Color grading is a powerful technique that puts the finishing touch on photographs, yet many photographers are hesitant to learn because it can feel overwhelming. But there’s no need to fear. Color grading doesn’t have to be time consuming or difficult.
When you think of color grading your photographs, you probably think of dozens of adjustment layers, LUTS, or a huge list of actions in Photoshop. Photoshop isn’t the only name in the color grading game, though. There are actually some great reasons to color grade your photos in Adobe Lightroom, instead.
While color grading in Photoshop may be more popular, it is a hugely powerful and complex program that may offer more bells and whistles than many users need. Color grading in Lightroom, however, can be done simply, quickly, and with a clever little feature you may never have heard of: virtual copies.
Before we get into the how, let’s talk about what color grading is and who should use it.
What is color grading
For a long time, when photographers dealt with color in post production, it was mainly to do color correction. But color correction has a different purpose than color grading, and the final effect is very different.
Color grading is the process of changing or shifting the color of an image to alter it’s presentation. Sometimes it’s used to make a photograph look more filmic or cinematic. Sometimes it’s used to evoke certain feelings or periods in history. The film The Matrix is a well-known example of color grading. The overall color in The Matrix was shifted heavily toward green hues when the characters were inside the matrix. This was done to delineate the difference between characters being in the matrix and in the “real world.”
Color grading helps set the scene, mood, and tone of an image. It’s generally used to evoke unconscious feelings in the viewer, and can be used to great effect by photographers.
How is color grading done
There are many different ways to color grade a photograph. The important part to remember, though, is that the overall technique is pretty simple at its base; you’re either adding color, changing color, or taking it away. Sometimes this means adding red to the midtones. Other times, it may mean desaturating an image and adding yellow to the whites. There are so many ways to color grade an image, from curves adjustments to temperature balance, that you can easily work in whatever program works best for you.
Keep in mind that it’s always helpful to either have a good idea of what you would like a photograph to feel like to a viewer beforehand, or to experiment enough that you give yourself lots of options and a chance to discover the best color grade.
Who should try color grading?
Color grading can be done by photographers in any genre. By controlling the color palette of the image, photographers can use the power of color psychology to make their images more powerful and effective. Photographers can shift the colors into a pastel range to make an image feel whimsical or romantic. They can add reds and yellows to the photograph to make it feel more passionate or visceral. The color temperature can be shifted to blue to make an image feel sad or thoughtful. Any photographer who wants to leverage the power of color can color grade their photographs.
Like most editing techniques, color grading can be done in Photoshop. But Lightroom has a few advantages that might make it a better option for many photographers.
Why should you color grade in Lightroom?
Using Photoshop to color grade your images requires the use of adjustment layers, and can quickly become complicated. There are several different kinds of adjustment layers, blending modes, and loads of masking options. While this complexity means Photoshop provides more control, it can create complications.
All adjustments done in Lightroom are found in one place, making them easily accessible, visible, and adjustable. There are no layer masks to paint or blending modes to navigate. Many of the same tools, such as curves adjustments and brushes, are available in Lightroom.
If a project requires plenty of power without the additional, and sometimes confusing, bells and whistles, Lightroom may be an ideal fit.
Color grading in Adobe Lightroom can be done quickly and efficiently because every adjustment is made in a panel that’s already open and easy to navigate. Rather than opening, adjusting, and switching between different adjustment layers that need to be named and altered, the tools panel in the Lightroom Development Module lets you see every adjustment in real time. No switching between layers or messing with blending modes.
Once the culling and selection processes are over, there’s no need to open anything in Photoshop. Simply click on the Develop Module and start working.
Since Lightroom uses the original raw files as the base for adjustments, this gives users the greatest amount of possible information to work with. If highlights need to be saved, or blacks need to be lightened, Lightroom is ideal because it has access to all the raw information. This means color grading actions have more leverage than they would in Photoshop.
One of the main benefits of color grading in Lightroom is the ability to create and compare almost infinite possible grades with Lightroom’s virtual copy option.
Creating a virtual copy in Lightroom doesn’t make a physical copy of the original file, it creates a copy that exists only within Lightroom. This means you can make copy after copy to edit and experiment on by right clicking the image and selecting ‘create virtual copy.’ You can try as many different color grades in Lightroom as you’d like, compare them, and choose which best suits the image.
Since it’s fast and doesn’t take up additional disk space, creating several color grading options encourages you to experiment. You can push the envelope and find creative color grades you may never have considered if you had to use the slower, more complex processes required by Photoshop.
Color grading is a surprisingly powerful technique. It helps photographers control the narrative of their photographs, and gives viewers subtle clues about how they should feel when they see an image. Want an image to feel nostalgic? How about hopeful? There are color grades to help you do that. Even if you just want something subtle to polish off an image, color grading will do that.
It’s true that Photoshop is unrivaled in the depth and breadth of the ability to edit photographs. But, for many photographers, color grading in Photoshop may be overkill. It’s a program that takes a good deal of time to learn, and since only one image can be edited at a time, it may bog down the workflow for photographers who are on a deadline. If you need to color grade in batches, or finish a session quickly, using Lightroom makes a lot of sense.
Lightroom provides users a huge amount of power and control when used purposefully. Once you understand everything Lightroom offers, from the Camera Raw profiles and presets, to the ease and simplicity of use that lets photographers move quickly and seamlessly from culling to editing, you might just discover that Lightroom serves all your needs.
Broncolor NextGen professional photographer and PRO EDU instructor Justin Lister uses Lightroom to color grade his striking fine art portraits. Known for cinematic imagery, Justin relies on Adobe LIghtroom to create depth and visual interest in his color grades. If you want to learn how he does it, sign up for the latest information about his tutorial, Cinematic Color Grading.
Check out this video from Justin's tutorial to get an idea of how effective color grading in Lightroom can be.