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LUTs for Dark Skin Tones

  • May 2, 2021
  • Hurlbut Academy
LUTs for Dark Skin Tones

Part of what shapes the look of various cinematic genres derives from the color grading process. Take Christopher Nolan’s latest film Tenet, for instance. The film is packed full of Nolan’s signature visual effects but its enrichment of the protagonist’s (John David Washington) dark skin tones and color effects are what truly immerse you. Luckily, through the convenience of LUTs, you too can achieve the cinematic look of a Christopher Nolan film, not to mention various other looks from directors and films that you know and love.

Of course, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s use of large-format and IMAX film yielded spectacular visual results. Now, there’s a good chance that this camera choice might not work for your budget. However, every filmmaker can obtain a cinematic color effect and rich, vibrant skin tones through the use of LUTs—even for the cost of nothing, but more on that below. 

Protagonist inside car
Tenet, 2020

LUTs, an acronym for Look Up Tables, are a quick and easy way to get a cinematic look. This is beneficial for not only a quick color grade but also a great jumping-off point for your own color grade. 

That’s why when we discovered the dark skin tone LUTs created by filmmaker Gabrielle Blackwood, we were beyond impressed. Good news! Gabrielle made her GB LUT pack available for free over at her website

To learn more about Gabrielle and how she devised her personally designed LUTs, keep reading. 


4 Shades of Dark Skin Tone LUTs

Dark Pecan, Dark Syrup, Tawny

Gabrielle likes to think of LUTs as post-production makeup. She’s quick to advise, “LUTs are guides, don’t just slap them on. Mess with them.”

In addition to working as a director and cinematographer, Gabrielle Blackwood is also a seasoned colorist. Gabrielle’s mastery of dark skin tones, and the nuance between shades, is so sought after, that she developed a pack of 4 separate skin tones: Dark Pecan I & II, Dark Syrup, and Tawny. The LUT pack originally debuted for 2021 Black History Month!

Currently, Gabrielle’s GB LUTs are designed specifically for Blackmagic Design RAW, Colour Science: Gen 4, Output Color Space: REC 709/ Gamma 2.4. Although currently swamped writing a feature narrative, shooting, and coloring projects, luckily Gabrielle alluded to adapting her LUTs for other systems in the future. When she has the time, of course! 

Let’s take a look at the differences between the skin tones.

Brown shades

Dark Pecan I & II 

Dark Pecan I & II are rich in dark brown skin tones with yellow mid-tones.

Dark Syrup 

Dark Syrup blends de-saturated dark skin tones with red mid-tones.  


Tawny complements light brown skin tones with red mid-tones. 


How to use Dark Skin Tone LUTs

Still from Kendal film
‘Kendal’ proof of concept by Gabrielle Blackwood

In order to use this free GB LUT pack, you’ll need to follow a few quick steps. Here’s what the process looks like. 

Before starting, you’ll need to adjust your workspace to the following settings. 

  1. White balance ftg. 
  2. Expose between 200 and 768 on scopes 
  3. Apply LUT
  4. Mess with the LUT’s saturation and opacity etc. for your desired look
  5. Render


How to use LUTs

  • Set timeline color space
  • Set timeline color science
  • Balance colors and exposure 
  • Expose between 128 and 768
  • Taking out some of the reds
  • Apply GB LUT
  • (If need be) Tweak shadows, saturation, opacity, etc.

See the step-by-step process on Gabrielle’s Instagram where she presents how to apply her dark skin tone LUTs!


Why Gabrielle Blackwood Developed Dark Skin Tone LUTs

RED camera dolly exterior
Gabrielle Blackwood on set

While working as a colorist and cinematographer in Jamaica, dark skin tones were the norm for Gabrielle. However, when she expanded her work into Europe and the United States, there was growing interest in her color grading abilities. 

“A frequent question I receive revolves around how I grade particular skin tones. And to me, at first, I wasn’t consciously thinking about it.”

Gabrielle developed her LUTs after she realized how similar working with makeup was to digitally color grading skin tones. 

Actress running upstairs
‘Kendal’ proof of concept by Gabrielle Blackwood

“I’m not a makeup person so I started to watch all of these tutorials,” says Gabrielle. “I knew of Fenty Beauty at the time. But then, I started hearing about Rare Beauty. So you know, there’s Rihanna’s and Salina’s thing, and then I was like okay, well, let me see what’s the difference. So I started YouTubing these videos, and then also going on their websites, and they had like 10 million shades of one skin tone. And when I kept trying to match what was my skin tone, I was just like, this reminds me of color grading so much. And I thought I wish we had shades for every skin tone. So literally, you just slap it on and boom, you’re done. And so that’s where that idea came from.” 

Use LUTs as a Starting Point

Gabrielle’s goal is for filmmakers to have LUTs that they can use as a launchpad. What began as a labor of love and a curiosity blossomed into a rich and effective LUT set. These LUTs are ideal for matching black and brown skin tones accurately, especially if you’re not used to doing it. 

Consensual Seduction BTS
Gabrielle Blackwood filming on the set of ‘Consensual Seduction’ (by Mick Jenkins)

According to Gabrielle, filmmakers can oftentimes fall into the trap where they either depend on the lighting or color grading to solve the problem. But Gabrielle acknowledges that everybody has their own interpretation of how they see people or what looks good to them. 

“If you’re not trying to make the person look blue or pink deliberately, try to get their skin tone right. I realized that lighting scenes of someone like me with a very fair complexion next to someone with darker skin requires a whole other skill set to make sure that no one is an underling or the other isn’t blown out. It’s such a delicate balance.” 


Gabrielle Blackwood: Director, Cinematographer, Colorist 

Female Cinematographer with director
Behind-the-scenes with Gabrielle Blackwood

Gabrielle grew up in Jamaica where she realized from a young age that she wanted to pursue a creative career. A natural-born storyteller, she would write and direct plays and put on productions for friends and family. She went to school in Jamaica and then received her master’s degree in New Zealand. 

When Gabrielle returned to Jamaica, her goal was to work as a director—that is until she realized that the director isn’t a priority in Jamaica. Instead, agents and clients were more interested in a visionary cinematographer.

Gabrielle Blackwood lining up a short with a RED camera setup

The visuals always appealed to Gabrielle and her father, being a dedicated amateur photographer, gave her a solid reference of composition. So, Gabrielle taught herself cinematography by reading forums, watching videos, and purchased her first camera, a DSLR T3. Two years later, she launched into documentary work and further cemented her knowledge of the medium. Now, Gabrielle works on narrative and commercial projects as a director, cinematographer, and colorist. 

Gabrielle is known for such works as Grave Digger, Denis, The Incursion, The Lightning Bird, and Going Down

The Bottom Line

Gabrielle Blackwood lining up a shot

If you’re not used to it, color grading dark skin tones can prove to be quite the challenge. Fortunately, Gabrielle Blackwood’s self-designed dark skin tone LUTs are a remarkable starting point for capturing cinematic texture and color quality. 

So, do yourself a favor and download Gabrielle’s Free GB LUT Pack. The pack is free and includes Tawny (light brown), (Dark Syrup) mid-brown, and (Dark Pecan I and II) dark brown skin tones. 

And be sure to follow Gabrielle on Instagram (@gabrielle_blackwood) to keep up to date on all of her latest projects, lighting setups, and How-Tos!

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