Color grading in Lightroom Classic (2023)

Color grading in Lightroom got a whole lot more exciting after the 2020 Lightroom update! Even though color grading is now more advanced, it’s actually easier to use!

What is color grading?

When you color grade an image you alter the tones between absolute white and absolute black by adding in color to these areas. In this way you can cool down the color temperature of an image or warm it up. What’s most exciting about color grading is using color theory to grade images with, for example using:

And more. I won’t go into detail here, as I covered the topic extensively in a previous article on color grading.

2020 Lightroom update

Upgrading from an old version of Lightroom

The good news is that, as always with Lightroom upgrades, the upgraded version will replace your old Lightroom version, so you won’t end up with multiple versions of Lightroom Classic on your computer.

When you first open a catalog after upgrading to version 10, Lightroom will create a new duplicate catalog and will add v10 to the end of your catalog name so that you can easily see that it’s the latest. This makes it easier to identify old catalogs to delete them …after you’ve checked that all is fine!

Keep reading to the end for one of my favorite time saving tricks that you can use with any of the tools in Lightroom!

Color grading Lightroom update

Processed for cool blue tones in the shadows and warm yellow tones in the highlights. Blue in the midtones makes it a cooler photo than the warm version further down.

Color grading in Lightroom after 2020

The biggest, and most exciting, aspect of the update is that the color grading panel replaced the split toning panel. So we now have much more advanced color grading options in Lightroom Classic.

Remember that color grading should be the last step in your workflow when editing a photo. So, before you start color grading, make sure that you first make your adjustments in the:

  • Basic panel
  • Tone curve panel
  • HSL/Color panel

If you go back over old photos processed before the October 2020 Lightroom update, don’t worry about your color adjustments made using the split toning panel being messed up. The upgrade won’t have affected your photos and they’ll still look the same.

The color grading panel simply expanded the power and ability of the split toning panel for even more color grading options. Previously, you could tone only the shadows and the highlights, add a color tint and control the saturation.

Now you can add color separately to:

  • Shadows
  • Midtones
  • Highlights
  • Global

Plus, for each color that you apply in the color grading panel you can control the:

  • Saturation
  • Luminance

Then you can

  • Blend
  • Balance

All colors either individually or as a whole. What?!

How does the color grading panel work?

The color grading dials are laid out as color wheels in the Lightroom color grading panel. So, you don’t have to remember where colors fall on the color wheel when using color theory for color grading.

Let’s take a closer look at the color grading tools

There’s a lot packed into this panel and at first it might seem confusing, but the tools are laid out very logically.

color grading upgrade in lightroom

The same photo as the one above, but this time processed for a warmer feeling. Instead of blue in the midtones the color is yellow.

General view in the color grading panel

The default view when you open the color grading panel shows three color wheels:

  • Midtones is the top wheel
  • Shadows is the left wheel
  • Highlights is the right wheel

You can do quite a lot in this view, but you might find it easier to work on the tones individually. Plus there are more options in the individual panels.

Maybe because I’m used to adjusting just highlights and shadows, it feels logical to me to adjust them before adding color to the midtones. The last adjustment I would make is the global one, and that’s if I do it at all as I don’t see a big use for it. But more about that in a moment.

Hue, Saturation and Luminance

You’ll see that below each dial is a slider.

When you mouse over either the circle in the centre of a dial, or the selector on the slider below the dial, you’ll notice that the text above the dial changes to H:0 S:0 L:0 if you’ve not yet made any color grading changes. If you have, there will be other numbers instead of zeros.

These are the values set for hue, saturation and luminance.

  • Hue – the number will be between 1 and 359. The start position is in the middle of the red area. As you drag the slider anti-clockwise the numbers go up to 359, until you return to your start point at 1 – because you’ve gone 360 degrees.
  • Saturation – the number starts at zero in the very centre of the dial and goes up to 100 when you get to the edge of the dial, where the color is most saturated.
  • Luminance – use the slider below the dial to adjust luminance from 0 to 100.

The slider below the circle is for adjusting luminance. If you drag it to the left it reduces luminance and if you take it to the right it increases luminance. In other words it makes a particular color darker and lighter.

You’ll find the luminance slider helpful if, by adding a particular color to the shadows, for example, it brightens the image. In this case simply drag the luminance slider to the left to darken the color again. And of course, vice versa for highlights.

If this all seems a little bit out of control at first, don’t worry, there are few really easy ways to easily select the hue, saturation and luminance without veering off wildly all over the dial. More on this below.

Color grading blending slider

This slider blends the colors towards the highlights or the shadows, but will also blend the colors together if you’ve added multiple colors, i.e. if you have different colors in the shadows and highlights. Pushing the blending slider to the:

  • Left, makes the highlights more dominant
  • Right, makes the shadows more dominant

Color grading balance slider

This works the same as the balance slider in the split toning panel used to work. You can specify if you want the shadow color or highlight color to be more prominent. Moving the balance slider to the:

  • Left pushes shadow color into the midtones and highlights
  • Right pushes highlight color into the midtones and shadows
  • Or leave it in the middle if you want an even balance between highlight and shadow
color grading photo editing

To make this a cool edit, the blue in the shadows is more dominant than the yellow in the highlights. This is because both the blending and balance have been adjusted to the left.

Individual tone views in the color grading panel

To select individual color wheels to work on simply click the circles at the top of the color grading panel:

  • Black circle for shadows
  • Gray circle for midtones
  • White circle for highlights
  • Black/gray/white striped circle for global

Or double click on the text above each color wheel to open it up.

When you do this you’ll see that you have more options, as well as the ability to adjust blending and balance for shadows, midtones, highlights and global individually.

Color swatch tool

You don’t have to stick to selecting colors from just the color wheels.

You can select a color from any part of the photo you’re working on to use for any of the color grading options – shadows, midtones, highlights and global. When you open up an individual color wheel for either shadows, midtones, highlights or global, you’ll notice on the left, in the space between the dial and the hue slider, there’s a box.

  • Click on the box and a color swatch will appear with an eye dropper
  • Click and hold the eye dropper and then move your mouse over the photo, or your color dial
  • As you do this you’ll see how the photo changes according to the color that eye dropper is over
  • Release the mouse to select the color

Split toning sliders

If you’re already missing the sliders of the split toning panel, Lightroom has built in an option for you. In the individual panels for shadows, midtones, highlights and global you’ll see a triangle on the right below the wheel and above the luminance slider.

Click the triangle to open up hue, saturation and luminance sliders.

These sliders look and work just like the split toning sliders worked before the Lightroom V10 update. So if you prefer sliders to a dial, Lightroom has you covered.

How to color grade in Lightroom

In contrast with the previous image, here the emphasis is on the warm tones. Both the blending and balance sliders have been pushed to the right to make the warm highlights more dominant.

Tuning saturation in the Lightroom color grading panel

For each of these fine tuning saturation tools there are two methods – one uses the keyboard in conjunction with your mouse and the other is controlled purely with mouse clicks.

If you’ve chosen the saturation and you want to try different colors at the same intensity using:

Key and mouse option for color selection:

  • Click command (Mac) or control (PC) and an inner circle will appear in the color wheel
  • Continue to hold down the key while you move your mouse around the color wheel

Mouse only option for color selection:

  • Click and drag within the color wheel to the saturation level you want
  • A color circle appears outside of the color wheel
  • Click and drag that small colored circle around the outside of the wheel

If you’ve chosen the color and you want to select the intensity, or saturation level of that color:

Key and mouse option for setting saturation:

  • Hold down the shift key
  • A line appears going from the center of the circle to the outside
  • Continue to hold down the key as you move your cursor along that line, you’ll notice the saturation changing, but not the color.

Mouse only option for setting saturation:

  • Click on the circle within the color wheel
  • A line appears
  • Move your cursor along the line to adjust the saturation

Fine tuning in the Lightroom color grading panel

To slow down the mouse movement for finer adjustments hold down the option (Mac) or alt (PC) key while you move your mouse. You’ll find it easier to make small adjustments.

Before and after color grading checks

To see a before and after of your color grading adjustments, click the eyeball icon above the luminance slider, and hold it down, for a before view. Release it to toggle back to the after version.

I highly recommend toggling back and forth regularly as you’re color grading in Lightroom so that you can keep an eye on the changes you’ve made. This will help to prevent you from going too far. It’s really easy to over process when you have such powerful photo editing tools at your fingertips.

Lightroom color grading techniques

Before applying color grading I first processed these photos as black and white. For the image on the left I applied red globally at 50% saturation and for the image on the right I did the same, but with blue, directly opposite the red on the color wheel.

The global color wheel

The global color grading option applies a color over the entire image, which is the same effect as adjusting the RGB tone curve..

So it’s another option instead of using the tone curve for a global tone adjustment.

Quick and easy Lightroom trick

The easiest way to reset most tools in Lightroom is to double click on it. So to reset all color grading adjustments that you’ve made, double click on the text “Adjust” at the top of the color grading panel.

To reset any of the shadows, midtones, highlights or global adjustments:

  • Double click on the text above the dial. So, to reset shadows, double click on “Shadows” above the shadows dial
  • Or double click the small circle within the dial

To reset sliders:

  • Double click on the name of the slider. So, to reset hue, double click on “hue” next to the hue slider
  • Or double click the small coloured circle on the outside of the color wheel.

Etc etc etc.

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about color grading in Lightroom, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my Lightroom tips have helped you to understand how to use the color grading panel, share that too.

2 thoughts on “Color grading in Lightroom Classic (2023)”

  1. I think there is a typo under the balance slider. It should say: Right pushes shadow color into the midtones and removes it from the highlights (not shadows).


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