2020 WEEK 49: Color Grading

This week we’ll be exploring the concept of Color Grading. There are many different ways to color grade from applying presets to maintaining complete control over the process. Since we are all at different levels, any process you choose to use this week is fine for the challenge. That said, I encourage you to push yourself to learn or try something new if you have the time to do so.

Surprise! by Jeanie Sumrall-Ajero

What is color grading?

So what is color grading? At its core, color grading simplifies the color palette of a photo using color theory to add mood and your personal aesthetic to a scene. For example, let’s take the robin at the top of the page. Before color grading, I thought the maroon tones in the shadows on the right felt too warm for a cold snowy scene. I wanted it the image to feel very cold, so I decided to add cool tones to the snowy areas. But which cool tone exactly? Since I wanted the orange breast of the robin to pop, I used the color wheel to choose the complementary color, i.e. teal blue. (Click on the first two links provided below for more information on color theory and the color wheel.)

Here’s a comparison of the before and after color grading of my robin photo. There is nothing wrong with the “before” version per se, but to me the “after” version tells a better story of the bitter cold by cooling down the warm tones in both the background and the icy water.

To be clear, color grading is not the same as color correction. Color correction is all about color accuracy in an image and typically occurs near the beginning of the processing workflow; color grading is all about setting the mood of an image by simplifying those colors into a chosen color palette and is applied as the last step in post-processing to create a stylistic effect. You have probably seen color grading in movies without realizing it, but it has crossed over into still photography in a big way within the past few years. Because of this, many times a color graded photo will receive comments that it “looks cinematic”.

Clinical Anxiety by Felipe Antonio Sepúlveda Rodríguez
I don’t have the original image for comparison, but I notice a distinct bluish-green wash over the entire image. It gives the image a somewhat sickly feel to me and definitely evokes the feeling of “anxiety” referenced in the title.

How to Color Grade

By far the easiest way to color grade your photos is to simply use presets. Most mobile photo editing apps include presets that you can scroll through and apply to your photos until you find one that you like. Adobe Lightroom also comes with some presets and there are many photographers who sell presets to plug into Lightroom. These presets also typically include contrast and other adjustments, but if you want to use them for this challenge that is perfectly fine.

DSC0016-DANI-01b by Bobby Giggz
I found this image by searching for “color grading” on Flickr. It has a very cinematic feel to me and when I analyzed the image I found that there is a faint green color grade over the entire image. Not only does this enhance her eyes, but to me it makes if feel like it is cold outside – even though the model is wearing a sleeveless top.

However, if you are interested in having more control over your images, I encourage you to take a deeper dive into color grading – and for that it’ll be helpful to have knowledge of a little color theory as well. I’ve found these videos to be very helpful:

  • Controlling Colour in your Photography (Hue, Saturation and Luminance) by Sean Tucker
    If I’m being honest, this is the video that sent me down the rabbit hole of color grading and inspired this challenge. He explains some color theory up front and then demonstrates how to accomplish it with HSL sliders. In this video, he uses Adobe Lightroom and ACR, but the same concepts apply to any photo editing app that has HSL sliders.
  • How to Edit Colour and Create your own Style by Sean Tucker
    This video is along the same vein as the previous one, but he demonstrates how to use HSL sliders in a phone app. (He uses one for iOS, but mentions one for Android as well.)
  • Blake Rudis Helps Me with Color Theory by Sean Bagshaw
    If you use Adobe Photoshop, then this video demonstrates some additional creative techniques that you can use for color grading. Even if you don’t use Photoshop, I think this video shows some great examples of how color grading can improve your images – especially if you’ve done everything you can think of and the image still looks “flat” to you. (In particular, skip to this point in the video to see how Sean Bagshaw applied this information to bring two of his “problem” images back to life.)
  • INCREDIBLE Color Grading in Lightroom and ACR 13.0 by Blake Rudis
    If you have the latest version of Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Camera RAW with new “Color Grading” panel, this is the video for you! I think Blake Rudis explains color theory and color grading really well.
Looking Up by Jeanie Sumrall-Ajero
Note that not all color grading needs to be “in your face”. I tried to choose more extreme examples in this challenge write-up so that you can hopefully see the color grading, but as the example above shows, the effect can be very subtle. For the “Looking Up” challenge a couple of weeks ago, I was struggling to bring out the “wow” factor in my photo. It just looked flat and 2-dimensional to me. Then I added a faint orange-to-purple color grade using a gradient overlay (the third technique demonstrated in the “Blake Rudis Helps Me with Color Theory” video above) and everything fell into place.

Challenge summary:

  • Take a photo of a subject of your choice and color grade the photo in post-processing. You will find options to accomplish this from beginner to advanced in the discussion above.
  • Please add your “before” photo, i.e. what your photo looked like before color grading, in the comments under your challenge photo. This will help us all learn more about what color grading can add to images.
  • Post your photo during the week of Sunday, November 29 and Saturday, December 5.
  • Please remember to comment on at least FIVE photo submissions this week by answering the question “why?” in your comments. In other words, “why do I like (or not like) this photo?” or “why did this photo catch my eye?” Thank you!

The friendly community guidelines are pretty simple:

  • Take a new photo for the current weekly theme, not something from your back catalog or someone else’s image.
  • Post your photo each week to our active communities on Facebook or Flickr (or both). Tag the photo:  #2020photochallenge #photochallenge #tempusaura
  • Don’t leave home without your camera. Participating in the 2020 Trevor Carpenter Photo Challenge is fun and easy.

About thedigitaljeanie

I’m a self-taught photographer and way back when I used to love taking photos, but I allowed a business that I started in 2004 to take over my life and my photographic repertoire was reduced to quick product shots and how-to tutorials. When I joined the PhotoChallenge in December 2015, I was looking to rekindle my creativity and bring some joy back into my photography. I jumped in with both feet and have not looked back. I believe that photography can change the way we see and interact with the world around us. Some people may think that I hide behind the camera, but I feel that I experience the world in a much more intimate way when I am creating a composition in my viewfinder. In those moments distractions disappear, my mind focuses and I am fully present. It is just me and my camera capturing a moment in time that might otherwise go unnoticed. My background is as varied as the photos that I take. I’ve trained and worked as a software engineer, a massage therapist, an English teacher in Vietnam, a photo restoration artist (which is how I learned Photoshop) and for the past twelve years I have run a small software business with my husband where I have been published in numerous books and magazines, appeared on PBS television, created designs for fabric, quilts and machine embroidery and won awards for some of my quilts. It should come as no surprise that I am intensely curious about life and love to learn new things. I am blessed to live in the beautiful state of Colorado, USA in the Rocky Mountain foothills outside of Fort Collins with my husband and cat. You can find me online at: Photos: flickr.com/photos/the-digital-jeanie/ Day job: KaleidoscopeCollections.com Facebook: facebook.com/jeaniesa