Mastering colour grading is key to creating your own style in photography. This article explores the options available for Colour grading in Lightroom Classic, describing the available tools and explaining what they are for and why you would use them.
Table of Contents
What does Colour Grading Achieve?
Why is the colour straight out of the camera not enough?
If you shoot RAW, then think about the shooting process as gathering data, to be massaged into its final form by you, the photographer, using editing software such as Adobe Lightrooom and Photoshop. The skill in the shooting process is to capture the entire dynamic range without blowing the highlights or crushing the blacks.
When it comes to editing, the task is to bring out as much of the information as you need to create the image you had in mind when you took the photograph. Colour is a big part of that in terms of tonal range, hues, saturation and luminance. There are aesthetic choices to make and these will be different for every photographer.
Secondly, colour is treated slightly differently by each camera manufacturer; Fuji, Canon, Nikon, Sony etc all look slightly different, all have their strong points (and weak points) compared to the others. So if you’re used to having a distinctive look to your photographs, colour grading is a way to keep that look consistent regardless of what camera is being used.
Thirdly, although the colour tools apply their effect globally, across the image, some of them, those already in the Basic panel tools and the Tone Curve can now be applied to masks in Lightroom, opening up the creative possibilities for working on different areas of the image, adding depth and emphasising areas to draw the viewer’s eye to the areas you want them to look at.
Basic Editing Panel
The basic editing panel is about correction and setting the image up for more detailed work in the other panels. The reason I say these controls are suited to setting the image up is that all the changes introduced in the basic editing panel are global so they affect the entire picture.
There are also some tools in the Basic Editing Panel that affect the colour in unpredictable ways so use with caution. Dehaze is the main culprit, but Clarity also affects colours in an image.
The first two tools, Temperature and Tint are used to control the amount of Blue and Yellow (Temperature) and Green and Magenta (Tint) in the image.
Colour temperature is measured in degrees kelvin and runs from cool/blue colours to warm/yellow colours. The effect of reducing the colour temperature is to ‘cool’ the image down. The colours here are reflective of those appearing in real life.
Tint is graded from Green at one extreme to magenta at the other. This is used to correct obviously artificial colour casts in the image as it appears out of the camera. A colour cast is a tint affecting the entire image, typically caused by certain types of lighting, multiple types of lighting or even the white balance setting in camera. The Tint slider can also be used to introduce a colour cast for creative purposes.
The saturation slider increases the intensity of all colours in the photograph.
Vibrance is a more targeted version of saturation. Vibrance adds saturation to colours that are not already saturated in the photograph.
Summary of the Basic Panel
The tools in the basic panel are very powerful, but indiscriminate. In landscape photography the aim of editing is not to have the picture scream for attention by pinning the viewer to the wall with a kaleidoscope of overbaked colours, but to provide a satisfying experience for the viewer; drawing the eye in and leading it through the photograph. Much of this is achieved by localised adjustments rather than global. This is why I prefer to use the basic panel to ‘set up’ the image for further processing.
The Tone Curve
The Tone curve is a graph based tool that allows the user to adjust portions of an image based on the tonal properties. For example, Darks, Midtones and Lights. I prefer to use the Tone curve to finesse the contrast in my images than the Basic Panel Contrast tool as it allows me to get at for example, the shadows in an image.
I would go so far as to say that the Tone Curve is the most important tool in your Colour grading toolbox in terms of the difference it can make to a picture.
The Parametric Curve allows you to make adjustments based on (from the left), Shadows, Darks, Lights and Highlights. This can be done by manipulating the curve directly or via the sliders seen below the graph in the picture.
The Point Curve is a view that enables the user to adjust the black and white points in the image and to adjust areas defined by any point you place on the graph.
Running left to right, the darker shades are on the left and the lighter tones on the right. The tool on the top left allows you to sample value form the picture itself, hover over the area you want to adjust and click – a new point will appear on the graph and by moving that point up or down, you can raise or lower the value of that tone.
This might appear to be a great way of editing very specific areas of the image, but be aware that any tone in the resort of the image that matches the one you have selected will also be altered, so it always pays to do a before/after comparison on the whole image before committing to a change.
Click on the eyeball icon at top left to switch the effect of the adjustment off temporarily. Another click will turn it back on.
Summary of the Tone Curve
- Black and White Point Adjustment
- Tonal Adjustment based on colour values in the image
To me, the Tone Curve is the contrast tool of choice. Although its more complex than the Contrast tool in the basic panel, the results are better and more precisely targeted or finely grained once you understand what you are doing. Investing some time in learning this tool will raise your editing game to the next level.
The HSL/Colour Tools give you two ways to get at the same thing. They target individual colours and their properties – Hue, Saturation and Luminence. These are very intuitive to. use, Want more yellow in that sunset? Adjust the slider on Yellow, selecting which of Hue, Saturation and Luminence you want to adjust.
The Color Tool, shown here allows you to select the colour from the choices above the sliders and manipulate the slider to adjust any or all of Hue, Saturation and Luminence.
Summary of the HSL/Color Panel
The choice of which to use is down to personal preference, in terms of workflow, I can’t see too many occasions when you would use both.
The Color Grading Panel approaches colour grading via luminance. The most obvious example where this is used in landscape photography is in cooling down the shadows and warming the highlights. This ubiquitous edit is more lifelike than can be achieved in the global panel.
So looking at the detail of the panel, there is a colour wheel for each luminance value from Shadows to Highlights, via Midtones. Pullig the target away from the centre will change the tint of the colours in that luminance range.
For example, in the shadows, I have dragged the centre of the colour wheel about two thirss of the way to blue. This cools the shadows down in the picture.
As with all the panels we’ve discussed, you have the eyeball icon top left so that you can temporarily turn the panel off, suspending the edit until it is turned back on again.
The Blending and Balance controls offer a way of fine tuning the effects, blending determines how well the colours blend into one another, Balance offers a way to change the scope of what the program includes in Highlights, Midtones and Shadows.
Summary of the Color Grading panel
We’ve looked at the basic panel where all edits are global, and found that although it makes for a good start, we can’t really make fine grained edits there. The HSL tool and the Color Grading Panel offer us more control over parts of the image defined by different criteria, for the HSL tool the selection is based on Color, for the Color Grading toool selection is based on Luminence.
For colour correction, the HSL tool is the place to go.
What Problem Does the Colour Grading Panel Solve?
Selecting areas of the picture based on luminance is very useful indeed in both Landscape photography and Portraiture. In real life, all colours are not saturated, in landscapes in particular, colours fade as you look further into the distance. The Colour Grading panel in combination with HSL gives us a way of creating that in two dimensions, it adds depth to the photograph,
When you were a child, most likely it occurred to you one day that the blue you see in the sky might not be exactly the same as the blue your friend sees at the same time? Our perception of colour is highly subjective. The perceived hue of a colour can be changed, for example depending what the neighbouring colour is.
To add to the confusion, the colours ‘seen’ by different camera manufacturers are also different. Canon Red is slightly different to Sony Red.
Calibration allows you to adjust the hue and saturation of the Red, Green and Blue Primary channels in the picture. Given that all colours contain red, green and blue, the scope of this tool for radical change is vast. For example, by pulling the blue primary Hue slider all the way to the left, an approximation of the popular Orange and Teal look can be found. Check out my article Color Grading with Styles in Adobe Lightroom for more on creating a recognisable visual style.
When working on colour, there is a real tendency to disappear down the rabbit hole of a small part of a picture. It’s essential though that your colour editing sits well in the entire picture. I have learned over the years to take breaks to rest my eyes and almost invariably end up reducing the effect. As with so many of these tools, Less is More is the way to approach them. Make small adjustments and check via the on/off toggle the difference you have made.
Colour Grading with Masks
It sounds like a small thing, but the inclusion of the tone curve as an option to use on masks changes things dramatically. Whereas all of the tools had a global effect it is now possible to edit precise areas of the picture by adding a mask. For example, add a mask for the sky and work on those sunset colours without the effects flooding into all areas of the picture.
Colour Grading in Lightroom
Adobe Lightroom offers a full range of colour editing capabilities that can be applied at various levels.
A workflow for a complex colour would typically look like this. Start with a vision of what you think the picture should look like when you have finished and work towards that vision. Be aware that you are guiding the viewer’s eye through the picture and telling the story you want to tell.
Colour Grading Workflow
Every picture will have different requirements, most will not need all of the tools applied, some may be completed in the Basic Panel. A lot depends on the complexity and range oof the colours in the picture and the effect you are trying to achieve.
- Basic Controls – Colour Temp, Tint, Saturation to a point where the image is ‘balanced’. You can always add more, later, but undoing over-baked basic colour edits is difficult except by revisiting the basic controls,
- Tone Curve to create contrast.
- HSL/Color Panel or Color Grade to adjust individual colours.
You will find this is an iterative process, in part because of the global nature of the changes you make but also because of the interaction between the tools themselves.
I hope you’ve found this interesting. Most people, including myself tend to learn on a need to know basis, which is great for getting the job done, but comprehensive knowledge helps get the job done better!
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