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Balancing Color in Photoshop CS5

As you begin to understand light you will notice reflected light will often cast unwanted colors from other elements of the frame on to your main subject.  Perfectly arranged lighting in a studio prevents this, but when working outdoors or in difficult environments it’s often impossible to ‘prevent’ reflected color, so you’ll need to learn some simple techniques to compensate for the color cast.

If you’re shooting RAW images you can use a grey card or a product such as the Xrite Color Checker Passport I reviewed here.  Correcting color through your white balance first is always the preferred choice as I demonstrated in this tutorial, yet occasionally you’ll still need to make small adjustments in the color balance.

But sometimes you’re shooting jpegs from a small point and shoot compact, or maybe you finish processed an image already and then noticed the color needs to be tweaked just a bit.  Knowing how to use Adobe’s CS5 Photoshop to balance color is a very useful skill.

 

If you’re shooting RAW images you can use a grey card or a product such as the Xrite Color Checker Passport I reviewed here.  Correcting color through your white balance first is always the preferred choice as I demonstrated in this tutorial, yet occasionally you’ll still need to make small adjustments in the color balance.

Canon 5d Mark II, 300mm F2.8L IS USM, @F4 1/100th ISO 100

 

Let’s look at the lion above.  This is a very common look right from the camera.  Most will tell you it’s just flat lighting without contrast, which it is.  But mostly it’s a strong green color cast reflected from the large area of bright green grass.  This is why natural light portraits against green foliage are usually a bad idea.  As an example of what’s commonly done, but shouldn’t be, let’s bring it into Photoshop and adjust the levels for more contrast.

 

 

As you can see the contrast is improved, but the image is still lacking.  It’s not properly saturated and detail is lost.  You should know that in real life this lion isn’t brown.  He’s got a strong reddish hue.  So let’s pump up the saturation and see the mess that makes.

Canon 5d Mark II, 300mm F2.8L IS USM, @F4 1/100th ISO 100

 

As you can see the contrast is improved, but the image is still lacking.  It’s not properly saturated and detail is lost.  You should know that in real life this lion isn’t brown.  He’s got a strong reddish hue.  So let’s pump up the saturation and see the mess that makes.

 

 

Terrible isn’t it?  Looks more orange than red.  Exactly what you’d expect when a red subject has a green color cast.  And the image is still lifeless and just plain looks amateurish.  Let’s do it the right way.

Canon 5d Mark II, 300mm F2.8L IS USM, @F4 1/100th ISO 100

 

Terrible isn’t it?  Looks more orange than red.  Exactly what you’d expect when a red subject has a green color cast.  And the image is still lifeless and just plain looks amateurish.  Let’s do it the right way.

 

 

Much better!  By changing the actual color balance we’ve been able to get very close to the original colors (there is no substitute for the right light in the first place), and we can make our changes without loss of detail or image quality.  It’s always helpful if your subject has some white (the lions chin area) you can use to help guide your adjustments.  Also notice that on the bottom of the color balance dialog box it defaults to correct for the midtones.  Depending on your image this will be enough, but if you have color casts in your highlights or shadows you’ll want to click on those boxes and make those adjustments as well.

Canon 5d Mark II, 300mm F2.8L IS USM, @F4 1/100th ISO 100

 

Much better!  By changing the actual color balance we’ve been able to get very close to the original colors (there is no substitute for the right light in the first place), and we can make our changes without loss of detail or image quality.  It’s always helpful if your subject has some white (the lions chin area) you can use to help guide your adjustments.  Also notice that on the bottom of the color balance dialog box it defaults to correct for the midtones.  Depending on your image this will be enough, but if you have color casts in your highlights or shadows you’ll want to click on those boxes and make those adjustments as well.

 

 

Add a nice border, brighten the eyes just a bit, and we have a nicely finished image that shows no sign of a color cast.  I’m pleased with this image.

Canon 5d Mark II, 300mm F2.8L IS USM, @F4 1/100th ISO 100

 

Add a nice border, brighten the eyes just a bit, and we have a nicely finished image that shows no sign of a color cast.  I’m pleased with this image.

A landscape or wild animal is one thing, but where color casts really kill an image is with portraits.  Greenish skin tones might be okay for a frog, but they look terrible on a human.  Let’s look at the image below.

 

 

A pretty young lady captured with an 85mm portrait lens.  It should have been a nice image, but upon review on my computer she was green!  This can be frustrating.  Even if you look closely at your on-camera LCD you can miss color casts, especially in bright sun.

Canon 1ds Mark II, 85mm F1.2L USM, @F2 1/400th ISO 200

 

A pretty young lady captured with an 85mm portrait lens.  It should have been a nice image, but upon review on my computer she was green!  This can be frustrating.  Even if you look closely at your on-camera LCD you can miss color casts, especially in bright sun.

There are many techniques you can use during the shoot to prevent this, such as making a custom white balance setting, bouncing in light with reflectors, using fill light from your speedlight, or even placing studio lights.

This jpeg picked up a serious color cast from the surrounding grass and shrubs.  The light was very bright mid-day sunlight, not what you’d want for a soft portrait at all, so I moved her into the shadows away from the direct light. Reflectors or any smaller light sources like speedlights weren’t an option as they create a hard light and we wanted more of a flat soft light.  Corrections are needed.

 

 

Wow!  What a difference color balance can make!  I made adjustments with the color balance, adjusted the levels, added a border, and we have a finished image.  Nothing more was needed.  Her naturally white teeth and the whites of her eyes were an excellent guide to dial in the color balance corrections.  Getting both as close to the real white as possible got us very close, and then very slight adjustments to get her true skin colors brought us the rest of the way there.

Canon 1ds Mark II, 85mm F1.2L USM, @F2 1/400th ISO 200

 

Wow!  What a difference color balance can make!  I made adjustments with the color balance, adjusted the levels, added a border, and we have a finished image.  Nothing more was needed.  Her naturally white teeth and the whites of her eyes were an excellent guide to dial in the color balance corrections.  Getting both as close to the real white as possible got us very close, and then very slight adjustments to get her true skin colors brought us the rest of the way there.

I hope you can see how quick and easy it is to make profound changes to your images.  I’m sure you already have images with strong color casts.  Pull some up in CS5 Photoshop and start with the images needing the most change, and then try some needing only small changes.  In 20-30 minutes you’ll be able to make changes to your color balance in under a minute and you’ll find it a very useful skill to have in your image processing toolbox.