How Color Film was Originally Biased Toward White People

Vox has published a short 5-minute video that tells the story of how early film stocks in photography were designed with light skin as the ideal skin standard, and therefore sometimes had problems rendering darker skins — especially in photos that showed both darker and lighter complexions.

One of the earliest color reference cards in the still photo industry featured a woman named Shirley. After that card became an industry standard, many color reference cards began to be known as “Shirley cards.” These cards generally showed a single white woman dressed in bright clothes, and color film chemistry at the time was designed with a bias towards light skin.


The bias towards skin with higher reflectivity meant that there were often exposure issues when shooting mixed-race photos.

“If you exposed film for a white kid, the black kid sitting next to him would be rendered invisible except for the whites of his eyes and teeth,” writes Adam Broomberg, who held an exhibition in 2013 on the subject of race bias in early color photography.

Vox says that things started changing in the 1970s when wood furniture and chocolate makers began complaining that Kodak film wasn’t capturing the difference in wood grains and chocolate types. Around the same time, film, and TV industries also began becoming more diverse.

In 1995, Kodak introduced a new multi-racial skin color reference card that featured a Caucasian, Asian, and African woman with different skin and clothing colors.


Kodak also began advertising its films as being able to capture darker tones in low light.

“Today, color film and digital color sensors have a much broader dynamic range,” says Vox, “but the default toward lighter skin in technology still lingers.”