Social Media

Finally, A Photo App Designed For Non-White Skin

Evening out the white balance of an unconscious bias

Social Media
Photo: Tonr
Jul 19, 2016 at 12:27 PM ET

Photo app tōnr contains filters specially designed for people of color—and not only does that mean their complexions will look better in photos, its developers argue, it can help them feel more comfortable in their skin.

From the earliest days of photography, film has been optimized for white skin. As many photographers of darker-skinned subjects have figured out, film often fails to pick up the nuances of skin colors that aren’t white. Turns out this is a bias embedded in the technology itself—the coating on the film isn’t very sensitive to yellow, brown and red hues, though there was no technological reason why, according to a 2009 article from the Canadian Journal of Communication.

And while the actual coloration of photos may have improved in the digital age, the bias is still there. Filters on photo apps like Instagram are still optimized for white skin, Racked reported last year. Earlier this year, Snapchat made the bias more explosive—to celebrate 4/20, it added a filter to make users look like Bob Marley—explicitly noting that the app assumes the default skin color is light.

For the developers of tōnr, this was the last straw. Shortly after the incident, as they were preparing for an event called VAX, a hackathon for products at media company Vox, one of the designers suggested a photo filtering app for people of color. Other collaborators soon jumped on board. “We thought it was an awesome idea and very important to our community, especially being still disappointed about the blackface incident,” Alesha Randolph, a senior designer at Vox Media, told Vocativ via email.

So the developers created an app with filters that are more sensitive to melanin. Brittany Holloway-Brown, a designer at Vox Media’s Storytelling Studio, looked through the best photo shoots of people of color, along with selfies uploaded online, to figure out which types of color tweaks would work best. “Instead of overexposure, I included colors that would warm up and deepen,” Holloway-Brown told Vocativ. “I tried to focus on emphasizing the color, enhancing undertones and heightening the saturation of the skin.”

The result are a series of filters that “suit skin tones ranging from olive to richly melanated,” Randolph says.

Vocativ decided to try it. The original photo is on the left, Instagram in the center, tonr on right.

The Instagram filter does seem to whiten her skin. The tōnr filter reduces the shininess, but doesn’t seem to alter the image much from the original. It’s all a matter of preference.

“The ideal tōnr user is anyone who loves the color of their skin, loves taking selfies, and is tired of the filters in most photo apps washing out their complexion,” Randolph adds.

The developers behind tōnr have made its code open source and it’s already accessible from a web browser, but they are working on making it a standalone app for iPhone and Android, Randolph says.