Home > Color Correction, Lightroom Tips/Tricks, Photoshop Tips/Tricks > Color Correction for Dummies. (And everyone else.)

Color Correction for Dummies. (And everyone else.)


Getting good color can sometimes be a difficult task, but if you follow some of these steps and use the tricks I explain in this post you can make color correction a much easier task.

Everyone has their own personal preference on what is “good color”. Some people prefer warmer skin tones and overall deeper, richer colors. (This is my own personal preference.) While others may prefer cooler skin tones with little or no yellow or red cast or low contrast bright images or very over saturated color or who knows! This is why learning to correct your color to your preference is ideal as nobody but yourself can get the color exactly how you want it and save a few dollars on lab fees for color correction.

Then again, some people wouldn’t know what good color is if it hit them in the head. Let’s be honest…. If that person is you, you can read on but you are probably better off sending your files to the lab as-is. Bad corrections can sometimes be more damaging than sending files with poor color straight out of the camera.

What it takes to correct color:

Although I don’t want to discriminate, if you have a color vision deficiency or otherwise poor color perception, doing your own color corrections is probably a bad idea. If you cannot see the “whole picture”, your adjustments may be more damaging than they do good. The good news is, if you have poor color perception but no actual color blindness, you can still use a reference image as a target to “aim” your color corrections towards. And to be honest, most if not all professional color technicians in labs use a “Lab Standard” image to help correct for skin tones and to aid in making consistent color from image to image and order to order. Don’t be ashamed to keep an image on your desktop as a reference and load it for comparisons as necessary. (For what it’s worth, I have several reference images I use for different types of skin tones and for black & white files.)

Skintone Reference Example

So you’re not sure where your color perception falls? Check out my post “How well do you see color?” which includes a link to an online version of the Farnsworth-Munsell 100 Hue Test hosted by X-Rite. However, the online test is somewhat flawed that it cannot be properly administered within the standard time limits under calibrated lighting like the physical FM100 test. And it doesn’t take into consideration monitor accuracy either. But it is a good starting point and you would likely score similar when taking a properly administered test. (I’ve taken both the actual proctored test and the online version of the test and have scored perfect in both but feel that the actual test is much better though more difficult.)

Now that we have that covered, we can get to color correction…. Or can we? Lets not forget about the monitor. Your monitors calibration is as critical if not more critical than your own color perception. After all, if you have perfect color perception but your monitors calibration is considerably wrong, you may not know this and could be making the color worse or making other unnecessary corrections to the images. I’ve covered this multiple times in the past and can’t stress enough how important it is to properly calibrate your display using a high quality device and software. (I personally own a ColorMunki and a Spyder 3 but prefer the Spyder 3 with ColorEyes Display Pro software which is sold separately.)

Moving on, assuming we have perfect color vision and a perfect color calibrated monitor, let’s get correcting color.

First off, in order to properly correct for color we need to have the correct exposure. However in the digital world, due to limitations of current imaging sensors and to give myself a little extra headroom for bright highlights and details, I do tend to expose about 1/3 to 1/2 stop low when working with mixed or uncontrolled light. (In the studio I have more control over light and the speed of things so I will generally meter and expose properly.) This helps save any chance of blowing out detail that can not otherwise be recovered. (Such as details on a wedding dress.) However in comparison, it is SIMPLE to bring the exposure back to “normal” with processing and still retain those highlight details. Just remember to correct for your exposure BEFORE making any corrections for color. This applies both if you shoot in RAW or JPEG and regardless of which software you prefer to use. You cannot properly judge color if the image is too light or too dark. Just a thought…

An example of blown out skintones. This cannot be recovered.

As of right now I prefer to do the majority of my file processing in Adobe Lightroom since I can quickly access, compare and easily copy and paste corrections between batches of files. Since I work primarily in camera raw, I can make a considerable amount of adjustments within Lightroom to that raw data with no risk of permanent changes to the images. (All of your corrections in Lightroom can be undone.) However, a good raw work flow starts at the camera. Starting with a custom white balance is ideal for getting good color captured to begin with, but it also makes for less headaches down the line as the color will remain more consistent from image to image compared to using an auto white balance mode. If you can’t make a custom white balance, you can switch the white balance to a preset that matches the conditions you are working in to get more consistent color that way as well. And still in camera, getting a proper exposure is critical to good color as well but I will cover that a little more later.

Once my files are in Lightroom, I will decide which custom camera profiles I want to apply to which images, typically either as a whole for the session or in batches depending on the images and what conditions they were captured under. This is of course optional and would only apply if you have a custom camera profile or have downloaded camera profiles that you wish to use to emulate built-in camera modes. Personally, I prefer making my own profiles which I find always look considerably better than the default profiles and can compensate for even the worst lighting conditions. Read more about making camera profiles in “Color Checker Passport does EXTREME color correction”.

Now I will quickly skip through my images and decide if any need any major adjustments to exposure or not. Ideally I had the exposure dialed in during the session so the images should already be consistent but I will try to even out any stray frames that are under or over exposed. I want the images all properly exposed and adjusted to my preference before I move on. One trick you can use with the Exposure slider in Lightroom is to show the clipping by holding down the Option key (on Mac) or Alt key (on PC) and this will help you visualize what areas of the image may have blown out highlights due to overexposure. This trick also works with the Recovery slider (areas of overexposure) as well as the Blacks slider (clipped shadows).

This “show clipping” feature indicates where and what colors are being “clipped” or maxed causing less detail and possibly color artifacts to be present in those areas. Ideally we want to keep maximum RGB values under 240 (about 95% in Lightroom) but sometimes that isn’t possible. This also varies by color space since the RGB value 255,0,0 in sRGB is only 219,0,0 in AdobeRGB and to really be confusing it maps to 179,70,26 in ProPhotoRGB. *HUH?* Yep, but we’ll cover that some other time. Right now I just want good color regardless of which color space I am using. This Option/Alt key trick can also be done in Photoshop when adjusting the shadow and highlight sliders in Curves and Levels.

The next step in Lightroom would be to either load a shot with my white balance target or Color Checker Passport and double-check my white balance (or fix it assuming it wasn’t set correctly to begin with). This should neutralize the image for the most part. However this neutral image may now look to sterile and boring. So after I copy those settings to a few images, I will often manually adjust the white balance slightly warmer. (Using my skin tone reference image to help me guide the skin tones to a natural level overall.) Naturally this will vary depending on your personal preference and the image itself. For example, you may want to warm up wedding photos or a portrait but it would be better to leave product photography very neutral and more true color.

With the camera profiles applied, exposure now correct and white balance tweaked to preference, I will either tweak the curves to increase contrast or adjust the Blacks slider control. Again paying attention not to blow out any highlights or darken the shadows in areas I may want detail still. And lastly I may decide to add some Vibrance or Saturation beyond my default import settings but using both in moderation as too much can result in blown out skin tones that are difficult to fix later. Remember, when working in Lightroom, very bright and vivid colors can often go out of gamut once files are saved in a smaller color space (such as sRGB) for printing at your lab.

And lets not forget the Adjustment Brush. Probably my favorite and most used tool in Lightroom. Once you learn to use the adjustment brush properly, it let you work wonders on images. Watch some of my Lightroom videos at YouTube ModifiedPhoto YouTube Channel for more tips on how to use the adjustment brush to its potential.

Personally, I find color correction in Lightroom to be very quick and easy since I can tweak one image in detail and apply it to many in only a few steps. This makes getting consistency between images very simple and it is much easier and faster to process the camera raw files in batches than it is to process JPEG or TIFF files one at a time in Photoshop. However, for those occasions…. Read on.

In Photoshop, we have a number of tools for adjusting the image including Curves, Levels, Color Balance, Brightness/Contrast and Hue/Saturation among other less used tools (Shadow/Highlight and Exposure). Of those listed, I tend to use Curves and Levels the most for adjusting the density or “exposure” of the image and Color Balance and sometimes Curves for adjusting the COLOR the most. And of course if I need to add saturation I might touch the Hue/Saturation sliders but I have other methods to boost color that I like better depending on the image and subject matter. (See “Richer Color Without Saturation” for details and a video on the technique.)

A quick overview of the “tools”:

Each has its own advantages so everyone should learn how to use all of the tools provided to get the best out of our images. I prefer using Curves to boost contrast as I can easily dial in just the right amount of highlights, mid tones and shadows and if I wish, I can use the layer mask to vary those edits across the image. And remember earlier the trick in Lightroom with the Option/Alt key? It works the same in Curves when adjusting the black or white point sliders. (Or you can also turn on clipping with the “Show Clipping” check box.) Also the nice thing with curves is the fact that by not moving the end points, the highlights and shadows can remain “locked” in place so you are not clipping colors like you can when using Levels. Another trick with Curves is by moving the cursor over the image with the Curves window open, you can hold the Command key (Mac) or Control key (PC) and click a spot on the image. This will add a control point on the curve that directly corresponds to the RGB value clicked in the image. (This really helps if you want to target a specific color range to adjust or lock down.) I do sometimes use Curves to adjust color but keep in mind the adjustments are VERY SENSITIVE and even the slightest tweak to the curve can result in very strong changes to the color overall. Tip: You can use the arrow keys to move a selected control point around in Curves with a lot more accuracy and control.

Now on to Levels. Again, we can use the Option/Alt key trick when moving the black or white point sliders around to check for clipping. This is important as you don’t want to lose color detail in skin tones, otherwise you may end up with a really messed up file and your prints will suffer the consequences. As with Curves, I use Levels mostly for adjusting density and less for tweaking color. Although I do sometimes use the dropper tools in Levels, I find they often result in very bad changes to photographs. They do work nice when I want to quickly clean up a scanned document however. (I rarely use them and don’t advise using them unless someone knows of some other secret trick to make them dance around and do awesome things.)

And now to the my favorite adjustment and probably the least used by most people: Color Balance. Honestly, I rarely see people properly utilizing these controls, probably due to a lack of understanding of how they work. Basically the sliders are Cyan/Red, Magenta/Green and Yellow/Blue. The reason they are paired up like this is because the colors Red and Cyan offset each other. For example, if your image appears to have a red cast, you can increase the cyan level and it will neutralize some of that red color. And if your image seems too blue, you add yellow to compensate. Although these colors don’t appear to be directly across on a color wheel, trust me, this is how it works and that is all we need to know. Needless to say, it takes some time to get used to the Color Balance sliders but once you do, it makes perfect sense and you can quickly and easily compensate for bad color by eye.

I highly suggest learning to use Color Balance for corrections.

What about the Brightness/Contrast and Hue/Saturation controls? Clearly these are self-explanatory but other than for a small boost in saturation or for other creative effects, I don’t use these controls as often as the Curves, Levels or Color Balance. But that doesn’t make them any less useful. Clearly some of my personal favorite “duotone” actions use the Hue/Saturation adjustment layers specifically for the colorize option.

Hey, lets not forget about Layer Masks!! Again, probably one of my most used tricks in Photoshop is the Layer Mask. I can easily make quick overall corrections to an image using Adjustment Layers or make targeted corrections by adding a Layer Mask to hide or reveal just the areas that I want the adjustments to apply corrections to. For example, a color cast on what should be a white wedding dress. No problem, add a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer, turn down the saturation 30-50% or until the dress now looks more neutral and white (but not gray… so don’t turn the saturation all the way down) and then using the Layer Mask for that Adjustment Layer, fill it with black to hide everything and then paint in white to reveal only the areas of the dress you want the lowered saturation. Merge down and then save. This should take only seconds to perform spot color corrections to fix problem areas that your lab cannot correct for. (Without paying a retouching fee.)

Get on with it!

Alright, here is where the fun starts… Again, we need to correct for the exposure before touching any color sliders. Remember, proper density (exposure) is KEY to good color. This is a good reason to get the exposure correct in the camera to begin with. Needless to say, that doesn’t always happen and even if it meters right, sometimes the image may still need a little boost on the screen. And as I mentioned earlier, I tend to under expose slightly on purpose to save highlights. It is possible to reasonably recover images 2 to 3 stops underexposed but just a half stop overexposed and bright details as well as skin tones may be lost and are difficult if not impossible to be recovered.

Checking the histogram is a good way to verify exposure but it is also confusing and often leads us to believe the exposure is good (or bad) when it is not. So here is a trick I recommend to check exposure on skin tones in portraits, but this can be applied to any object in any image. The “Facemask Histogram” technique isn’t my own to claim but I do utilize it now and then to double-check my exposure in tricky files. Read more about the Facemask Histogram in “Histograms lie, unless…”

Using Curves or Levels, I will enable clipping or hold the Option/Alt key and bring the shadow slider up until I start to show clipping and then check. If I’m not losing details that I want to keep, I may continue to increase the slider until the point I want black to nearly black starts to clip and then back it off a bit. Then I repeat the same with the white point slider with special attention to skin tones. If red or yellow clipping warning starts to show up anywhere on the skin, bring the slider back about 5 or 10 points or else the skin tones will begin to discolor and lose detail. You can adjust the mid tones to preference. Obviously everyone has their own preference on color and some people like a deeper, richer looking image while others want a lighter, less contrasty look. Depending on how you treat the middle slider (Levels) or the middle of the curve (Curves) will result in a different “feel” to the image. Of course if you want less contrast you can back off the black and white point sliders as well and edit to taste.

Depending on how bad the exposure of the image is to begin with, I may need to boost the brightness more still which I prefer doing in Curves. I will bring one or two points up in the middle making sure that they form a smooth curve still. In an extreme case of exposure problems I may even resort to using the Shadow/Highlight controls (Image > Adjustments > Shadow/Highlight) This takes a little experimenting to get used to the controls (if using the advanced controls), otherwise you can just adjust the basic controls to help bring back some of the details before moving on.

Adding MORE color to BAD color just makes MORE BAD color.

Now our exposure should be better and the image should have more life. If it has too much contrast, you can tone down the corrections you just made by using the Fade command (Edit > Fade), lowering the opacity of the adjustment layer or by adjusting the sliders again slightly. (This is where working with adjustment layers is ideal.) So on to color. First mistake most people make is to go straight to Hue/Saturation and dial that baby up to +45 or so. Now I can’t say that may not be necessary at times but adding MORE color to BAD color just makes MORE BAD color. And just about nothing is worse than way over saturated “bad” color.

So instead add a Color Balance layer and experiment. If you scroll back up a few lines you might re-read the sentence regarding how it works and then take a look at your image and ask yourself what you see. In the “Before” example image below, I see a cyan/yellow tint overall causing the image to look dingy and bland. If the color cast isn’t obvious at first, try looking at the parts of the image you know should be neutral or close to neutral. I know that the white tutu should be very bright blueish-white and that the wall is a slightly off-white. Once I identify the color cast, I can now adjust accordingly. I know that adding blue with the Color Balance sliders will offset yellow and adding red will offset cyan. This is where having a good reference image comes in handy. You can load the reference and make comparisons side by side. The reference should be something that fits YOUR personal preference for color and know that this image (density and color) prints come out to your liking and standards. Then make further adjustments as necessary to tweak the color to resemble the reference image.

Color Corrections - Before & After (Click Image for larger view)

You can also use Curves or Levels to adjust color but I find that I can usually get the color to the point I am happy with it by using only the Color Balance controls. If I just need to make a quick overall correction, I may change to a specific color channel and adjust the curve slightly but I find that fine tuning the color to be more difficult with Curves and Levels.

In the “After” example, I added a Curves layer to tweak both the density and contrast. I then tweaked the color using the Color Balance sliders. I added another Curves layer to slightly brighten up her face only by using a layer mask. And a third Curves layer to make an overall correction to the color of the wood floor which was picking up a slightly stronger color cast from the fluorescent overhead lights, again using a layer mask to only adjust the areas I wanted. Overall the corrections took less than one minute including the extra corrections to the face and floor.

Now that we have the exposure and color tweaked and the image now looks good and natural, this is where we can start to get creative. Remember, use adjustment layers with layer masks to do spot corrections such as fixing an odd color cast on a wedding dress or correcting for bright or dark spots in the lawn on a family portrait and so on. BUT I don’t even begin retouching an image until the above steps are done and I save adding saturation for last as bringing out the CORRECT color, density and contrast will often result in more saturation naturally and I won’t need to as much if any in the end. Once we are satisfied with all of the above corrections, it’s time to merge layers. You can go ahead and flatten the adjustment layers used and save the file out as you normally would.

As I have said, I find that I can get a better correction quicker working in Lightroom but I do often take an image into Photoshop for making spot color corrections and for other creative effects. Or when someone brings me an old photo or poor quality file to correct, I will typically do those corrections in Photoshop on layers to selectively correct areas of the image. In the end, learning to use the controls and having a good reference image handy can make all the difference between good and bad color.

Lets review:

  1. Good color STARTS in-camera by using a custom white balance or by properly selecting a white balance mode. And by capturing images with proper exposure.
  2. Build and use a custom camera profile. (Buy a ColorChecker Passport and read my blog for tips on how to use it, it’s worth the time and money!)
  3. Calibrate your monitor. A bad calibration can cause you to make unnecessary changes.
  4. Use a reference image to help adjust skin tones correctly.
  5. Learn to use the tools in Lightroom and Photoshop to get the best color out of the image.

Hey! What about the video? I didn’t read all that. I just scrolled down to see the video!

Alright, here they are. Due to limitations of the length of video uploads to Facebook, I have split it into a Lightroom segment and a Photoshop segment. Please watch both as both will cover the tips and tricks necessary to correct color effectively in each program. Also don’t forget all of my videos are in HD so please click to watch in full screen and switch playback to HD mode for the best quality.

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  1. Pete
    April 22, 2011 at 8:51 am

    Great article. Could you post a few links to the reference images you use for selecting good skin tones?

    • modifiedphoto
      April 22, 2011 at 1:19 pm

      I am about to post a new video and blog about color correction touching on some of the basics and explaining them a bit more. I will add a link in that post to some reference images.

  1. April 23, 2010 at 1:50 am

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