Color Grading with Styles in Adobe Lightroom
Color grading with styles is very different to processing using the basic settings, Contrast and Exposure. Watch and analyse movies for proof!
What do I mean by Color grading with styles? Essentially it’s the process of producing a ‘look’ that can be transferred to other images.
Colour grading takes time to get right, so saving a style as a preset makes sense. Tutorials (and presets)describing individual looks abound. Still, the tutorials tend to focus on the ‘How’ rather than the ‘Why’, so that you learn how to get the moody brown effect or the teal and orange effect by navigating a series of instructions without really understanding why certain things are done.
Ideally, such tutorials could be future-proofed so that when you want to achieve your own look, you can work out how to do it without waiting for a tutorial to appear.
Table of Contents
What is Color Grading with Styles?
I think of color grading with styles in the sense that I see it in cinematography. It has to do with a total ‘look’ that characterises the photograph. We see these things every day without necessarily realising it. We know that skies are never teal and rocks are only usually orange at sunset, but we like the effect because we’ve seen it onscreen.
Similarly, the moody brown effect is very common on social media and in advertisements. Our common sense tells us that the look is unrealistic, yet we are taught by repeated exposure to accept it as some kind of heightened reality.
As a photographer who has usually prioritised realism, I’m not saying that these looks are a bad thing necessarily, I’m simply highlighting a characteristic. They are not realistic, and they are more challenging to achieve than simply adjusting the black-and-white points and boosting or reducing the contrast. Those adjustments will visibly affect your photograph, but they will sometimes also alter the colours in the photograph. They will not produce new colours to order.
There is one basic truism in photography; all colours are derived from a mix of Red, Green or Blue. Lightroom makes a pretty good arrangement of it’s tools, but for some reason, it puts Calibration near the bottom. I’d like to see a Colour section containing the Color Grading tool, HSL/Color tool and Calibration.
What’s the difference in the tooling?
The tools on offer in Adobe Lightroom Classic which is where I prefer to edit, give you a few different ways to alter the colours in your image.
Color Grading targets Luminence; Specifically applied to Shadows, Midtones and Highlights.
The HSL tool targets specific colours and their properties; Hue, Saturation and Luminance.
Calibration offers Hue and Saturation controls on Red, Green and Blue. Here, it would help if you thought like a painter. Every colour in photography is created by adjusting red, green or blue primaries. Once you understand this, you grasp how all of these tools work, what you can reasonably expect from them and why you sometimes get surprising results.
We can appreciate the difference in these tools; You can change the properties of red if it exists in your image, using the Calibration tool or the HSL tool. Be aware that Orange for example is made of Red and Green, so whatever tool you choose, be very careful as you may change other areas of the image than the one you are focused on.
I’m very keen on deliberation at all stages of photography. “Hit it and Hope” doesn’t produce repeatable processes. Deliberation reduces the number of choices you make because you are trying to get from A-Z with Z representing a specific look.
So the first step in grading this photograph is to see what it looks like with some basic edits on Exposure (it’s slightly underexposed), Contrast (needs more) and Colour Balance (It’s a little cold). I’ve raised the exposure, increased the contrast by altering the white and black points to the point where they would clip the whites or crush the blacks. Lastly I’ve warmed the picture up by changing the colour balance.
The next task is to decide on a look that will take this picture to a new level. Let’s have a look at how this might work with the Teal And Orange style.
Step 1 – Basic Edits
This is all about Exposure, Contrast and Colour Temperature. You are creating a histogram where there is something for your later alterations to get stuck into. You will probably find yourself going back to re-adjust these settings later. That’s ok, color grading with styles is by nature, an iterative fine-tuning of the image.
I prefer to keep this simple at this stage, so I usually avoid texture, clarity and dehaze because they can cause unplanned colour shifts and it’s the colours I want to control.
Step 2 – Fine Tuning
Here I’ve used masks. The first was a Sky selection where I darkened the sky (exposure), changed the hue (Color in mask adjustment palette). Warm the temp and adjust the tint towards green. Remember – think like a painter!
The second mask was a linear gradient at top left corner to bring more colour into that part of the sky. I wanted to keep the glow but in a less overpowering way so the third mask was a radial gradient just above the horizon where I added to the exposure and made the blacks more intense. I then used the Amount slider to blend it in.
Step 3 – HSL/Color
Now that we have pushed the RAW to open up some of the possibilities in the file, we can look at the icing on the cake, the colours and their distribution around the photograph. In the HSL tool, I’ve adjusted the hue of the reds, oranges and yellows, making them slightly darker to bring out the rust on the electricity station and I’ve tweaked the sky to accentuate the teal. Purple and Magenta are decreased to eliminate a magenta colour cast that was beginning to make itself known behind the power station.
Regarding Saturation, still in the HSL tool, I’ve boosted the Orange and dropped the Aqua and blue slightly and the magenta a lot, getting rid of the color cast brought back by the blue and aqua adjustments.
In the HSL luminance channel I’ve dropped the orange a tiny bit and boosted the yellow to bring back the contrast in the cloud on the right.
You may be interested in my post on the HSL tooling in DxO PhotoLab. I’ll follow this up with another tutorial showing the same process in PhotoLab.
Step 4 – Color Grading
We already have achieved a very obvious split toning effect between the teal sky and the orange middle ground. If I want to alter that balance, I use the color grading tool to achieve that.
I’ve used the Highlights sliders to add a bit of yellow. Every picture is different, but in this image, the cloud is what we need to protect, so watch out for unwanted hues.
The mid tones I’ve left alone and altered the shadows to bring a little red into the foreground as the cumulative effect of all the other adjustments left it looking a little bland.
Run your eyes over the whole picture to ensure you’re on track. Obsessing over one detail will unbalance the picture at best! Use the before and after sliders on the panels to check the cumulative effect on the whole picture. Playing around with colours is prone to error caused by tired eyes so remember where you were headed and keep checking the whole image!
Step 5 – Calibration
Because this image is now largely comprised of two colours, calibration is fairly straightforward. I’ve made the sky slightly more aqua using the blue slider and increased the saturation.
Step 6 – Back to Basics
You are now pretty close to finished. I generally go to Photoshop at this stage and remove all dust spots and objects that may be distractions. Remember, this is an iterative process. Check at every stage to see if you are on track and if you’re not, delete the most recent change and try again.
Conclusion – Editing with Styles
Editing with styles involves some fairly radical changes to the original photo. I have focused on the method in this post – follow this process in the same order, and the method will save you from the excesses that can start to intrude when you do any kind of editing. The process allows you to build on each previous step. Imagine the chaos if you started with calibration!
Your job here is to capitalise on what is already in the photograph, to bring out some of the possibilities captured in the RAW file. It’s no accident that most styles you see on YouTube are derived from cinema. This form of editing brings atmosphere by the bucket load.
So here are a few ideas to play around with – Teal & Orange, Moody Brown, Black & White. Once you are producing decent edits in these styles, you will find that you start to develop your own style without being too self-conscious about it. A tutor at film school once said to me, “You’re trying too hard; relax, your style is unique but it will only emerge when you really understand what you are doing.”
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