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Color Grading Your Images in Photoshop and Adobe Camera Raw

We all know well that editing your images is a necessary process in order to achieve good looking images. Some images require small tweaks such as contrast, saturation, and a bit of curves adjustments. Others require much more work with color grading in Photoshop. Color grading usually is a time-consuming job, but it doesn’t always have to be. I will try to help you understand what color grading is, when, and how to use it to compliment your photography.

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What is color grading?

Color grading originates from cinematography. It’s not the same as color correcting. In photography, you are mostly facing color-correcting images in order to have a technically correct image.

Color correcting is present in cinematography as well but as a base for color grading. First, the colorist is matching shots to each other, then the shots get color graded.

Color grading is a creative process with one goal – supporting the story with the color. Movies use color grading to emphasize the feeling and color grading starts its life in the early stages of pre-production of the film production. Set design is the first place where colors get defined. Later the director of photography together with the director decides on lighting the scene, further defining the look of the film. The last step that defines the film’s look is color grading. We are going to focus only on the final step, and that is color grading in post-production, but we will do it on the still image.

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Color grading examples

I will explain a few color grading looks, but if you are not interested, you can skip directly to the actual tutorial below on how to color grade your images using Photoshop and Adobe Camera RAW.

There are numerous styles you can choose from when color grading, but ultimately the style should support the mood of the scene. These are just some of the looks you can achieve in color grading:

Teal and orange is a popular Hollywood look in the previous ten, fifteen years.

Blue, cool look is very popular, yet rarely can be used throughout the whole movie, but nothing stops you from using it with your photos if you feel like it.

The warm color grade helps you emphasize the warm atmosphere. It makes the scene feel even hotter, so even if the colors look a bit unrealistic, they help support your mood.

A monochromatic look is an upgrade to an already warm or cold grade. It can make things look apocalyptic, ice-cold or it can look almost as sepia. These color grades don’t work well on too colourful scenes.

The bleached bypass relies more on light contrast. Colors are washed out and they complement each other with accents.

We all know the green look from the Matrix or Snatch. It emphasizes discomfort in the scene, so naturally, it has a very limiting application.

Film stock has a unique look. It can’t be completely replicated as it is analog, but you can try to emulate in some manner. Different film stocks have different looks, but the most commonly seen film stocks today come from Kodak and they have a distinctly green hue, slightly brownish skin-tone, and graduate highlight falloff.

How to Color Grade Your Photos in Photoshop

Let’s cut to the chase. Making any of these looks isn’t that hard. You just need to be patient while experimenting in order to achieve the look you want to get. Bear in mind one photo can’t look good in each look, so it’s best to think about your look before you take the photo. That way your grading process will be much smoother. Of course, you can do it in post-production, but it will take more time.

There are many ways to color grade your photos. We will try three methods, but you can experiment and combine them in order to find the ideal method that works for you.

The easiest way so far is by using a camera raw in Photoshop or Lightroom. This method will work best for raw photos, but you can do it with JPEG photos as well. Lightroom is based on Adobe camera raw, but Photoshop has the Adobe camera raw tool placed in Filters>Camera Raw filter (ctrl+shift+A | cmd+shift+A).

Cool look

The first step is to determine which way you are going by adjusting the temperature and tint sliders. The cool look will require you to lower your white balance temperature.

Original raw photo

I’ve set 4000K white balance and some basic tone and contrast adjustments using Basic panel inside camera raw.

Then using HSL adjustments I’ve made her skin-tones a bit warmer.

I love when highlights have organic falloff seen on film photos so I tweaked my curves in order to make highlights a bit darker.

Using brush tool inside camera raw I’ve adjusted her skin-tones a bit more – making it warmer, more saturated, and a bit lighter.

Now let’s see some comparison:

Further Processing: Split Toning

If you wish to go even further you can go back to camera raw filter and use split toning to introduce more blue color to the shadows, but then you should add a bit of orange to the highlights to balance it out. See how her yoga pants are blue now, as well as the walls in the shadows behind her.

Her skin is too blue now and it should be corrected to be slightly warmer. The best way is to use the mask and reveal her skin-tone from the previous layer before we applied the split toning effect in camera raw.

Skin is much better looking after masking.

Cool look color grade made in Photoshop

Finally, you can do some retouching, removing blemishes, skin imperfections and I added some contrast to her eyes and mouth.

This photo is looking fine because of her being in the shadow and wearing an orange shirt complementary to the blue environment, but we can color grade this photo in other manners too.

Let’s see how it would look if we chose to make the image warm looking.

Warm look

Again, we will approach the grading process using the camera raw filter. The same steps apply to Lightroom as well.

Photoshop color grading warm look in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR)

Moving the temperature slider to 6000K gives us a good starting point.

The temperature on your photos will vary and you will have to experiment.

Highlights falloff adjustment using curves.
Hue adjustments
Saturation adjustments
Luminosity adjustments

Using HSL we will adjust her skin-tones and make her shirt less yellow, more orange.

Back to the basic panel, we will tweak the temperature a bit as well as highlights and shadows.

It is not too noticeable, but there is slight warmth in the blacks and whites. Let’s address that. We are going to select mid-tones using the Color Range tool in Photoshop (Select>Color Range)

Use color range tool to selectively target the color grading in Photoshop

Select “Midtones” in the first dropdown, play with the range and fuzziness sliders until you selected all mid-tone elements in the photo. Make sure your whole subject is selected. Once you click OK you can tweak the selection using the quick selection tool in the toolbar on the right.

Once you are sure you have all the important bits selected layer the selection using the right-click and then Layer Via Copy. In order to have this option, you have to select Marquee, Lasso, or Selection tool first.

Using Image>Adjustments>Hue/Saturation reduce saturation and your blacks and whites will be much cleaner.

Warm look color grading in Photoshop

Final graded image. It’s warm, summer atmosphere and if you compare it to the previous look it seems like this one is right and that she is missing a jacket on the previous cold color grading look.

I chose the other image for the next two looks because of two things: blue skies and more foliage. If you want a teal & orange look you should have sky or some other blue accent in the shot and make it teal.

Film look

As for the film look, I also wanted sky and foliage. Depending on an actual film used, colors are rendered differently. If you want a precise look of Kodak Gold or Fuji Astia or Ilford HP5 you should try VSCO for Adobe Camera Raw, but if you don’t have a need for such thing – try simulating film yourself. You will be surprised by the results you can achieve with simple color grading in Photoshop.

You can do some basic adjustments, but if your image looks good enough you can jump straight to Tone Curves.

Most of the time you have been editing RGB curves, affecting all colors at once, but this time we will do it separately selecting separate Red, Green, and Blue channels. You have to be careful here and introduce subtle changes to curves. It’s good to start with similar changes in all three channels and then altering points in certain colors in order to achieve the desired look. I wanted more reds in the highlights so that’s why the top part of the red curve is higher than blue and green.

In the end I tweaked my RGB curves a bit, making blacks a bit lighter and whites darker. Just by 2 or 3 points. Nothing significant. And I also introduced a bit more contrast.

Using HSL I made her skin tones darker and also introduced a bit more yellow cast to greens in the background. You can play here extensively and achieve some great looking scenes.

Finally – you can’t shoot on film and avoid the grain. Even in large formats, there is noticeable grain so don’t be shy, pull that slider. This is where you choose how much grain is too much grain. I like the texture it gives to the photo so I made it rough and big.

I dig this look. Foliage looks great. The sky is mild and skin tones are so vintage.

Teal & orange look

I’m not a fan of Teal & Orange look, but it can be a great color grade sometimes. This photo works particularly well because of the already existing blue and orange tones.

Original image

This process is very simple. Go to the Calibration tab and move Blue slider all the way to left (Teal) and Red to right (Orange).

If it looks too artificial ease off a little bit on the sliders until you reach the look you are aiming for. Using Greens slider you can adjust yellows and that affects skin-tones.

Furthermore adjusting skin-tones to be neutral can be achieved in the HSL tab.

HSL adjustments in ACR works great for color grading

In the end, I didn’t like how foliage turned yellow-brownish and since I couldn’t fix it with HSL without affecting skin-tones I used brush tools in the ACR and corrected it with -100 Green tint.

That’s it – it’s that easy.

Color balance method

Let me show you another method for color grading you can use in Photoshop without Adobe Camera Raw. When you open the image go to Image>Adjustments>Color Balance ( Shortcut cmd+B | ctrl+B).

Original photo.

Image>Adjustments>Color Balance

Use color balance tool for color grading in Photoshop

Let’s make a cold color grade out of this image. Using radio buttons in Tone Balance dialog select Shadows and add some cyan and blue color. Use the middle slider to adjust the tint.

Now select Highlights in the Tone Balance box and add some warm tones to balance the skin-tones.

This particular image required some level adjustments, but after grading the image you can always adjust it to your needs using other Photoshop tools.

Let’s make a greenish grade inspired by the movie “Snatch”. I’ve started by adding some red to Midtones in order to ensure somewhat natural skin-tone.

Then I combined green with cyan and blue in the Shadows until I was satisfied with the actual look.

Photo after color grading in Photoshop
Here is the final look

This is a very quick way to achieve a look, but I find ACR to allow you more control with its non-destructive application of color grading than Photoshop. You can always go back and adjust settings. Also, you can use masks and make even greater color contrasts in the single image, but that is way more complicated.

Color Grading in a Nutshell 

By combining these tools and methods you can achieve any look, but your photo has to be suitable for the look. Not all photos are suitable for all looks, so if you can’t seem to get the desired result try the different photos. Most importantly, the more you practice the higher are chances you will succeed in color grading your photos in Photoshop. After some time you will be able to tell if you can achieve a specific look with a certain photo just by looking at it. And don’t go too far. Subtle color grades are often much better than too intense ones.

I hope this article has helped you understand color grading a little bit better. 

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