How To Color Grade Photos Like A Pro


Color grading is an important process in post-production, and it includes enhancing an image's color, saturation, and contrast. It is usually used to create specific moods in photos because colors can easily affect the overall atmosphere of an image. When it comes to color grading software, you can use Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom or online photo editors such as Pixlr and Fotor.

In this article, we’ll cover a few of the most important tips and tricks for color grading and color correcting and help you implement them in your editing routine.

Photo by Christian Stahl

The Difference Between Color Correcting And Color Grading

Color correction and color grading are not the same things – you should familiarize yourself with the differences between these two processes.

Simply put, color correction means adjusting the colors to make them as accurate as possible. The main reason color correction matters a lot is that the camera can’t always capture the colors correctly. This is especially true when the lighting is tricky and involves both natural and artificial sources of light.   

For instance, if your model's skin tone turns purple in your photo, you’ll probably need to apply some adjustments to make it appear more natural. This would be a good example of color correction. However, you can also deliberately manipulate the skin tone and make it look purple – this would be acceptable if you’re color-grading your image and looking to achieve a certain effect.

It’s useful to apply color correction first to make the most out of your photograph. Once you’re sure the colors are accurate, you can start color grading if the natural look isn’t what you want.

Photo by Marius Muresan

Preparing An Image For Color Grading

You should consider color grading before you start editing your images.  While preparing your camera for the photoshoot, switch the image format from JPEG to RAW.  This is important because when you use RAW, you can easily change the white balance in Photoshop or Lightroom, even if you used the wrong setting for shooting.

If any color in your image looks off, feel free to change the white balance within your photo editing software until you come up with a natural look. You can also adjust the temperature and the tint if you want more control over the colors in your image.

You should also look at your histogram and check if the colors are evenly distributed within the chart or clumped in one section. If they seem clumped, you might need to adjust highlights, shadows, whites, and blacks.

After you have made these basic adjustments, you can proceed to color grading.

color grading
Photo by Derek Truninger

How To Color Grade

There are many different ways to enhance your photos – it’s crucial to have at least a basic idea about what kind of atmosphere you want to achieve by color grading your images.

For instance, if you want to make everything look vivid or subdued, you have to experiment with the vibrance level. It’s a fairly simple but effective way to affect the general mood of your image.

After you’re satisfied with the vibrance, you can further enhance your photo using HSL (hue, saturation, luminance). These sliders can influence which colors you want to pop in your image, and it can take some time to find the right combination – there are 8 separate sliders (red, orange, yellow, green, aqua, blue, purple, magenta) in each of these 3 subpanels.

You should also learn how to use split toning – it can elevate your color-grading skills to a whole new level. Split toning refers to adding different tints to highlights and shadows –  it can add something special to an image, especially in fine art portraiture. Split toning is easily done in Lightroom since there are separate panels for adjusting highlights, balance, and shadows.

Don’t forget to keep an eye on the histogram while you’re color grading – you shouldn’t go overboard with your adjustments and make your images tacky instead of skillfully edited.

learn how to color grade
Photo by Pepe Reyes

Using Presets For Color Grading

You can buy and install various presets from third-party sites to speed up your color grading process. You can even find free presets on various websites, but you have to make sure that they are safe and virus-free.

It’s quite easy to install these presets – you just need to download the zip folder, extract the files and import them to Lightroom. Lightroom will automatically apply it to your image when you click on an imported preset. If you’re unhappy with the results, you can tweak the preset by adjusting various sliders until everything looks perfect.

Presets can be tricky to use if you plan to edit a large group of images – lighting conditions usually differ from one photo to the next, and you might need to spend a lot of time tweaking the original preset.

landscape color grading
Photo by Andrew Ponochovnyi

Additional Color Grading Tips

Once you have learned how to color grade your images properly, you can consider these additional tips, too.

Reference And Inspiration

Study the color grading in photographs or movies that you admire. This can help you develop your own style and gain insights into how color can evoke emotions and set the mood.

Be Careful About Manipulating Backgrounds

If you’re shooting indoors, don’t manipulate the background too much, especially if you’re not experienced in color grading. A portrait shot indoors can look unnatural if the foreground and background colors don’t match. On the other hand, when you’re shooting outdoors, and the background is rather colorful due to various objects such as trees, plants, and architectural elements, you can experiment with color grading more.

cinematic color grading
Photo by Janko Ferlic

Don’t Oversaturate Portraits

Feel free to experiment with saturation in portraiture, but don’t forget that your subject’s skin should look natural – you should avoid making it orange or red because it will ruin the entire portrait. You should be mindful of how you set the RGB channel.

Use Tone Curves

Tone curves allow you to adjust the brightness and contrast of specific tonal ranges. S-shaped curves can add contrast and vibrancy, while adjustments to individual channels can affect color balance.

color grade photos
Photo by Allef Vinicius

Try Out Cinematic Effects

Cinematic effects are rather popular in photography nowadays. If you want to try them out, you first must choose the proper subject and location – you should find something dramatic and powerful.

Like movie posters, you’ll probably have to add some blues to make the image more dramatic. You can add subtle blue tones by using split toning in Lightroom – it will affect only highlights and shadows in your image, which might be enough.

Play With HSL/Color Channels

Hue, Saturation, and Luminance (HSL) adjustments let you target specific colors. For instance, you can make greens more vibrant or shift reds towards oranges. Adjust the saturation and luminance of individual color channels for fine-tuning.

You can add some grain to your picture to achieve a cinematic look!

how to color grade photos
Photo by Amirali Mahmoudi

Understand Color Theory

Familiarize yourself with basic color theory principles to create harmonious color combinations. The color wheel, complementary colors, analogous colors, and color harmonies will help guide your choices.

Adjust White Balance

Set the appropriate white balance to ensure accurate color representation. Use presets or manually adjust the temperature (warm to cool) and tint (green to magenta) to match the desired mood.

Save Versions And Revisit

Save different versions of your edits so you can compare and choose the one that works best. Revisit your edits with fresh eyes after a break to ensure you're satisfied with the final result.

low light grainy image
Photo by Chester Wade

You can watch this really useful video tutorial if you're a complete beginner in color grading – it's a step-by-step detailed guide:

If you want to learn more about color grading, check out the links below!

Further Resources:

  1. Master Color Grading: The Guide
  2. 3 Ways To Use Color To Make Your Photographs, Just Awesome!
  3. How Learning To Grade Footage Can Help You Color Correct Images
  4. An Introduction To Color Grading
  5. The Power Of Color Grading
  6. A Guide To Color Grading Your Video In 5 Easy Steps

About Author

Jasenka is a photographer with a background in web design. You can find out more about her on her website, see some of her newest images at 500px or get to know her better here.

I like that you mentioned avoiding making your pictures look too red and be careful how much you saturate your photos. My boss just told me yesterday that I will be in charge of creating photos of models wearing our new clothing line. I’ll have to keep researching editing tips so I can get the job done.

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