It’s an unavoidable fact that most images look different in print than on camera — the colors are brighter and more vivid. To bring out all the shades in pictures, photographers use color grading and color correction photography tools.
Color correction is an art of its own. The true understanding of color grading and editing basics comes only with practice or talent. However, even by applying basic color grading tips, you will be able to enhance the shot exponentially.
In this post, we’ll discuss what is color correction and find out the top seven practices that will help you take vivid, colorful pictures.
Adjust the highlights and mid-tones
Every picture is a balance — or imbalance, depending on the photographer’s skill — of shadows, highlights, and mid-tones. Depending on how an editor person plays around with these three aspects, a picture can either become lighter and softer or darker and haunting.
The power of highlights, shadows, and mid-tones in photography is undeniable. Let’s take a closer look at these concepts to have a better understanding on how to color correct photos:
- Shadows are the blacks of the frame that appear when shooting in poorly-lit areas. They tend to underexpose the subject of the image and reduce the level of detail in the frame.
- Highlights are the brightest areas of the frame. When enough light is hitting the subject, it improves the exposure of the frame and creates a focal point in the photo. However, if the highlights are too bright, the shot will come out overexposed.
- Midtones are the in-between, the middle tones of the frame. If black and white are the main colors a photographer operates with, grey will be the mid-tone of the frame.
Now that you are clear on the terminology, you might still be wondering why a photographer should adjust highlights and mid-tones, instead of leaving the frame as is. Manipulating these concepts offers photographers more freedom to edit photo colors and the possibility to tweak the image further, add more emphasis on some details and reduce the importance of others.
Here are the main reasons for adjusting highlights and mid-tones carefully:
- Making sure a shot is well-balanced;
- Create a high-contrast or a soft image;
- Color correct photos by fixing exposure issues.
Since color correction is a part of the post-processing, you will need an editing tool to work on highlights and mid-tones. Most software tools offer the following adjustment features:
- Color histogram;
- Brightness/contrast adjustment sliders;
- Shadow/highlight toolbars;
- Image color correction slider;
- Black/white clip feature.
2. Increase saturation on the subject
Color saturation is one of the most talked-about concepts in photo editing, all thanks to its tremendous creative value. Knowing how to brighten up the tones of your picture can change the mood of the shot, make it stand out, and help deliver its message to the audience.
Similarly, a photographer should know the limits of using saturation. Since human brains are trained to see pure, properly saturated colors, we perceive over-saturation as plastic and artificial.
The most common way to adjust saturation is by using digital tools. They offer more freedom in color grading photography than camera presets do, help walk the line between under- and over-saturation, and are more intuitive than the in-camera settings.
If you’re improving saturation in post-processing, here are the tools to look for in the editing software:
- Hue — changing the color values of the image to bring a different palette to the shot;
- Saturation slider — adds or reduces the intensity of tones in the shot;
- Levels/Curve — local color adjustment;
- Master control — balance the saturation throughout the entire shot.
If a photographer wants to improve color saturation in-camera, a saturation management technique will help create vivid pictures with no help of post-processing tools:
- Use a polarizing filter to get rid of reflection and see the true colors of the water or sky in the frame;
- Slightly underexpose an image to create a richer, brighter tone;
- Adjust the in-camera Saturation panel;
- Switch the color space from SRGB to Adobe RGB.
3. Desaturate the shadows
Although effective when applied globally, saturation is often used locally to tweak a given aspect of the frame without changing the picture’s main tone. For instance, a photographer should consider shadow desaturation for a cinematic, atmospheric effect. The same idea stays true for the highlights.
Although it’s not as common in portrait and landscape photography, highlight and shadow desaturation are commonly used in film photography. The reason for such an industry practice lies in technical limitations filmmakers of the previous century were facing — during processing, the equipment would automatically desaturate the tones that were too bright.
The easiest way to desaturate an image is by using Levels/Curves. This way, a photographer can move the highlights and the shadows up or down, reducing their impact on the frame.
4. Use Waveform and Histogram graphs
Graphs are the carriers of important technical information about the shot — they help detect color imbalances, understand when a shot has too many blacks or highlights, etc. However, reading the Waveform, Histogram, and Vector along is not easy — let alone manipulating and adjusting them.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these graphs and find out how to use them for color correction picture work.
The Waveform display shows the RGB values for the image that typically range from 20 to 90. The first rule a photographer should take into account when manipulating Waveform is that the values below 0 or above 100 fall outside the visible color spectrum.
If you want to crush the blacks or the highlights, increasing or reducing the Waveform values beyond the visible point is a way to go.
To balance the colors using the Waveform graph, make sure the Red, Green, and Blue channels are on the same level.
Photographers often use color histograms to improve exposure and color balance photography. The graph shows the number of pixels for every level between the blacks and the whites. The dark side of the histogram is located to the left while the lighter shadows are to the right of the graph.
There are two basic rules photographers should follow when manipulating color histograms:
- If the histogram shifts to the left — move it to the right. The abundance of shadows in the frame is a red flag for underexposure. In such images, even the whites will have a grey shadow, and the level of detail is dismal.
- If the histogram shifts to the right — move it to the left. A peak on the right side of the graph shows the overexposure of the shot, making a picture too washed out and white.
RGB histograms work similarly to black-and-white ones — you will see the number of Red-Green-Blue pixels in the frame and can increase or reduce the impact of a color channel.
5. Choose a specific color grade for stylistic emphasis
If a photographer wants to publish a series of images, the goal is to have an overarching theme that unites them. Introducing a primary color shade that will hold true for all images is a way to stand out among other photographers and convey a specific atmosphere, mood, or set of emotions.
The most common options for primary color shades are:
- Blue — for colder compositions, like a sky or water pictures;
- Red — pictures of flower fields, land, etc;
- Yellow — bright, warm shots.
In order for a picture to be balanced and cohesive, every primary color should be followed by a complimentary one. In the color wheel, a complementary color is the one on the opposite side from the main shade — green and red, yellow and blue, orange and teal.
When a photographer wants to introduce a new palette to the shot, these are the steps to take:
- Decide on all the colors you want to add or emphasize in the picture;
- Align the color using Hue, Saturation, and Luminance tools described above;
- Tweak the color curve;
- Split the tones.
6. Use masks and vignettes
Masks and vignettes are so common and impactful that learning these tools is a must for every photographer’s bag of tricks.
A vignette refers to gradually darkening the edges of an image. A mask is iris-shaped, circular, with harder edges. Both are used for local color grading.
Here are the most common masking techniques in photography and cinematography:
- Pin-hole zoom — closing or opening the field of view in the frame. It helps soften the edges of the shot, adds a romantic flair to the image, etc.;
- Voyeur mask — creates a binocular point of view, as if a viewer watches something through the lens, a hole, or an opening. It helps add a darker shade to the frame and creates a haunting atmosphere.
As for vignettes in photography and cinematography, filters like the graduated neutral density add a darker shade to the shot, increasing suspense and creative value. Using colored vignettes is a way to show a subject’s point of view in the subtlest way possible.
7. Get the right post-processing software
The quality of color grading photos heavily relies on choosing the right toolset. If advanced tools like Photoshop and Lightroom are too counterintuitive for you, consider going with an intermediate-level (though still powerful) software option.
Phototheca is an example of software that has all the features needed for effortless photo color correction — they are easy to find and access, and the interface of the software is simple to understand. Take a look at the list of color grading tools the software offers photographers:
- Temperature slider — balance the warmth of the image by increasing or decreasing the color temperature value;
- Tint — balance the saturation across all color channels — red, blue, and green;
- Exposure — adjusts the blacks and the whites of an image;
- Highlights — a slider that helps manage the details of highlights in the frame;
- Brightness — a saturation and contrast management feature;
- Contrast — balance the contrast in the frame.
With a full suite of photo management tools — including metadata editing, image sorting, search, format conversion, and many others — and an easy-to-use interface, Phototheca is a fully functional tool that helps photographers add a professional look and feel to every shot before printing or publishing it online.
As you embark on the journey of color correcting photos, the thing to keep in mind is — it won’t be easy. When it comes to over-grading, there’s a thin line between overdoing it and getting everything just right.
The good news is, all the time and effort put in to master color correction will help you stand out, create a personal style, and deliver high-quality images to a client. Getting color correction photography right on the first try is nearly impossible — but after some practice, it will come to you naturally and will boost your confidence in your skill and craft.