An Experiment in Color Grading - Part I

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 harddrive (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(particularly as my post processing techniques improve); and vice versa, what may have excited meinitially now appears outdated and amateurish.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.

Cleanup Layers:

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.

D&B Layers:

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.

Dress Layers:

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:

  1. Cleaned up background of extraneous details that didn't add to the image
  2. Did some VERY basic skin and clothing cleaning using D&B
  3. Changed the dress color from orange to red to compliment the green undertones of the walls and couch
  4. Reduced brightness and dynamic range to create a more painterly feel




Stay tuned for Part II where we get the to good stuff--color!!