As the New Year rolls in, I find myself looking forward to new things—new directions, new goals, new relationships. But with the start of a new year also comes a time for reflection (literally) of what I’ve accomplished and how much I’ve progressed. As I perform my annual “house cleaning”—purging old work which isn’t up to snuff, and transferring the remaining photos to yet another new hard drive (I’m amassing quite the collection)—I’ve had the opportunity to put a fresh set of eyes on everything I’ve shot over the past year or so.
For me, this is always an extremely educational experience. This year in particular, in conjunction with the typical photography and post processing learning curve, has been one of a lot of experimentation and attempting to define my “style”, and my portfolio has seen a lot of progress as a result. But I find reflecting on this old work is critical to moving forward; by analyzing what does and doesn’t work in the images I have produced, I can further understand my own style and instill it (or avoid it) in future work.
Furthermore, in reviewing old images which may not have resonated with me initially, I gain a fresh perspective and may now see some in a new light (particularly as my post processing techniques improve); and vice versa, what may have excited meinitially now appears outdated and amateurish. Even so, some of those may even be salvageable with a new edit.
Such is the case with this particular image I dug up of Jessica. I remember shooting this as the last look of a long test day, and I wanted to try and finally incorporate a model into an environment (until this point, I’d only been shooting models in studio against a backdrop). We had limited (okay fine, nonexistent) budget for wardrobe so I wrapped her in some orange chiffon fabric, plopped her on the couch and with one speedlight and a softbox, we got this image:
The early 2015 version of me was pretty happy with this image, but even in those days I realized there was something a little off about it, so there it sat in its sad lonely Lightroom catalog untouched for a year. When I came across it again the other day, I decided to have a little fun and see what I could make of it. This is the final image after editing:
I ended up posting this image in a forum I belong to and got some overwhelming feedback (thanks to everyone who took the time to look and comment!), and a lot of requests for color grading tutorials, so in order to appease the internet masses, I’ll attempt to guide you through my process of creating this look here.
Disclaimer: I am not a Photoshop master. I’m sure anyone who is will look at this tutorial and cringe. To make matters worse, I have a habit of being incredibly indecisive when it comes to color toning, so often times it takes me 4 layers to do what someone more knowledgeable (or decisive) could do in 1. But I’m a firm believer in growing by experimentation, and hopefully as my knowledge base improves, so will my efficiency.
Also, please be smart and name and organize your layers!!! It makes your life a lot easier in the long run (and saves you the added step of having to reorganize and label them when you make a tutorial like this one. 😉 )
Step 1: Cleanup
The obvious first part of the process here is to remove the unnecessary components of the image. For me, the picture hanging on the wall, the radiator pipes, the speaker, and the white window frame all took away from our model, so with some cloning, healing and dodging and burning, these elements were removed. Jessica also had a bit of a hot spot on her forehead, which I toned down a bit with some d&b.
- Layer 1 (Blend Mode-Normal/Opacity-100%): Removal of picture on wall, radiator pipes and trim.
- Layer 2 (Blend Mode-Normal/Opacity-100%): Removal of white window frame, wrinkles in fabric (chest area), speaker, and speaker wire on floor.
- Curve 1 (Blend Mode-Luminosity/Opacity-67%): Dodging at face (skin corrections) and around hair
- Curve 2 (Blend Mode-Luminosity/Opacity-64%): Burning at face (skin corrections), eyelids and lips
(I tend to get a bit carried away sometimes with D&B so often times when I’m done I’ll reduce the opacity to back down from the uber perfect look—especially in a portrait).
Step 2: Dress Color
The biggest issue I had with the original image was the neon orange color which I felt didn’t suit the mood, which called for a darker, more muted color. I decided on a deeper red to compliment the walls and couch, both a mossy greenish-brown color.
To accomplish this, I masked out the dress to avoid disrupting any other portions of the image with similar tones, such as her skin. (There are a number of tutorials online on masking far more in depth than this one allows, so I will skip over the particulars). I used a couple of adjustment layers, starting with a Hue/Saturation layer, and adjusting the red tones and then followed with a couple color fill layers to enrich and enhance the color.
- Hue/Saturation (Blend Mode-Color/Opacity-74%): Change hue towards red tone, desaturate and reduce Lightnes
- Color Fill 1 (Blend Mode-Soft Light/Opacity-100%): Add deeper saturated red color to dress
- Color Fill 2 (Blend Mode-Difference/Opacity-27%): Increase depth and darkness of red color
Step 3: Brightness & Contrast
The next step was to reduce the overall brightness and contrast of the image, which I felt to be too severe for the overall mood. By compressing the dynamic range, it gives the image a more painterly feel. It’s worth noting that this is something that probably could (and should) have been done in camera a number of ways: feathering the light to avoid hot spots and contrast, using a white fill, etc. At the time, my lighting skills weren’t comprehensive enough however—live and learn, right?
Brightness & Contrast Layers:
- Black & White (Blend Mode-Luminosity/Opacity-12%): Reduce overall brightness, particularly in red values. (You could probably do this with curves as well by adjusting individual color curves).
- Curves (Blend Mode-Normal/Opacity-58%): Increased black values and decreased whites for compressed dynamic range (except at dark areas underneath the side table and at the window).
- Exposure (Blend Mode-Normal/Opacity-44%): This is the one trick I do to almost all my images. I bump up the offset, bring down the gamma correction, and increase exposure, then usually back down on opacity a bit. I don’t really know what those terms mean, but it adds a bit of matte look and ever so slightly reduces detail in the shadows.
- Levels (Blend Mode-Normal/Opacity-100%): The last layer in the section is a levels layer to bring down the whites a bit. Again, this can probably be done with a curves layer too. As they say, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Instead of applying this overall, I applied this only to the lighter midtones and highlights by going to Image>Apply Image and setting the blend mode to Multiply.
A quick summary of what we’ve done so far before we move on:
- Cleaned up background of extraneous details that didn’t add to the image
- Did some VERY basic skin and clothing cleaning using D&B
- Changed the dress color from orange to red to compliment the green undertones of the walls and couch
- Reduced brightness and dynamic range to create a more painterly feel
And now for the fun part…color!
Okay, so we left off this image:
Here we are with our newly red dress and our dynamic range reduced to give us that more painterly feel—but the colors still seem a little….blah. To me, the first thing that I don’t love is that the image is overall very warm. Her skin looks a bit orange, the red dress is a bit browner than I was going for, and the walls and couch don’t really look as green as they are in person. I promise, they both are green, it took me three trips to Home Depot to get that wall color right and I reupholstered the couch myself to match (my husband thinks I have a problem–I prefer to call it attention to detail).
The first step for me is to desaturate the image a bit. This helps reduce the orange in her skin and dress and give it a more cinematic feel. I used a Black & White adjustment layer, with the blend mode set to color to do this–you could also do this with a Hue/Saturation or Vibrancy layer, but these affect the image globally. Instead, I wanted to add some depth to the reds, so I set the B&W layer to a modified blue filter to bring the tones down.
Next, I started playing around with the overall grading. I wanted to maintain the complementary red/green color scheme in the midtones, but also introduce a secondary complimentary color scheme in the highlights and shadows. I opted for a red-violet undertone in the shadows (one stop over on the color wheel) because I thought it removed some of the brown in the dress and made the red color punch. Conversely, I added a bit of very pale yellow-green (like a lighter/warmer version of the sofa and wall color) back into the highlights—just enough to reduce the pinks in her skin.
Here’s the general range of colors selected for this image shown on a color wheel:
I always start my color grading with a curve adjustment layer. A brief primer on curves if you’re not familiar: you can select the three separate color channels–red, blue and green–and adjust the tones by adding and adjusting points along the curve. If you want to add more blue to an image, you would drag the curve up–conversely, dragging it down would add yellow, as I did in this image.* Since I wanted to add violet into the shadows, I pulled down my greens at the very bottom of the curve, and increased them slightly at the midtones. I also ended up pulling down the reds a bit to cool down the image some. Below are the color curves I ended up with for this image:
*A quick aside: It’s important to understand the distinction between opposite/complimentary colors in Photoshop vs. traditional color theory. The classic color wheel is based on the RYB color model; however, Photoshop uses the RGB model. In RYB, the opposite of blue is orange, but in RGB it is yellow, as shown in the Curves module.
Now we’re getting somewhere. At this stage, I’m liking how the shadows look, but the walls, skin and sofa are still too orange. I could probably go back to the curves layer to adjust this, but for the sake of variety (and experimentation), I used a gradient map set to very low opacity. A gradient layer maps the equivalent greyscale range of an image to the colors specified in the fill–in this case, oranges in the highlights and purples in the shadows. However, since we wanted to reduce the amount of orange, I set the blend mode to Difference which basically subtracts the gradient colors from the image. Because our other gradient color is a very dark purple, we don’t lose a lot of color from the shadows. This layer also decreased the brightness in the highlights and midtones.
At this stage, I’m pretty happy with the image. I added back a bit more vibrancy to bring up the reds a smidge, and a selective color to add just a tiny bit more magenta to the blacks. Finally, I used two color fill layers set to Color blend mode on low opacity to up the greens–one for just the highlights, and the other overall to add a subtle uniformity to the color and to tie all the elements together. Here is the final result (after some minor reshaping of her dress) and a summary of all the adjustments:
- Black & White (Blend Mode-Color/Opacity-24%): Used to reduce overall saturation and darken red tones.
- Curves 1 (Blend Mode-Normal/Opacity-100%): Added magentas to the shadow, greens to the midtones and highlights; reduced blue and red midtones.
- Curves 1 Copy (Blend Mode-Normal/Opacity-36%): I started with the layer above and decided I needed to kick it up a notch, so I duplicated this layer and reduced the opacity until I got something I liked.
- Gradient Map (Blend Mode-Difference/Opacity-10%): The colors were still feeling a bit too warm to me, so I wanted to add some greens by subtracting orange from the image.
- Vibrance (Blend Mode-Normal/Opacity-100%): At this point the image was feeling a bit too desaturated so I decided to bump up the vibrancy some. I used vibrancy instead of saturation because saturation tends to go a little crazy with red sometimes and I wanted a more subtle effect. I could probably have tweaked my existing black and white layer to achieve a similar effect, but then I may have affected the depth of the red dress which I didn’t want to fiddle with.
- Selective Color (Blend Mode-Color/Opacity-100%): I still wanted to bump up the purples in the shadows, so I used a selective color layer set to color blend mode (so as not to affect the contrast), and increased the magentas and cyans in the blacks.
- Color Fill (Blend Mode-Color/Opacity-18%): Increased greens in the highlights to bring skin tones closer to the wall and couch colors. Instead of applying this overall, I applied this only to the highlights by using the same Apply Image trick mentioned previously.
- Color Fill 2 (Blend Mode-Color/Opacity-4%): For the final touch, I used another color fill layer to add just a bit more greens to the skin tones and wall. I just manually brushed in the area I wanted to affect here with a layer mask.
There are an infinite number of color combinations to choose from when color grading an image. It’s worth mentioning that I didn’t have a definitive plan for the color going into this. A lot of it is just experimentation and playing around with what looks good to my eye. As you have probably noticed, this is often an iterative process of building up the look one layer at a time–and there are many different ways of utilizing layers to achieve the same look. This is the most creative, but also can be the most frustrating part of the process, as the opportunities are virtually limitless. I often times work on an image only to come back two days later and start completely from scratch.
If you’re having trouble with color, it’s always helpful to refer back to basic color theory (for which there are a multitude of resources out there). It’s also extremely important to study the works of the great artistic and photographic masters. One great resource offered by Adobe is their Adobe Color CC (formerly Adobe Kuler), an online program which lets you try out, save and browse existing color combinations (Find it at adobe). It’s also a super useful analytical tool that lets you upload images and analyze the colors within the image. Here’s what happened when I uploaded my image to Kuler:
So there you have it! I know it can be overwhelming at first (trust me, it’s still overwhelming to me), but as you keep practicing and keep training your eye, it’ll get much easier and you’ll be color grading like a pro in no time!
About The Author
Kate Woodman is a photographer based in Portland, Oregon. Her keen eye and engineering background help her create great photography with strong attention to details. You can follow Kate on her website, Facebook and Instagram. This article was also published here.