Image Editing

Jul 09, 2021

What Is Color Grading?

Are you looking to add an enhanced mood or dramatic effect to your images? Whether you are using your photos to tell a story and heighten emotion, or you want to create a similar color tone across a series of pictures or an Instagram grid, color grading adds atmosphere and emotion.

So, once you are used to the basics of editing the colors in your photo, you’ll be ready to step it up a notch and color grade your photos for extra effect – here’s where to start.

What is color grading in photography?

Color grading in its most simple form is image enhancement. Have you ever felt your images do not show the emotions or the atmosphere you encountered when taking the picture? Color grading is the part of editing to achieve that maximum effect of feeling. 

It’s a means of changing the tone of a photo by adjusting light, dark and shadows and changing emotions by adjusting the hue, saturation and luminance for cinematic and dramatic effect.

Color grading is often used for more extreme and cinematic effects and is seen as the second layer in editing for creative and artistic aesthetics and preferences. 

Color grading vs color correction — what’s the difference? 

Color grading is the next step up from color correction, which means editing an image to neutralize and correct any differences in how the human eye sees things. Once you have altered an image with color correction to its natural and realistic form, you may want to up the ante and add more drama, mood, tone and feeling.

That’s where color grading comes in. How can you tell something has been color graded? Key features are when every image has the same look and feel or the same color palette. The picture will likely feature a tonal grading that evokes a particular emotion, from cold starkness and dark mood to sunny warmth or happiness in extreme chromatic bursts. It’s also the stage of editing where you can formulate your own consistency of style.

Color grading words explained – the editing basics

It’s easier to break down color grading into two parts. First, the tools that adjust the photo’s atmosphere – contrast, highlights, whites, blacks, and shadows – create a dramatic effect. Then, the tools that formulate a color style – Hue, Saturation, Luminance and Temperature – adjust the emotion in an image. 

Let’s take a look at both of them and break down each color grading tool you can use.

Contrast, highlights, shadows and whites and blacks to adjust dramatic effect

You may have looked at a photo with a moodier tone and seen that those feelings have been achieved by muted color tones, the clever use of shadowing and more blackened elements of the image. You can do this in the color grading editing process too.

Contrast

This tool is a quick way to adjust the shadows and clarity in an image. Increase the contrast, and you will see more dark elements of a photo brought out. Lower it, and you will see fewer shadows and details, giving a more muted sheen to the image.

Highlights and shadows

In editing, both the highlights and shadows tools take the shadow and light source elements already present in your image and allow you to bring them down and add darkness or tune them up and add brightness to those aspects of your photos.

Whites and blacks

There are pure white and pure black shades in your photo that can be adjusted. If you increase the white, you can make clouds pop or snow look glistening. Increasing black can create a bolder, moodier night sky or create a more intense shadow. 

Professionals often use the tone curve in Lightroom or graduation curve in Photoshop, which allows you to change the highlights, lights, dark, and shadows simultaneously.

Hue, saturation, luminance, temperature and tint to adjust emotion

Are you looking to mute specific colors or change their tone? With hue, saturation and luminance, you can experiment with the base colors in the image. Adjusting colors means you can adjust emotions. 

Hue

This is the pure pigment of colors found in the primary and secondary color wheel, and when editing, you can fine-tune each color. For example, if you adjust the blue hue, you will find it’s almost green on one end of the scale and purple on the other. You can really get to grips with how colors are formulated. 

Saturation

This tool allows you to alter the intensity of all colors or focus only on a particular color to saturate. The more pops of color there are, the crazier or happier the feeling evoked. 

Luminance

Think of luminance as shining a light on a particular element of your photos. Choosing a color to gloss adds brightness and shimmer to it. Decreasing the luminance takes out the shine.    

Temperature and tint

Temperate is a mood changer with a blue scale at one end to adjust your image to cooler temperatures and yellow at the other to add warmth. Tints help to neutralise colors based on a cold (green) to warm (pink) scale and are used as a second layer to temperature to make natural tones. 

Pop color to make it friendly and upbeat, remove it or tint it like the orange/brown on for extreme warmth like movie scenes or warm summers. Or strip out the color for a stark or more moody effect. 
For other cinematic styles, you might want to color grade only part of the image and replace the background with a different scene or styling effect, which is an easy next step with the remove.bg Android app.

Tools for photo color grading online

A simple search online for tools for photo color grading reveals many options. That’s because color grading also applies to film editing and animation, and not just still images. Here’s a pick of the best editing tools to get you started, from quick mobile edits to the best photo editing platforms.  

Snapseed for instant mobile edits

Want to color grade instantly? This pocket photo editing app on Apple and Android allows you to upload an image from your smartphone and color grade it in just a few clicks. You can choose ‘tune image’ in the tools sections to adjust the brightness, contrast, saturation, highlights, shadows and warmth, or experiment with ‘vintage’, ‘grainy film’ and ‘noir’ elements to instantly change the overall mood of the image. 

Lightroom for beginner color grading 

Lightroom is perfect for beginners looking to get to grips with color grading and all its individual elements. Import your chosen image, and get to editing right away with the Basic toolbar elements. 

Temperature, tine, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites and blacks are in the top section of the bar. Hue, saturation and luminance are grouped together below for easy adjustments to each color – red, orange, yellow, green, aqua, blue, purple and magenta. This is where the color magic happens and where you can spend a lot of time experimenting with tonal variations. 

Photoshop for pro color grading

Photoshop is the pro tool for expert color grading. But if you are only just learning how to use Photoshop, you can still use it for basic edits to cinematically touch up your image in just a few simple steps. That’s because the platform also groups the base tool in one place. 

Temperature and tint, contrast, shadows and black and whites can all be found in the sidebar. Under the Color Mixer tab, you will find the slider bars for hue and luminance to individually change the red, orange, yellow, green, aqua, blue, purple and magenta shades. 

Types of imagery suited for color grading

You may want to edit some photos from a special occasion or add a thematic feel to a destination or event. Here are some common uses of color grading and what it can add to particular types of imagery.

Emotional wedding photo color grading

Ever wondered why some wedding photos make you feel more emotional than others? That’s because of color grading. You will often find wedding photos have a light feel, with pastel hues for a calm and dreamy effect. Other wedding photos are warmer in tone with more shadowing to highlight the intensity of the moment. 

Edit some wedding photos in different styles and see how color grading portraits of people or elements of a backdrop – be it the inside of a church or a white sand beach –  dramatically alters the emotional response. 

Atmospheric color grading landscape photography

One of the most cinematic effects in photography comes from color grading landscapes. The means to darken the shadows in a forest can create a solitary mood, or warming the hues of the sunset can show stillness and calm. Darkening the water body of the ocean can highlight its depth, whereas brightening its white crashing waters can make you feel the speed of the waves. 

When capturing your photo, think about the particular object or nature element you may want to later color grade to adapt the emotion or atmosphere of what you saw. Or learn how to choose the right background for photos that you can change to create a different style. 

Ready to improve your photo grading skills? 

It might take some time to tackle the process of color grading to adjust to the right feeling in your photos, but that doesn’t mean the process has to be complicated. After a few attempts practicing with each editing tool and the range of emotions they can create, you’ll find what’s right for you. Have fun with it and use photo color grading as an experiment to find your own style. You will have an evocative photo in no time at all. 


Want to know how to save time planning your photography and organising your photos, so you have more time to learn how to edit?

Learn how to create great images faster:

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