Digital Darkroom; Basic Colour Adjustments Photoshop

The Digital Darkroom is a series of posts aimed at beginners and those interested in Digital Photography and Editing. In previous weeks we have looked at basic adjustments, curves, editing colour with the HSL/Color panels, black and white toning, split toning, local adjustments, sharpening, noise reduction and Lens Correction and Camera Calibration in Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw. Moving into Photoshop we have looked at the program’s layout,basic adjustments to light and this week basic adjustments to colour with Color Balance, Curves, Photo Filter, Hue Saturation and Vibrance.
If you wish to check out previous posts in the series you can do here.

There are two ways that you can edit colour in Photoshop; one is to edit the saturation and the other is to edit the tone. Saturation is how vibrant the colour is and can be decreased to become greyer and increased to become more intense. Tonal colour adjustments adjust what colours there are. Some basic colour theory is needed to make colour adjustments, just like when we adjusted colours in Lightroom.

Catkins at goldern hour uneditedNormally when editing an image in Photoshop it is an image is a RGB image, with all the colours in the image being made up of red, green and blue. When adjusting these colours you will either be increasing the red, green and blue values or reducing them. As you reduce the values of red, green and blue you increase the values of Cyan Magenta and Yellow.

To take you through colour adjustments I am using a picture taken during golden hour of a pair of Catkins. The only adjustment I have made so far is to reduce the noise and apply shake reduction filters; we will cover filter in a future post.

When adjusting colour I find it easier to first tackle the tone and then approach the saturation.
Colour Balance and Curves and the two basic Adjustments that you can make to colour.

Color Balance

Colour balance allows you to change the tone in the Highlight, Midtones and Shadows indecently from each other. This means if the highlights are too blue you can add some yellow to balance it out without making the whole image yellow.
The adjustment has three sliders for each tone; Cyan/Red Magenta/Green and Yellow/Blue. There is also a tick box option preserve Luminosity; It is a good idea to keep this ticked as it protects any adjustments you have made to the light tones of the image.


When making adjustments it is good to see what colours are already present and which ones you want to increase and which ones you want to balance out. For example in my image all the tones are quite yellow and green. I want to keep the yellow of the sun but have it more orange, this means in the highlights I must increase yellow and red but I will also add a bit of magenta as well. To add some contrast or Drama I can think about making the shadows colder, adding blue. The midtones is where I my subject’s tonal range is and I quite like the green yellow so I will leave it as is. The secret with colour balance is not to make huge adjustments with one colour, but to make a series of smaller adjustments that build up to a big change. It is very easy with colour balance to create colour casts.


Left side Color Balance Right side no Color Balance



We covered curves last week when looking at editing the light of an image. To edit colours you use the adjustment in exactly the same way. Clicking the drop down menu you can choose one of the colour channels to edit, red, green or blue. By clicking and dragging on the curve you can adjust a specific tone and when you let go an anchor keeps that adjustment in place. You can also use the targeted adjustment tool to click on the image which tones you wish to adjust; very helpful if you don’t know where the tone is on the curve.


Following the same idea of the colour balance step, I went through the channels and this time clicked and dragged on the image. I started with reds, then moved onto blues and finally adjusted the greens. By dragging the curve up you increase the channels colour by dragging it down you add the opposite colour to the image; Blues opposite being yellow, red’s being cyan and Green’s being Magenta.


Left Curves Adjustment Right no Curves Adjustment


Photo Filter

photo-filterIf the correction you want to make is to the images colour temperature, overall to cool (blue) or warm (yellow/orange), the Photo Filter Adjustment is what you need to use. The Photo Filter allows you to correct global colour issues, from colour temperature to colour casts.
For example, if the image is very blue it could be because the wrong white balance has been metered or used. By applying the Photo Filter with the warming preset, the yellow orange tones will cancel out the cold blue of the colour cast, creating a more pleasing iamge.
The adjustment is easy to you can either select one of the filtered colours or pick a colour yourself, you can then adjust the density (the strength) of the filter.

With my image adding a cooling filter creates a monochromatic background with some touches of warmth in the highlights but also wipes out the yellow from the Catkins leaving them pale and uninteresting. However adding a warming filter intensifies the muddy brown and yellows that are in the original image.


Top Warming Filter Bottom Cooling Filter

If I was to use the Photo Filter with this image, I would do so combined with either a curves or colour balance adjustment.

Balancing colours

I really liked the colours from the color balance adjustments earlier and I preferred cooling down the image with the Photo Filter. The first thing I did was correct the colour temperature with the Photo Filter Adjustment and then I added the color balance on top warming up the highlights, adding contrast in the colours.


Hue and Saturation

SaturationHue and Saturation allows you to adjust not just the intensity of colours but also the overall hue (color). Hue and Saturation allows you to adjust globally as well as each colour channel and its opposite.
Hue and saturation has three sliders; Hue to adjust the colour, saturation – the intensity and Lightness – the brightness.
If you click colourize it switches the image to a greyscale image with a single colour  ( a simple way to create a sepia tone). You can adjust the single colour using hue and the intensity with saturation.
You can also use the selective adjustment tool to click on a colour in the image and by sliding up and down increase and decrease the saturation.

How you use the Hue and Saturation adjustment is really depending on what you want to do. If you are looking to increase the overall intensity of the colours in the image, just dragging the saturation slider will be enough; the same goes for adjusting the overall hue. However if you are looking to increase a specific colour or increase that colour more the selective tool is also useful.


Top No Saturation Adjustment Bottom Saturation Adjustment


For my image I don’t want to increase the saturation overall, but increase the intensity of the Catkins. By clicking the local adjustment tool and making some minor adjustment It tells me the main colour in the catkins is yellow. I adjust the hue of the yellows to make the green of the Catkins more intense.


Vibrance is really like vibrance in Lightroom. Vibrance adjusts the saturation of the image, but unlike the saturation adjustment it doesn’t raise the saturation evenly. Vibrance weighs the amount of change in saturation more to the weaker colours than the stronger ones. Vibrance is great for adding a pop of colour to an image.

Since I added a bit of saturation earliar, I don’t feel that it really needs more saturation through vibrance.

When to Make Colour Adjustments

final-layers-palletColour adjustments need to be made to correct the colours that you have captured or to change the colours to evoke a specific feeling. Not all images need a huge amount of colour adjustment, some just need a tweak in the saturation and maybe a correction in colour temperature which you can do with the photo filter. When making basic adjustments it is to enhance the image and the subject, to pull it out and place it centre stage.

Personally I like to use Color Balance to make my first overall adjustment and then make more specific adjustments with the curves later. If there is a colour cast or the image needs some colour correction due to white balance issues or a colour cast, I would use the Photo filter first and then make an overall colour adjustment. For me Vibrance and Saturation adjustments come last.
The final tweak I made to the image was a basic curves adjustment to brighten the whole image and create some more separation tonally between the catkins and the background. I also went back and tweaked my colour balance to remove some magenta that was creeping in.

Catkins at goldern hour


If you have any questions or comments please use the comment box below, all are welcome as this series is designed to help people learn how to use Photoshop and Lightroom.

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14 thoughts on “Digital Darkroom; Basic Colour Adjustments Photoshop

  1. Ah… finally… 😉 I have learned several new things. YEAH! THANK YOU!
    I have an embarrassing question ;-( Where can I find color balance… etc. I mean where in the menu bar in CS5. I don’t think element has it.

  2. My son and I had a serious discussion about colour balance and photo resolution. He had hooked his desktop up to my TV to watch a movie the other day and disgusted about how the movie looked bleached out. It moved onto comparisons between different resolutions of computer brands. He is doing a computer systems degree and yesterday they compared the different resolutions of expensive and cheap computers. His laptop didn’t fare well compared to one with the expensive graphics card. What I am trying to get to is that sometimes we see the colour tones differently to what you originally see when editing.
    Great post though.

    • Hi Raewyn, I will agree with your son that all monitors interpret colours slightly differently. This though is a a separate issue balancing the colour of an image..
      If you really want to see the colors of your image as they are you need to colour calibrate your monitor or screen. This can be done with some hardware or by eye, the hardware is more accurate though.
      Colour balancing an image is about correcting the colours of a photo, If you photograph a portrait with natural light on a cold day, the skin tones can be washed out and less warm. By colour balancing the image you can correct those tones.
      You are also right that we all see colours slightly differently, yet when editing there maybe still some minor adjustments you will need to make.
      Thanks for your comment.

  3. Really useful info thanks again for taking the time to make sense of what can be a daunting array of tools and possibilities. I really liked what you did to the image… : ))

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