An Experiment in Color Grading - Part II

And now for the fun part...color!

Okay, so we left off in Part I with 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:

 Color Layers

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 https://color.adobe.com/). 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!