Professional Photographer Magazine Web Exclusives

Book Review: "Skin" by Lee Varis

By Betsy Finn

As portrait and wedding photographers, it's important we understand how to retouch our subjects’ skin in a realistic manner, and that we understand the concepts behind achieving believable skin tone. "Skin: The Complete Guide to Digitally Lighting, Photographing, and Retouching Faces and Bodies," by Lee Varis, is a book that sets out to help photographers achieve this goal.

201104we_skin-lee-varis.jpg

While Varis covers the techniques he uses to achieve a color balanced workflow (and how to get realistic color), he does note that “accurate color is often boring color … most people say they want ‘accurate’ color, but what they prefer (and what clients buy) is ‘pretty’ color.”

While the writing was somewhat technical, I stayed interested and followed along easily. If you’re the type who learns best by doing rather than just reading about something, you will find Varis’ companion website resources to be invaluable. Varis has graciously made available a number of image files that he uses as examples in the book, so you can experiment with the techniques yourself after reading how Varis achieves a particular look. Varis’ website also offers video and PDF tutorials, which may be helpful if you need further instruction.

The book includes a review of the basics in order to set a good foundation for Varis’ theories on color managing skin tones, but unlike some other books I’ve read, this book was able to do so without losing my interest.

I appreciated Varis’ discussion of the digital zone system, managing skin tones via RGB and CMYK, and how he uses the eyedropper tool to gauge what specific adjustments need to be made to an image. As he notes in the text, the eyes tend to compensate for adjacent colors, so relying on hard numbers in addition to your intuition is the best way to achieve the desired color.

While I’m relatively familiar with the inner workings of Photoshop, Varis did introduce me to some advanced techniques using adjustment layers and other options. For instance, I wasn’t aware that the channel mixer has such flexibility under blending options (Varis makes use of “blend if” quite a bit for fine tuning color).

The most helpful sections of Varis’ book, for me, were on retouching skin and repairing skin texture, as well as repairing the color of an individual’s skin (taking into consideration the subject’s ethnicity, as well as cultural views about ideal skin tones). I found it particularly interesting to discover that some of Varis’ clients asked him to retouch their images not to reflect reality, but to enhance or fall in line with a particular cultural bias.

“Skin” (2nd Ed., Wiley, $39.99) is a valuable resource for any photographer. For more information, visit the companion site

Betsy Finn, Cr.Photog., CPP, has a portrait studio in Dexter, Michigan (BPhotoArt.com); she shares tips and ideas for photographers at LearnWithBetsy.com.