Color grading is a creative technique that alters the color and tones of an image. The goal of color grading is to add a certain feel to a photo, whether it’s a dark and moody feel with blue hues or a vibrant and light feel with yellow hues. There are various ways you can color grade in Photoshop, and here are my top five.
Each color grading method produces a slightly different result, so you should choose the technique you use based on how you want your image to look.
5 Ways To Color Grade Your Images In Photoshop
When color grading, it’s important not to overdo the effect as this creates unrealistic photos. While you can add creative effects to photos, they should still look balanced and not overdone. Be cautious when color grading to keep your project balanced.
While I might slightly overdo the effects to show the various changes better, you should always practice restraint in your final picture. Below is the image I’ll use for demonstration throughout the different color grading options.
You need to access the Adjustments panel for the first four examples. If you can’t see it in your workspace, go to Window > Adjustments to open the panel.
1. The Selective Color Adjustment Layer
The first method uses a Selective Color Adjustment Layer, which gives you a lot of control over the color grading result. This adjustment layer allows you to select a color channel or whites, neutrals, and blacks. You can then alter each channel to change colors selectively.
A potential downfall of this method is that it takes a bit longer than the other options. If you aren’t comfortable using color channels, this may be a bit confusing for you. However, you can precisely alter your photo’s colors with some practice.
First, add the Selective Color Adjustment Layer by clicking on the icon in the Adjustments panel. The layer is added above your image in the Layers panel.
The Properties panel will also open up automatically, giving you the option to adjust the various color channels.
The first thing to note is the two options at the bottom of the panel, where you can check off Relative or Absolute. Without going into detail about how these options work, put simply, Relative adds a subtle color adjustment, while Absolute adds a bolder color adjustment to the photo.
To start, select the color channel you want to affect by clicking the arrow next to Colors to open the drop-down menu. If you wish to adjust a specific color on your photo, choose that color channel. However, if you want to adjust the entire image, I suggest using the Whites, Neutrals, and Blacks channels.
For my example, I will start by adjusting the Neutrals. Once I select it, I can change the various sliders.
Each slider represents two color channels, and sliding to the right increase a specific color in the image, while sliding to the left increases the opposite color in the picture. However, the color isn’t simply added to your image. Instead, it mixes with the colors based on the selected color channel.
The sliders represent the following colors:
Slide right to add Cyan; slide left to add Red.
Slide right to add Magenta; slide left to add Green
Slide right to Yellow; slide left to add Blue
Slide right to add Black; slide left to add White
Remember that you are affecting the neutral areas within the image. So if I add Magenta, it looks like this.
If I add Blue, it will add blue to the neutral areas of the photo. As you can see, it is very easy to overdo the color grading.
Adjust the sliders slightly until you achieve the effect you are after. I want a moody feel, so my sliders look like this.
These slight changes darken my photo and add tints of Cyan, Blue, and Green.
Now, you can change the color channel and adjust the sliders for those areas. So use the Colors drop-down menu and select Whites. Then adjust the sliders as needed.
Then, repeat the steps using the Blacks color channel and adjust the sliders.
You can go back and adjust any of the channels as needed. You have now color-graded the image to create a different feel, such as a moody vibe, in my case.
2. The Color Balance Adjustment Layer
The next method uses the Color Balance Adjustment Layer and works similarly to the Selective Color method but is simplified. This method only gives you the option to adjust three tonal ranges; Shadows, Midtones, and Highlights.
This adjustment layer is primarily used to correct colors on an image, such as adding skin tones back in on photos taken using a flash. However, you can also use this adjustment to adjust the tone and mood of your image for a creative effect.
Select the Color Balance icon in the Adjustments panel, and the layer is added above your image layer.
You can preserve the luminosity by ensuring the box is checked at the bottom of the panel. I recommend checking this option to not affect the image’s perceived brightness.
To color grade the image, choose a tonal range from the drop-down menu next to Tone.
Then adjust the sliders to add a specific color to that tonal range. The color you add to the image is blended into the existing colors and not simply added over them. The sliders in this panel work opposite to the previous method; move the slider toward the color to add more of that color to the image.
- Right for Red; left for Cyan
- Right for Green; left for Magenta
- Right for Blue; left for Yellow
For example, moving the first slider to the right adds a red tint to the midtones in the photo.
Moving the same slider to the left adds a Cyan tint to the midtones.
Adjust the sliders as needed to alter the midtones to achieve the effect you are after.
Change the tones to Highlights and adjust the sliders as you’d like.
Then, adjust the Shadows if needed. Remember to add slight adjustments to keep the image looking realistic and balance the colors and tones in the picture.
I’ve brightened the image slightly by adding warmer tones in my example.
3. The Hue Saturation Adjustment Layer
You can use the Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer to adjust the hues in the photo and the saturation and lightness levels. This method is helpful if you want to target one color channel and adjust the hue (color), saturation (vibrancy), or lightness (brightness) of that one particular channel.
You can also adjust the entire image simultaneously, affecting all the color channels. This technique is a great way to change the color of clothes or other objects in a picture, but you can also use it to change the mood of a photo.
Add the adjustment layer by clicking on the Hue/Saturation icon in the Adjustments panel. The layer appears above the image in the Layers panel.
You can add a preset adjustment to the image if you want a particular look. For instance, select Sepia from the Preset drop-down menu.
Your photo automatically takes on a sepia tone.
You can also control the color changes by manually adjusting the sliders. First, select the color channel you want to modify (keep it at Master if you wish to adjust all the channels in the image). In my example, I want to increase the vibrancy of the yellow leaves, so I chose Yellows from the drop-down list.
If you aren’t sure what channel the color you want to change falls into, you can select the color from your image. Click on the icon next to the color drop-down menu. Then, use the Eyedropper to select a color from the photo.
Once your color is selected, move the sliders as needed. The Hue slider allows you to change the color.
Saturation increased the vibrancy of the selected color channel. Move it to the right to add vibrancy or to the left to decrease the vibrancy.
The Lightness slider affects the brightness of the selected color channel. Move it to the right to lighten the colors or to the left to darken them.
Switch between the color channels as needed and adjust the sliders to color grade the image. For my example, I adjusted the Yellows, Reds, and Greens to add vibrancy to the trees.
I now have a more vibrant image than before.
4. Gradient Maps
The last adjustment layer option is to use Gradient Maps to alter the colors in your photo. When using gradient maps, the colors are adjusted on a gradient, meaning that the shadows are replaced by the darkest-colored pixels of the gradient map, the midtones are replaced by the middle colors, and the highlights are replaced by the brightest-colored pixels.
Using this technique creates a blended effect when color-grading your image. However, the result is usually too bold and needs a few additional steps to blend the adjustment into the image using Blend Modes and the Opacity slider.
To add the Gradient Maps adjustment, select the icon from the Adjustment panel, and a new layer appears in the Layers panel.
Once you have added the adjustment, the Properties panel should open with a simple gradient editor bar. The last gradient you used is added to your image, with the darkest color affecting the shadows of the image and the lightest color affecting the highlights. In my case, the gradient is a black-to-white gradient.
To color grade your photo, you need to edit the gradient. To do this, click on the gradient bar to open the Gradient Editor.
You can choose a preset gradient if the colors you want are there, but it’s easier to change the gradient colors manually for more control. To change the gradient colors, click on a gradient stop along the bar near the bottom. Then, click on the color block at the bottom to open the Color Picker.
Use the Color Picker to select the color you’d like for the darker areas of your image. Click OK when you’ve chosen the right color.
To add a color stop, click anywhere beneath the bar, and the stop is added in the spot you click. You can also drag the new stop to where you want it positioned.
Click the new stop, then the color block to change the color. Then, repeat these steps to add more colors or to change the white color stop at the end of the bar. You can get creative with the colors you add.
Click OK when you have the colors you want.
The colors are boldly added to the image, and your photo won’t look natural at this point.
To lighten the gradient colors and blend the adjustment into the image for a more subtle effect, you need to change the Blend Mode. Use the drop-down menu in the Layers panel to select the best blending mode for your photo.
When using Gradient Maps, Overlay is usually an effective Blend Mode, but you can try others for different effects.
The colors should blend into the image much better at this stage, but they might still be too bold.
To further blend the effect, adjust the layer’s Opacity using the slider in the Layers panel.
After lowering the opacity to 40%, I achieved the look I wanted for the image.
You can always open the gradient editor again to change your colors if you aren’t happy with the look. For instance, if you wanted a moodier feel with purple and blue undertones.
5. The Camera Raw Filter
The last color grading method uses the Camera Raw Filter. This technique offers three different ways to adjust the tones in the photo in the Camera Raw workspace. This method is a good option when working with RAW images or when you want a deeper level of control over the changes.
When using the Camera Raw Filter, you can either open a RAW file and automatically open it in the RAW workspace or use a non-RAW formatted image. In the case of a non-raw image, I recommend converting the image layer to a smart object, so you can easily adjust the edits later.
To convert the image layer, right-click or Control + click on the background layer and select Convert to Smart Object.
Next, add the Camera Raw Filter by going to Filter > Camera Raw Filter. You can also press Shift + Control + A (Win) or Shift + Command + A (Mac).
Your image opens in the Camera Raw workspace. This workspace offers a few options to color grade your image.
The Color Mixer Tab
The first method is to use the Color Mixer. You can also find this option in Lightroom if that is your editing platform of choice and the two work the same. To access the Color Mixer open the tab on the right.
The Color Mixer works similarly to the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer described above. However, you have more options here to customize the image. Switch between the Hue, Saturation, and Luminance tabs to adjust each setting. Then use the color sliders to change the colors in the photo.
For example, if I adjust the Hues and Saturation levels as below, I can make the trees bolder, more orange, and more vibrant.
The trees have a strong orange tint, with more blue in the surrounding shadows.
The Color Grading Tab
The second method of color grading in Camera Raw is by using the Color Grading tab. Open it in the righthand panel to adjust the image. This tab is very similar to the Color Balance Adjustment layer, as you can adjust the Shadows, Midtones, and Highlights similarly.
To adjust the colors in the image, move the circles in the color wheels to add a specific color and the saturation level of the color. You can choose only to adjust one or all three, depending on how you want to affect the Shadows, Midtones, and Highlights.
Use the sliders at the bottom to adjust the Luminance values for each tonal range.
This method is similar to the Color Grading Tool in Lightroom.
By adjusting the values, I added a Sepia tone to the image.
The Calibration Tab
The last method uses the Calibration tab. Click on it in the righthand panel to open the settings.
You can use the sliders to adjust the Tint of the Shadows or change the Hue and Saturation levels of the Red, Green, and Blue color channels.
After adjusting the sliders, I added a bold green to the trees to give the photo a surreal effect.
Once you’ve made the adjustments in Camera Raw, click OK to move the edited image into the Photoshop workspace. A Smart Filter is added to your image layer, which you can double-click to open the Camera Raw workspace to adjust your edits. You can also delete this filter if you decide you don’t want it anymore.
Using these five ways to Color Grade your photo, you can produce some creative effects for your image. Like in the examples below.
Now that you know how to color grade your image, follow these 10 steps for editing images in Photoshop to complete your edits fully!