The Power of Color Grading

Color is one of the most powerful tools a photographer has to affect the way viewers interpret images. Even a simple shift of color temperature or color saturation can make a world of difference. That is what makes color grading such an important post processing technique for photographers to learn. 

From the passion and danger of red hues to the sickliness of greens and the thoughtfulness of blues, color sends subconscious signals to viewers, influencing them to think or feel a certain way. 

Color grading can be seen almost everywhere, from film and television to print advertisements, precisely because marketers realize how much color influences behavior. But many photographers avoid learning color grading, and miss out on all the benefits, because making minute adjustments in Photoshop seems intimidating And time consuming.

Who should color grade?

It would be easy to think only advertising photographers and movie makers should be color grading their images, but every photographer could benefit from learning to color grade their photographs.

Wedding photographers can increase the sense of romance with a carefully applied color grade. Portrait photographers can give their portraits that Vanity Fair style by learning how to color grade. Even landscape photographers can take a nice shot of the countryside and turn it into a magical fairy land with the right color choices. 

Even if it’s only a simple edit, color grading will put the finishing touch on an image that makes it feel complete and cohesive.

Why Lightroom?

Most people only think of Lightroom as a way to organize and manage their photos, but Lightroom is powerful photo editing software that can help photographers tackle color correction and color grading fast. As the workload increases for photographers doing their own editing, marketing, bookkeeping, and shooting, time management becomes an essential aspect of money making. They need color grading software that will make their job faster and easier.

Rather than simply organizing and culling in Lightroom, then importing individual photos to Photoshop for color grading, photographers can batch edit and even apply basic color grades to large sets, or even entire photo sessions, in Lightroom. Time is money and quality matters, and for many photographers Lightroom may be the best way to go. 

In addition to getting things done quickly, Lightroom uses the photographs raw data to make adjustments to a photograph. This gives photographers access to the most possible information for editing, and as we all know, information is power.

The following color grading tips can be used to make big differences quickly, saving photographers time and money. 

Top tips for quick color grading

Use Virtual Copies

The ability to make virtual copies that can be edited individually is one of the handiest and least known features Lightroom has to offer. Virtual copies don’t copy the physical file, just the virtual version that exists inside Lightroom. The user is able to make countless copies just by right clicking the image and selecting Create Virtual Copy. Several versions of a photograph can be edited and experimented on in a very short amount of time. 

Try a warm and cool version, try a split tone or a monochrome color grade, and then compare them all to select the perfect edit.

Trying to find the right color for an image can take a long time, but creating virtual copies allows the photographer to find the best possible version of an image quickly.

Adjust the color temperature 

The temperature slider isn’t just for color correction and proper white balance. Changing the color temperature of a photograph is one of the fastest ways to make impactful changes. By simply dragging the temperature slider in the Develop Module, a photograph taken during the day can look like it was taken at night. A warm, comforting photo can look sad or melancholy.

This is also a great way to get a general idea of what direction to take an image if the photographer is uncertain. 

Use Camera Raw Profiles

Up at the top of the panel in the Develop Module is a button that looks like four rectangles. This is the camera raw profiles button, and it may be one of the more underused and under-appreciated tools in Lightroom. 

These profiles allow the photographer to “try out” dozens of different looks in a hurry, just by hovering over a given profile. The biggest benefit to camera raw profiles is that photographers get exposed to color grading ideas they may never have considered. Rather than struggling with all the potential options, try using this handy tool to jumpstart the editing process.

Try split toning

The best thing about the split toning tool is that whatever color is chosen to inject in the highlights and shadows, it doesn’t affect the pure whites and pure blacks. The whites and blacks won’t get muddied, and the image will still look clean and vibrant.

The editor can slide the arrow on the hue slider and watch as the effect is applied to the highlights or shadows, and make small adjustments to saturation or balance as needed. It’s a great way to give a photograph a simple color grade without accidentally taking things too far.

Batch Editing

The ability to copy color adjustments and apply them to several images at once may be the biggest reason for using Lightroom to color grade. If you want an entire set to have a certain feel, such as dreamy pastels for a wedding, nailing the color grade on one image and then applying those settings to the rest of the set, can save loads of time. 

Once the general settings are applied, you can scroll through and make whatever smaller adjustments are needed per image. Even if there is additional work to do in Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom will have already done the heavy lifting of preparing your images.

Conclusion

Color grading creates a personal visual signature that makes photographs look one-of-a-kind. Every photographer wants that unique visual style that makes them stand out and color grading is one of the most effective ways to communicate that. Even better, Lightroom offers the power to get it done quickly. Of course there will be some jobs only Photoshop can do, but each platform has its strengths, so why create extra work for yourself if you don’t have to?

These simple tips are great for getting your feet wet or helping get a color grade off the ground quickly. Whether the effect is simple or cinematic, there is a plethora of post production tools and techniques photographers can use to get the most out of their images in a short amount of time.

Photographer, educator, and Broncolor Next Generation ambassador Justin Lister creates stunningly color graded photos. He has created a professional color grading tutorial that dives into every detail of how photographers can best use Lightroom to create cinematic color grades that will make their photos stand out. If you’d like to learn more, check out his Lightroom color grading tutorial, Cinematic Color Grading.