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How to Colour Grade Photos Using 3-Way Wheels in Adobe Camera Raw (Free)

With a recent update of Adobe Camera Raw you might have noticed the Split Toning option has been scrapped in favour of Colour Grading. Don’t worry though, you can still do split toning with the colour wheels. We’ll take a look at the new feature and show you how you can use it to give you better control over your photographic colour editing.

What is Colour Grading?

Unlike colour correction, which involves bringing raw footage or photographs up to a good basic (corrective/accurate) level for evaluation, colour grading is about creating a particular style, look, or tone.

While it isn’t essential, for this tutorial it will really help if you have a good knowledge of colour theory and associated topics. Here are some articles you might find useful:

Colour grading is about bringing a mood or visual character to your work, like giving it a cinematic feel, or maybe recreating the effect and tone of traditional film.

How to Colour Grade Photos in Adobe Camera Raw

This is the image I’ll be colour grading in Adobe Camera Raw, I’ve chosen it because hopefully it lends itself well to a more stylised edit, it feels a little post-apocalyptic! Do your basic edits first to bring your photo from a flat RAW profile, to a good base to start your colour grading.

The image I'll be working withThe image I'll be working withThe image I'll be working with
The image I'll be working with, showing Basic edits

Colour Grading Wheels

Once you've made all the corrections you need, we can move to the colour wheels.

Colour grading wheelsColour grading wheelsColour grading wheels
Colour grading wheels

The new colour wheels in Camera Raw might look familiar if you’ve done colour grading before in other programs. This style of colour interface is popular, and you can find versions of it in many image-editing apps—especially for video. You’ll see three wheels: Shadows, Midtones and Highlights.

Example of a colour wheel for colour grading - shadowsExample of a colour wheel for colour grading - shadowsExample of a colour wheel for colour grading - shadows
Example of a colour wheel for colour grading—shadows

If you click on one of the wheel icons where it says Adjust at the top, you’ll see just that wheel – so, Shadows in the example above – and an additional Luminance slider as well as the previously visible Blending and Balance sliders.

How to Adjust Colour Using The Wheels

In the wheel you’ll see a circle with a dot, and you can use these to adjust the saturation and the hue. Moving it around the wheel will adjust the hue, and moving it in and out will change the saturation.

Adjusting the shadows to a pink hueAdjusting the shadows to a pink hueAdjusting the shadows to a pink hue
Adjusting the shadows to a pink hue

If I stick with Shadows and pull the wheel around and out to pink (100), you’ll see that the shadows of the image become heavily saturated with that colour. If I kept the ‘handle’ at pink but moved in towards the centre of the circle (0), the pink shadows would be less vivid until they reached 0, where there’d be no tint.

If you want to adjust the hue (colour) without touching where you have the saturation, you can grab the dot on the outside of the wheel instead.

Alternative Slider Adjustments 

Under the wheel and above Luminance, there’s an arrow. Click that and you’ll get two further sliders: Hue and Saturation.

Drop down the arrow under the wheel to reveal slidersDrop down the arrow under the wheel to reveal slidersDrop down the arrow under the wheel to reveal sliders
Drop down the arrow under the wheel to reveal sliders

These sliders are another way to control the adjustments I’ve just run through, rather than making changes on the wheel itself. They can be handy for tuning adjustments. Pull the arrow on the gradient slider to change the attribute you want to finesse. For even more control, it's possible to keying-in adjustment incrementally: move your cursor into the box, and press up or down on your keyboard to nudge the values one at a time.

New: Midtones

Each wheel works in the same way, so you make adjustments to hue and saturation using either the controls directly on the wheel, or the sliders if you prefer them.

If you used to use the split tone feature in previous versions of ACR then you’re familiar with adjustments to the shadows and highlights. Midtone adjustments are new and might take some getting used to. Which areas of your image get treated as midtones will largely depend on where you have your Balance slider.

Midtones with a pink hueMidtones with a pink hueMidtones with a pink hue
Midtones with a pink hue

If I test this with a pink hue again to make it noticeable, and the Saturation at 100, then the Balance set to 50 (neutral/middle) would make everything quite pink as it’s a fairly balanced image with not much in the way of highlights and shadows.

If I drag the Balance to the left, the pink disappears from the darker pixels but is still visible in brighter areas, like the sky.

Mitones shifted to include lighter areasMitones shifted to include lighter areasMitones shifted to include lighter areas
Mitones shifted to include lighter areas

Move Balance to the right and the pink hue leaves the brighter sky area and moves to the darker places like the ground and walls.

Mitones shifted to include darker areasMitones shifted to include darker areasMitones shifted to include darker areas
Mitones shifted to include darker areas

Blending and Balance

Blending and Balance are shown under each wheel but it’s important to note that they are the same sliders, not an individual adjustment for each tonal range, changing them regardless of which wheel you’re viewing will adjust the blending and balance of all three wheels.

These sliders affect how your three tone ranges overlap. How dramatic or not that is will depend on the image and the tonal range within it. High contrast images will be different to flatter ones, and so on. A great way to see how colour grading impacts an image is actually to try it with a monochrome one! I’ll show you an example of that a little later.

Luminance

You’ll have seen luminance options elsewhere in your editing panels, but these are specific to your colour grading changes. For example, if you wanted to give your shadows a tint, you might lift the luminance for Shadows and whatever hue you’d applied would show in those. Unlike Balance and Blending, Luminance (like Hue and Saturation) is specific to the tonal range you’re working on and you can adjust the slider across each wheel.

Global Control

As well as the three-way wheels, there’s a Global Control option too.

There is a 'global' optionThere is a 'global' optionThere is a 'global' option
There is a 'global' option

As you’d expect, this affects your whole image, tinting the entire tonal range

Global adjustments with a pink hueGlobal adjustments with a pink hueGlobal adjustments with a pink hue
Global adjustments with a pink hue

A pink hue as demonstrated with Shadows and Midtones but you can see it’s much stronger and across the full picture rather than targeting a particular tonal area.

You might wonder why you’d want to tint everything if you have three-way control anyway but you can apply a global adjustment without it affecting your three-way changes. For example, you might want to put a vintage tint over the whole image with a yellow or green hue.

Colour Grading an Image

Back to my example image, I mentioned it looked almost post-apocalyptic and I would love to try and give a nod to that awesome Blade Runner orange and yellow toning that they use so well.

Image with colour grading changes shownImage with colour grading changes shownImage with colour grading changes shown
Image with colour grading changes shown

As I’m colour grading, I find it’s useful to keep popping into the Colour Mixer tab and making slight adjustments there too. In my image, the green of the trees was still quite prominent and distracting, so in Colour Mixer I was able to lower the saturation of greens specifically, and also to shift their hue slightly to yellower tones.

Changes on Monochrome Image

Here are the same colour grading changes shown on the same image but monochrome rather than colour.

Colour grading changes shown on a black and white imageColour grading changes shown on a black and white imageColour grading changes shown on a black and white image
Colour grading changes shown on a black and white image

You can see the major difference is that on the colourless image the tones look like they've had the same colour washed over them, but in the colour photo we get back some of those nice oranges on the walls and retain a little of the sky, buildings, trees and ground colours.

Before and AfterBefore and AfterBefore and After
Before and After

Another Colour Grading Example

Here's another example from the same image set but this time with less stylised grading and probably how you would use colour grading day-to-day (rather than making extreme changes).

another exampleanother exampleanother example
Another example with less stylised grading

Here, I went for yellows in the highlights and midtones, and blue in the shadows. This looks more like the result you'd get with the previous split tone options in ACR but with greater control in the midtone range.

Colour Grading in Adobe Camera Raw

I liked the old split toning feature in Adobe Camera Raw but the new three-wheel colour grading editing is gives much more nuanced control over colours right across your tonal range, and then the balance of those and how they work together as well.

Whether you want to add a slight wash of colour over your photograph or if you're trying something more dramatic and stylised, it's all available to you in a really quick and simple way. If you're not a fan of colour grading manually or you don't feel ready to delve in yet, you can always try using a LUT (an Adobe Camera Raw preset) to quickly and easily colour grade your photographs too. Colour grading is fun though, and it's well worth exploring and playing around with colour grading in Camera Raw to see what you can achieve.

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