Photo Processing & Color Grading Tips

Working in the intersection of photography and video production, I’ve noticed that the tasks of color-grading and photo processing have become more and more similar. What used to be limited to basic adjustments of brightness, contrast and hue is now a full-fledged part of the creative process.

Let me take this opportunity to mention that I am by no means an expert in either color grading or photo processing. However, I have found a few things that work for me. If you are a sophisticated colorist, you know more than I do. If you’re not, you might find some of these tips useful.

For the sake of consistency, I’m using a photo and a video of the same model, taken at the same time, with the same camera (Canon 5D Mk II). The color grading screenshots show the H264-compressed video being worked with inside Premiere Pro, and the photo processing screenshots show the RAW photo being worked with inside Lightroom.

First, here’s the unprocessed photo, and a screenshot of the unprocessed video.

unprocessed-8894 video_unprocessed

Looking at these unprocessed images, you might notice that they look pretty much okay. That’s good, because I have found that color grading is NOT “color correction.” The closer your original file is to what you ultimately want it to look like, the faster your editing will be, and (when working with non-RAW formats) the less likely you are to degrade your image by pushing it too far. Some people prefer to shoot a very “flat” image that captures as much detail as possible, and I certainly understand that, I just prefer to make decisions “in-camera.”

Now, let’s get into these images and play with color.

1) Orange Is Magic

Before I got into grading, I did not realize that the dominant hue in human skin is orange. As kids, we tend to color our pictures with brown and pink crayons. Apparently, we should have been using orange, because that’s the color of people’s skin on TV and in movies. Interestingly, this seems to be the case regardless of tone: dark-skinned people are just a darker orange than light-skinned people.

In my preferred video color-grading tool, Colorista II, the plugin actually offers a “skin tone overlay” option which puts an orange grid over the portions of your image that are appropriately orange-skin-toned. The idea is that you push and pull the color balance of the Highlight, Midtone and Shadow controls until as much of the skin in the image has the orange grid over it as possible.

video_skin overlay 1
Now, if you’re detecting a subtle tone of sarcasm in my writing, you’re not mistaken. I don’t think people actually look orange. At least, not THAT orange. But, I DO find that the skin-tone overlay gives me a good starting point. What I like to do is get the image the way you see it above, and then back off the saturation a bit to make it look like this.

video_skin overlay 2

As you can see, I still have some of the skin-tone grid, but I’ve lost most of it. The colors still have a “warm” tone to them, but the model’s skin is not as startlingly orange.


2) Red Is Scary

Part of the fun of RAW photo processing software is the whole bank of color sliders that you can manipulate. The most significant ones for skin-tone grading are those that control the red tones. Look what happens when I make all the red tones in this photo as dark, as saturated, and as purple-hued as possible. I suspect the model would NOT want to use this as her Facebook profile pic.


Now, what happens if I do the exact OPPOSITE? Hey, not too bad. The dress is a totally different color, but it looks as though the model is wearing some kind of stylized makeup, which is not awful.photo_no_red

But, of course, that’s still an extreme. Here’s what it looks like if I keep the same approach, but make it more subtle. This is with the reds slightly desaturated, slightly brightened, and pushed slightly towards the orange side of the color spectrum.


As you can see, the imperfections in skin tone (not that the model had many to begin with) become much less visible. With this particular image, the result is not exactly a life-saver, but if you’re doing event or corporate photography of ruddy-nosed party-goers, this red-adjusting technique can make a dramatic difference in your images.

Interestingly, manipulating the red tones in video causes even more dramatic effects. Here’s the “bad red” version of the shot. I would definitely characterize it as “unflattering.”


Here’s the “no red” version of the shot. As you can see, the H264 compression of the video causes the image to start showing artifacts and losing detail, compared to the RAW photo, which held up quite well.


Finally, here’s the “good red” version of the shot, with the red tones just slightly lightened, a tiny bit desaturated, and pushed a little bit towards the orange side of the color wheel.



3) Trendy Color Effects

Periodically, you’ll see that a whole slew of magazine ads and photo spreads will pop up with some kind of trendy color effect. In movies, the same types of fads come through every few years. If you try to duplicate these effects just using white balance settings, you won’t be able to do it. What I’m talking about here is the result of “split toning” an image.

Here’s an example. Right now, you see a lot of images with a distinctly blue/green cast to the shadows. In Lightroom, you can get this look by going into the Split Toning panel, clicking the Shadow option, and selecting a light shade of teal.


If you really want to be trendy, you can also click on the Highlights option, and select a vaguely yellow-green color. This will give you that retro-hued Polaroid look that people seem to like so much.


You can tailor the severity of the effect to your own taste. By the way, the practical application of this technique is to filter the reflected colors out of the shadows of your image. If, for example, you have an image of somebody on a dark background, and you like the way their skin looks, but the background has a weird cast to it, you can use Split Toning to fix it.

You can do the same thing with video. Here’s the image with teal shadows …


And with the addition of green/gold highlights. Look, it’s an indy-band music video!


4) Working With Midtones

Until now, I’ve been discussing only the color controls in both Lightroom and Colorista II. However, brightness and contrast are just as important – if not more important – than color. One of the frequent frustrations experienced by both photo and video shooters is the tendency for shots to look dull and flat. What I mean by this is that you may find that if you make the image brighter, it gets washed-out; if you make it darker, it looks dim; and if you boost the contrast, it clips the lights and darks.

I’ve found that the secret to solving this problem lies in the midtones of the image. Here’s how I do it.

Let’s go back to the unprocessed version of the photo.


If I raise the Contrast setting all the way up, it definitely looks a little more punchy, but it’s not great. It seems a bit harsh somehow, I’ve lost detail in the darks and highlights, and – more importantly – I didn’t really have any control over what the software actually did to the different tones in the image.

Now, look what happens when I LOWER the shadows and highlights (some software call these “Blacks” and “Exposure”) and RAISE the midtones of the image (some software call these tones “brightness,” and some others call it “whites.” It’s just as punchy as the previous image, but it’s also softer, and I haven’t lost any detail.


The same thing works for video. Here’s the unprocessed image.


And here it is with raised midtones, and lowered shadows and highlights.


5) Season To Taste

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that color work has really become part of the creative process. Just as with cooking, two different chefs will make different dishes out of the same ingredients. Depending on what looks good to you, you can push your photos and videos in any number of directions.

There’s no “right” or “wrong” with color, there’s only personal preference, so don’t be afraid to experiment and try different approaches.



2 Replies to “Photo Processing & Color Grading Tips”

  1. Nice article! I just noticed that for every step to achieve the processed photo, your showing how to do it in video and lightroom. You mentioned something about the skin tone overlay when doing video but none was mentioned in lightroom. How do you do this in lightroom? By adjusting the color of the shadows and highlights to orange and desaturating it?

    1. As far as I know, Lightroom doesn’t have a skintone overlay. I think that’s a feature that’s unique to Red Giant products. There may well be some similar feature in LR, but honestly I just do it by eye.

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