Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.
Color is one of the most complex topics in photography. There have been hundreds of books written on color theory, how different colors affect emotion, and how to color grade images and movies for maximum impact. Photoshop is a powerful tool and you can manipulate the colors in your images in almost unlimited ways.
However, before getting into advanced concepts you need to have a handle on the basics. Let’s start by looking at how to fix three of the most common color problems you’ll encounter with your images.
The Colors Look Wrong
In my article on why you should use RAW I talked about color balance. To briefly recap, all light has a color cast. Our eyes expect this and our brain adjusts things accordingly. That’s why a white sheet of paper looks white whether it’s illuminated by the sun or a candle. When you take a photo, however, and look at the image out of the context of the original light source, our brain doesn’t adjust things and we see the piece of paper as it really appears. The one lit by a candle will look much more yellow than the one lit by the sun.
When you take a digital image you can tell your camera what sort of light the scene is lit by (if you leave it in Auto White Balance it’ll take a guess). Whatever happens, your camera is probably going to get it a little bit wrong; the image will either look too yellow or too blue. Ideally, you should fix this in Lightroom with the RAW file but sometimes you need to make some final tweaks in Photoshop.
In the image above, you can see that everything looks slightly yellow. The model, Diane looks a little jaundiced. To fix this, you need to add some blue to the image.
To do that, select a Color Balance adjustment layer. From the little dropdown make sure you’re targeting the Midtones. There are three sliders:
For now, we’re only interested in the Yellow-Blue slider. Slowly drag it towards the Blue side until the yellow cast starts to disappear. Once things like the subject’s skin tone start to look normal, you’re done. Don’t go too far the other way.
Note: if the image looks blue, you need to add yellow instead. In some circumstances, there’ll be other color casts to the image. In that case, add the complementary color to fix things.
The Colors Look Flat
Another common problem with digital images is that the colors look flat. They just don’t have any life to them. This is because they’re lacking a small amount of saturation like the image below.
To fix this, grab a Vibrance adjustment layer. There are two sliders to play with: Vibrance and Saturation. Both do the same things but in slightly different ways.
The Vibrance slider adds saturation selectively. It saturates the least saturated areas of the image while ignoring parts that are already saturated. This makes it harder for you to go too far.
The Saturation slider just adds saturation linearly. Every area, regardless of how saturated it already is, gets the same amount added.
Start by adding Vibrance to the image and see if that fixes the problem. Add as much as you can but stop if things start to look weird. Once you’ve added as much Vibrance as you can, slowly add Saturation. Things can look wrong very quickly if you add too much.
In the image above you can see I added 20% more Vibrance but only 7% more Saturation.
One Color Is Distracting
When we look at a photograph our eyes are drawn to certain things: faces, areas of contrast, areas of saturation, where lines converge, and dozens of other subtle things. Good photographers (and photo editors!) manipulate these factors so that people’s eyes are drawn to the most important areas of the image.
If like me, you shoot a lot of portraits outside one annoying problem you’ll face is that, although your subject looks great, they’re standing in front of a really bright green background. When you look at the image, your eyes are drawn to the leaves behind them. This kind of problem occurs in all kinds of photography. Maybe it’s the leaves in a portrait or maybe it’s a bright red coat someone’s wearing in the background of your street shot. Whatever it is, there’ll often be a time when you want to reduce the impact of distracting colors on the image.
To do it, add a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer to the image. We’re going to deal with the annoying color by reducing its Saturation while leaving everything else untouched.
From the drop-down menu where it says Master, select the color that best matches the one you’re targeting. In this example it’s Green. Pull the Saturation slider to the left until things start to look better.
There are two situations you might run into when you use this method: the distracting color might be made of two different colors, and the distracting color might also be in elements that you don’t want to desaturate. Both have simple fixes.
If the distraction has more than one color just select any extra colors from the drop-down menu and desaturate them a bit. You can also click on the little eyedropper tool, select the distraction and drag down. This will desaturate all the relevant colors.
If the color you’re desaturating is also in important features, such as the subject, add a layer mask to the image and mask out any areas you don’t want the adjustment to affect.
Color is one of the most important parts of any image. A bad color treatment or weird color cast can ruin an otherwise great shot. It’s also one of the toughest areas of photography to master.
When you’re getting into color, start by fixing problems you find in your images. Once you have a better handle on the tools, you can start to look at how to use them creatively.
Have you any questions on dealing with color problems in your images? Ask away in the comments below!