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Photography

How to Make Creative Color Adjustments in Adobe Lightroom

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"How do I edit my photo to look like (insert famous photographer's name)?"

It's a question that dominates editing forums.

Certain photographers have unique, signature styles that others try to emulate. All kinds of things go into a signature style, from the choice of subject matter to the shooting approach, equipment, and a lot of small choices that are unique to every photographer and their situation. 

One thing that can be emulated, however, is post-production. Everything your favorite photographer does to adjust color, contrast, and the look of their pictures, you can do too.

In this tutorial, we'll dissect the controls for adjusting color in Adobe Lightroom. You'll learn to use the HSL/Color panel to customize the color of your images. Photographers will often shift one hue into another, or desaturate certain colors to achieve a unique visual effect.

For example, this image in my portfolio features custom color adjustments. I shifted the foliage just behind the subject from a green to a warm yellow-green for a summery effect. I also desaturated the blue shades to reinforce the look in the sky and the subject's attire.

Custom Color Example a portrait of a woman outdoors

Before we jump into color, let me reiterate: style isn't just post-production; much of it is related to how the image is captured. Simulating effects like shallow depth of field and backlighting in post-production is usually an unconvincing substitute for good gear, subjects, and technique. However, adjusting color can help you create a unique style of your own.

Understand the Color Controls in Adobe Lightroom

Before we dive into Adobe Lightroom, it's important to understand color. When we talk about visual terms like hue, saturation, and luminance, it's sometimes difficult to understand how they affect an image. Let's define them with some examples.

Hue

The terms hue and color are often used interchangeably. I really like the Color Wheel Artist's definition of hue as "the brightest 6–12 pure, unmixed pigment families on the Color Wheel."

In Lightroom, I think of the ability to adjust hue as a color shift. You can move shades of blue into violet or red tones into the orange spectrum.

For example, I adjusted the image below in Lightroom using the hue sliders. I shifted green tones into yellow and yellow tones into orange for a warmer, fall-style effect.

Hue Shifting Example

Saturation

Saturation describes the intensity of a color in an image. Technically, it is how much grey is mixed into a particular color value. The more grey, the more muted the saturation.

Think of saturation as a volume knob for color. Turning the saturation up for a color will make it more present and noticeable. When we desaturate a color completely, it's removed from an image. Conversely, increasing the saturation will emphasize a color.

The image below is divided into three sections. On the left third, I have completely desaturated blue. In the middle, I've left blue at the default saturation setting. The far right third has had the blue saturation increased by +100. Notice the differences in the dominance of the color blue.

Blue saturation slider

Luminance

Luminance describes the brightness of a specific color in an image, or how much black a color contains. Pulling the luminance down for a color will darken all parts of the image that contain that color (adding more black). If you increase luminance, it will increase the brightness of that color throughout the image.

A common luminance tweak is adjusting the foliage (typically the greens) or sky (the blues) in an image. 

In these two examples, I've shifted the luminance of the color green. The image on the left has the green luminance shifted down, and this is evident in the foliage.

Luminance Example

How to Adjust Color in Adobe Lightroom

There are two ways to finely tune color in Adobe Lightroom. The HSL and Color panels are basically two modes for working with the same settings. You'll find this panel in the Develop module of the application on the right side, just below the Tone Curve.

This panel is labeled HSL / Color / B&W. In this tutorial, we'll focus on the HSL and Color settings. You can work in either HSL or Color mode by clicking on the label at the top of the panel.

When in HSL mode, the sliders are grouped by Hue, Saturation, and Luminance

HSL and Color Sliders
HSL and Color are two ways of working with the same settings. 

In Color mode, the sliders are grouped by color. Each color has a hue, saturation, and luminance slider. These are simply two methods for working with color. While working through this tutorial, you can be in either HSL or Color mode.

One-Click Color Adjustments

While it's easy enough to create custom color effects from scratch, there's a simple way to apply creative color to your images: Adobe Lightroom presets are one-click effects to shift the colors in your image.

I like to use premium presets from other authors to get inspiration for how to work with color. After applying a preset, you can always check out the HSL panel to see how the preset changed the color settings, or even turn the changes down a bit if they're too much. A preset can be a teaching tool and an effect, all in one.

As part of a subscription to Envato Elements, you'll have access to all of the Adobe Lightroom presets that they have to offer. Let's take a look at a few of these powerful color adjustments.

Orange Teal Lightroom Presets

The Orange and Teal pack has a beautiful balance of complementary colors. The look that these presets apply is similar to ones that I've seen on leading travel channels on YouTube and Instagram. 

Apply one of these presets to an image to achieve that "blockbuster" color scheme and make it stand out on social media.

Orange and Teal Lightroom Presets

UltraPOP Lightroom Presets

The UltraPOP collection is a selection of one-click presets that brings color to life in your images. These are far from neutral image adjustments or corrections. 

With 20 different Adobe Lightroom presets in this pack, it includes a wide variety of ways to make color pop in your images, each in different ways.

UltraPop Lightroom Presets

Pastel Colors

Pastel colors are great for fashion and wedding photography. The matte effect in this image is really going to bring out those pastel colors for easy results in a single click. 

The combination of color adjustments, shifts, and overlays really brings a pastel style effect to your images.

Pastel Colors Presets

Find Your Target Colors

In order to emulate a certain look, it helps to work from references. The technique is similar to finding reference targets for skin tones, but applied to creating a particular look instead.

First, find a collection of images that you like. I suggest doing this casually: when you see something you like by another photographer online, save it! Add these photos to your Lightroom catalog.

Color picker on a picture of Parliament Hill in Ottawa Canada
Use the White Balance Selector as a color picker to give you RGB percentages.

When you find a photo of your own that matches something you've saved in your reference collection, find the image and open it in the Develop module (D). Select the White Balance Selector tool (W) and hover the eyedropper over areas in the image that have tones you'd like to match. This will give you an RGB reading, with percentages for red, green, and blue. Note down the percentages for all the areas that are similar between the reference and your picture.

When you adjust your own image, you'll try to match the target percentages. Do the adjustment by eye first, to get things relatively close, and then tweak the settings until they are the same as your reference. Your picture might not look the way you want even if the values match, however, so after you've adjusted it, evaluate it again to decide if anything needs further adjustment to get it just right.

Creative Color Adjustment

So far, we've reviewed the color controls and how to use them in Lightroom. Mastering the color panel comes down to experimentation and forging your own style. Here are some recipes to get started:

  • Use the hue slider when you want to shift a hue to a neighboring color (blue to violet or orange to yellow, for example).
  • Use the saturation slider when you want to emphasize or de-emphasize a color, affecting the intensity of a given color.
  • The luminance slider is useful for adjusting exposure for specific hues.

To learn more about adjusting color in Adobe Lightroom, check out the short video tutorial below.

 

Recap & Keep Learning

This tutorial is a launching pad for custom color adjustments in Lightroom. However, there are many other tools and settings that you can use to really customize the look of an image. Here are more tutorials for building your color knowledge.

  • Harry Guinness's tutorial on Split-Tone Processing is another way to approach custom color adjustments with a different set of sliders in Lightroom.
  • Simon Plant explores the tone curve for creative color in Lightroom, yet another tool for crafting a custom look.
  • I'm no expert on color theory, but this tutorial by James Thomas is excellent for learning more about the art and science of color.

I hope you come away from this tutorial excited to experiment with color adjustments in Lightroom. If you have any suggestions on creative color tweaks, let me know in the comments below.

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