a try, now that you’ve got it all set up.  Move your cursor around and examine the measurements that appear in the Info panel.

Skin Tone in Photoshop Elements: What do the Numbers Mean?

Let’s take this photo as an example.  Start on a photo whose overall white balance is good, like this one. The color issues come from the orange dress that is reflecting onto her skin face and neck.

 

The measurements for the pixels at the end of each arrow are in this table:

 

 
RGB Numbers
Description
Point 1Red: 226
Green: 197
Blue: 183
Skin tone & exposure pretty good
Point 2Red: 156
Green: 95
Blue: 67
Skin underexposed in shadows with strong orange cast
Point 3Red: 221
Green: 162
Blue: 130
Skin exposed well with orange reflecting up from dress

When viewing skin tone in Photoshop Elements, these relationships should always be true:

  • Red is always greater than green. Green is always greater than blue.
  • The higher the numbers, the lighter the colors.  See how low the values are on point 2, in the shadows?  RGB numbers run on a scale from 0-255, with 0 being the lowest and 255 the highest.

Whenever red=green=blue, you have a neutral.  Here are examples of neutrals:

  • Black: Red 0, Green 0, Blue 0
  • White: Red 255, Green 255, Blue 255
  • Dark gray: Red 50, Green 50, Blue 50
  • Light gray: Red 175, Green 175, Blue 175

Colors represented by unequal amounts of red, green and blue are, well, colors.  They aren’t neutral shades of gray.  To understand what the measurements mean, you first have to understand that each color, as measured in Elements, has an opposite.

For example, blue and yellow are opposites and are inverse to each other.  At Point 2 above, Blue measures 79.  As its inverse, Yellow would be 176 (or 255-79).  So the lower Blue is, the higher Yellow is.  And the lower Yellow is, the higher Blue is.  These 3 color pairs have the same inverse relationship:

Red vs Cyan

Green vs Magenta

Blue vs Yellow

Now that this makes sense (it does make sense, right?), we can make another observation about the numbers in the screen shot above.  Blue is much lower at Points 2 and 3 than at 1.  So yellow is much higher.  And given that Red is the largest number at each of these points, when we combine the Red with the larger than normal amount of Yellow, we get Orange.  Which is exactly what our eyes see.

In this photo, the orange color cast is quite obvious and the RGB numbers merely confirm what our eyes see.  Using the Info panel’s numbers is especially helpful for photos where you know the skintones are off, but aren’t quite sure why.  Unfortunately, problems aren’t always as obvious as they are in this photo!

Once you’ve used the numbers to identify what needs to be fixed, use one or more Levels adjustment layers to fix the affected areas.  For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to assume that Point 1 needs no edits.

To correct the area around Point 2, I need to lighten it and remove the excess Yellow.  Using a Levels adjustment layer, I move the middle slider of the RGB channel to the left.  Moving this slider to the left brightens a photo, and moving it to the right darkens a photo.

Next, on the Blue channel, I move the middle slider to the left to increase Blue and decrease Yellow. When adjusting the individual color channels in Levels, moving the middle slider always increases the color that the channel is named after (Red, Green or Blue).  Moving the middle slider to the right always increases that color’s opposite.  These are my Levels adjustments for Point 2.

 

I tweak both sliders until I am satisfied with the appearance of the dark, shadowed, orange-y area of her skin and finish by using the layer mask to constrain the edits just to this area.

For Point 3, the exposure is pretty good, so I only need to correct the orange color cast.  I do this on a 2nd Levels adjustment layer, moving the middle slider of the Blue channel to the left.  And I finish by constraining the effects of this layer with a layer mask also.

My layer masks for the above Levels edits look like this:

 

After these edits, you can see the following changes in my numbers:



 
RGB Numbers Before Edits
RGB Numbers After Edits
Point 1Red: 226
Green: 197
Blue: 183
Red: 229
Green: 203
Blue: 190
Point 2Red: 156
Green: 95
Blue: 67
Red: 178
Green: 125
Blue: 102
Point 3Red: 221
Green: 162
Blue: 130
Red: 224
Green: 170
Blue: 147

 

Here is a Before and After comparing the changes after correcting the skin tone in Photoshop Elements.  Note that the shadows are lighter in the After and the orange tones are minimized on the bottom half of her face and her neck.  I could do a lot more to tweak the final photo, but this tutorial is plenty long enough as it is!

When correcting skin tone in Photoshop Elements, start by reading the color measurements at several points of your image.  If you want to lighten darker parts of your image, start by increasing the middle slider on the RGB color channel of a Levels layer.  Do this selectively, using the layer mask, to equalize lightness around the subject.

To correct the color channels, it will take experimenting and practicing.  If blue happens to be larger than green, add green/reduce magenta and/or decrease blue/add yellow with the appropriate color channels.  After that, explore the R to G to B proportions of various skin points, and try to equalize those proportions throughout the image.  For example, if green is 15 higher than blue at a good point, try to get the same 15 point spread throughout the image.

Do you get the feeling that this iceberg is much huger than the tip you just explored? Oh yes, it is.  But I think this is plenty for one article!

35. Elements Tutorial: Skintones by the Numbers was last modified: July 1st, 2016 by Erin Peloquin

14 Comments

  1. Leslie
    Posted on February 5, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    OMG. Thanks so much. I think I have a much better grasp. However the real test will be when I actually try to use it. Yea!!!

  2. Joyce
    Posted on February 8, 2013 at 10:34 am

    Erin, Finally got a chance to read this tutorial. FANTASTIC!! This makes so much sense and I love how you explain it. I’m going to have to bite the bullet and by flawless. Thank you so much.

    • Erin Says :
      Posted on February 8, 2013 at 10:35 am

      Thanks Joyce! I am so glad I could help!

  3. Cary Says :
    Posted on April 14, 2013 at 9:51 pm

    Thanks for the tutorial, this is something I struggle with..I have a few other questions, 1. I’m not seeing the change in numbers in the screen shot above..the second one is the same set of numbers as the first? Is this correct?
    2. When you make the change on the rgb, does it stay when you change the blue # or do you duplicate and then switch to blue? This is confusing to me..if I make a change on the blue layer in PSE 7 it seems that all my #’s change…is this right?
    Any feedback/help would be appreciated! I always appreciate your tutorials, this one just has me scratching my head working through it!

    • Erin Says :
      Posted on April 15, 2013 at 9:13 am

      Hi Cary. After a recent upgrade, my graphic for the screen shot was pulling from the wrong place. I changed it, and you should see the before and after values now. Thanks for pointing that out. And yes, it can be that adjusting one color channel can change the others as well.

      Thanks,
      Erin

  4. rebecca
    Posted on October 7, 2013 at 6:48 am

    I trip up here:
    For best results when measuring colors, select your Color Picker tool (the Eyedropper), set the sample size to a 5×5 average, and set Sample to All Layers when measuring.

    When I click the color picker tool in the info screen I only get the option to select RGB/Web/etc. and not the option to select 5×5 and all layers. Are you referring to another color picker tool? Or where do I access those options with the CP tool? Thanks so much. I am trying to master WB and it is so hard for me.

    • Erin Peloquin Says :
      Posted on October 8, 2013 at 1:05 pm

      Hi Rebecca. I am referring to the eyedropper in the tool box on the left. You can use the search box on my blog to find more info about the various tools. Thanks for reading my blog!

  5. Kandice Haney Says :
    Posted on April 29, 2014 at 1:14 pm

    Just wondering how I would use the mask layer in Photoshop Elements 8?? I understand how layer masks work, but not sure if I can use it in Elements.

    • Erin Peloquin Says :
      Posted on May 1, 2014 at 2:40 pm

      Hi Kandice. I have lots of tutorials on this blog about layer masks. Use the search box on the left of the website – you can use masks in Elements 8.

  6. nan
    Posted on May 28, 2014 at 1:17 pm

    This info was extremely helpful and valuable. Explained in an easy to grasp manner. Thank you!

  7. monica holmes
    Posted on June 2, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    Thank you so much for this blog! This helped a ton!

  8. CraftCrave | DigiFree | CraftCrave Says :
    Posted on June 30, 2016 at 3:19 am

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  9. Marisa Franca @ All Our Way Says :
    Posted on July 2, 2016 at 2:55 pm

    I’m hoping you’re going to give tutorials for Photoshop. I have the CC LR and PS.

    • Erin
      Posted on July 3, 2016 at 8:51 am

      I can make those if you’d like, Marisa! This one works exactly the same way in Photoshop. And this tutorial shows you how I do it in Lightroom. Also, didn’t you purchase my Lightroom class? It goes into detail about skin tone. Let me know if you have any questions.

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