MEJO 121:Blog Post

Insecure HBO

Lighting Darker Skin Tones

One of my favorite shows on television is “Insecure”. Traditionally, most films and television shows are known for doing a poor job when it comes to lighting black actors and actresses well. However the hit HBO show, “Insecure” is an exception to the rule.

So what’s the secret behind “Insecure” success? How does the hit HBO series make its black actors look so good on camera? How does insecure ensure every cast member looks striking on screen?

The secret, HBO’s cinematographer, Ava Berkofsky. In an interview with Mic, Berksofsky shares best practices for properly lightening black faces.

Ava’s Tips
It’s all about the skin’s reflective !

Ava Berkofsky Photo

1.Make sure the makeup artist uses a reflective base on the skin 
2. Give skin something to reflect
Pro-tip: It’s not the amount of intensity of the light source, it’s the surface area of the light
3. Use a polarizer, which is a filter that goes in front of the lens. 
Pro-tip: This actually works really well when you are lighting with a reflective surface on skin tone, because it can shape the light in a pretty effective way

Ava told Mic that when she was in film school, her professor would teach students to throw blue and amber light onto darker skin actors. However, Ava disagrees. Ava believes that there is not one shade that lights all types of darker skin tones. 

The crew of “Insecure” puts a lot of effort into lighting black people properly because they recognize the importance of representing black culture properly. Insecure does this to send the message that black features don’t just look good but they are good.

In my Mejo 121 course at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, digital storytelling, my professor, Alexis Walker Romero, recognized that our curriculum did not emphasize how to light darker skin tones. My professor took additional time to explain best practices to my class to ensure we had the technical knowledge to represent darker skin tones in the best possible manner.

From my professor, I learned that it is still important to use a hair light when shooting black people. She highlighted that there is a common misconception that people with a lot of texture in their hair don’t need a hair light, but they still do. Including a hair light with darker skin tones still creates a halo effect. It is also important to be aware of undertones.

Additionally, for darker skin tones with warm undertones it is recommended that you take portraits around earth tones like red, gold, and brown. For darker skin tones with cool undertones take portraits with water tones like blue, silver, and purple. Also, photographers and cinematographers should embrace highlights and shadows.

When shooting darker skin tones, I learned that photographers and cinematographers should also pay attention to walls, backgrounds and reflective light.

For walls, it is important to keep light from reflecting off the walls for a more cinematic feel. For background, it is important to pay attention to the backgrounds. It is also a bad idea to tuck darker skin tones against dark backgrounds. But also, it is important to not contrast the background so much that you overexpose the background. For reflective light, don’t just put more light on people of color to make them look bright; you will blow them out. Instead, it is best to use reflective light to bounce light and showcase facial features.

I found learning how to light darker skin tones extremely beneficial in my digital storytelling course, especially because my subject for my story advertisement was a black woman. I hope after reading my blog post, you feel more equipped to light darker skin tones in your photography and or film work.

Harding, Xavier. “Keeping ‘Insecure’ Lit: HBO Cinematographer Ava Berkofsky on Properly Lighting Black Faces.” Mic, Mic, 6 Sept. 2017,

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