Reader Questions: Camera Makeup For Near-Albinos

Julie writes:

If I wanted to make up a pale face like mine so that it looked good being photographed, and by "looked good" I meant "had features that didn't all blend together, but don't look like the headshots place at the mall," what would you suggest? I'm thinking photographed outside in natural light, without a flash.

Oh god, the dreaded mall photography studio. Those people are like the school photographers, except more dangerous, because they also have a makeup kit. They like to spackle you half to death, on the erroneous assumption that more makeup = more glamorous!

There are a few different ways to do camera makeup if you're very pale. If all you want is to show up properly on Skype without looking like you're really wearing makeup, your best bet is probably to apply eyeshadow, eyeliner, eyebrow pencil, and lip color in a scheme called 'nude'. This is a terrible name for it, frankly; like 'nude' bras and 'nude' pantyhose, none of the 'nude' makeup is going to be anywhere near the color of your bare skin at any point on your body. The things that match me, for instance, are in a shade almost universally called 'ivory' or 'porcelain'. I am competing with overenthusiastic Goths for my foundation. This is because the naked person they're color matching to is not you -- it's Kim Kardashian, or thereabouts.

On you, whose ancestors are probably from a place where it's pissing rain 340 days out of the year and getting rickets is a serious possibility in the winter, nude makeup pigments will all be a light, warm brown. Apply a powder foundation or a tinted moisturizer lightly, to provide an even base. Get one of those little eyeshadow compacts with two coordinating browns in it. The lighter one goes over your whole eyelid (and just your eyelid -- none of that 'wings all the way to the hairline' stuff they used to do in the '80s) and the darker one goes in a stripe along the lashline on the upper lid only. If there are three browns, the medium one goes over the eyelid, the darker one goes along the lashline, and the lightest one goes on the upper edge of your eye socket, on the rounded rim of the bone ridge separating the squishy part of your eye from the eyebrow. What this does is enhance the contrast between the convex and concave parts of your eye area. Think of it like cel shading.

Using a smudgy medium brown eyeliner pencil, line just the edge of your upper lid. If this doesn't seem like enough, also go around the outside corner and do the lower third of your bottom lash line. Blend as if your life depended on it. The idea here is to have a smooth gradation of color on your eye with the darkest part being the rim of your eyelid, to provide the maximum contrast between the edge of your lid and the white of your sclera/the color of your iris. This technique in general is what makeup people are talking about when they babble about 'defining' something -- it just means 'drawing a line around something, not necessarily obviously, in order to subtly remind onlookers that there's an edge here'. Lightly brush your upper lashes, and the outside third of your lower lashes, if you elected to use eyeliner there, with a non-super-volumising mascara in brown-black or brown. (I actually use CoverGirl Exact Eyelights for green eyes, as it's a matte black with a sheen of red; the Eyelights for blue eyes has a gold sheen instead, and might work better if your hair is brown or blond.)

Depending on your hair color, your eyebrows may be in danger of disappearing on camera. If so, pencil in your eyebrows very lightly with a pencil just dark enough to notice that you've colored them in. Don't draw an eyebrow-shaped polygon; this makes you look stupid. Shade lightly with short strokes about the same length as, and going in the same direction as, your eyebrow hairs, and smudge it if the strokes are too obvious. This alerts people to the fact that you have eyebrows, which is surprisingly important to facial parsing. Bowie used to shave off his eyebrows in his Ziggy Stardust days, and you must admit that he looked damned weird without them.

If you want to emphasize your cheekbones, get a bronzer or a blusher only slightly darker than your foundation. Make a silly fishy-fishy face to suck your cheeks in, and apply the darker color sparingly to the underside of the roundness underneath the zygomatic arch. This is called contouring, and what you're doing here is painting in the shadows that would normally fall under your cheekbones so that the camera can see them. (Actors under bright TV lights also sometimes use a lighter color to paint along the tops of their cheekbones. It's easy to fuck this up, and even the pros frequently do, so don't do it. It's part of what creates that bizarre Pierrot clown/painted scenery look on the actors on daytime soaps.) Don't forget to blend. BLEND. You should see no obvious lines of demarcation between any of these different colors you're using.

For your lips, either use a lipstain very sparingly, or line the outside edge and fill in with a lipliner in nude, or whatever color corresponds to your own lips but slightly darker. Lip color is the one thing you don't blend into everything else at the outside edge, although you can blend the mouth side of things if you think it looks funny when you talk or smile.

If you want to look like you're wearing makeup on camera, you do the exact same thing either using darker/more obvious colors, or painting it on a lot heavier.

Natural light is both some of the most and least flattering light ever to get your picture taken in. The hour just after sunrise and just before sunset is sometimes called 'the golden hour', both for the warm tone of the sunlight at those times, and because it streams in very obliquely, which is often a very flattering lighting scheme for human faces. If you're specifically scheduling some kind of shoot outside, avoid taking photos at noon; the more nearly overhead the sun is, the harsher shadows are, and the funnier you're going to look. It's also possible to shoot inside in natural light, with enough windows; remember that bright things bounce light around and dark things absorb it, so a photo taken with you standing next to a white wall is going to come out somewhat different than one where you're standing next to a dark velvet curtain. If you're going to be in extremely bright lighting, you may also want to be careful about what colors you wear next to your face. White light bouncing off a bright, vivid color and onto pale skin can sometimes carry the color with it -- it's especially noticeable with really verdant greens, where the wrong angle on the light can result in a strangely greenish shadow under your jawline.

If you're having issues with your face coming out too bright in nighttime photos, or photos taken indoors with a flash, your problem may not have anything to do with the way you're painting yourself, but rather, with what you're using. Most foundations and many moisturizers make use of a pigment called variously titania, titanium white, or titanium dioxide (TiO2). It's hypoallergenic, non-comedogenic, non-toxic, and so generally inert that it's used in absolutely everything -- it's used to make things from house paint to hand cream to toothpaste opaque and bright white. The equivalent black, called lampblack or carbon black, is similarly safe and ubiquitous.

In most applications, TiO2 is simply ground into a fine powder for use as a matte white, but it also reflects IR and UV about as well as visible light, and for [science reasons], when it's used as a sunscreen the particles are coated with a thin layer of alumina (aluminum oxide, Al2O3) or silica (silicon dioxide, SiO2). Alumina isn't usually too bad, but silica is essentially glass, and coating a light-colored pigment with tiny glass beads is the same way you make Scotchlite, which is the stuff that makes road signs and the stripes on safety vests and the surface of movie theater projection screens super-duper reflective, particularly at a low angle of incidence. Moisturizers and foundations that use silica-coated titanium white bounce back far more light than uncoated skin does -- what looks fine in person and in the bathroom mirror looks freaky and much too bright in flash photos. The solution is to change sunscreens, to either a chemical one or one that uses alumina instead of silica to coat the titania powder, or to just buy different stuff without sunscreen in it to use when when you're going out at night.


  1. That is wonderfully informative. I knew a little bit from trial and error, but, I love knowing WHY something works or doesn't.


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