Color in photography – the ultimate guide

Color in photography is so important that even in black and white photos, the colors you capture make a difference to the outcome of the photo!

The colors in a photo affect:

  • How the photograph makes us feel – think of a cold snowy scene vs sunset scene on a summer beach
  • Where our eyes are first directed – what catches our eye first

If you’ve ever wondered, or never noticed, how important color is in photography, you’ll know by the end of this article.

The more you advance in your photography journey, the more your eyes will become attuned to subtle variations in color.

How to capture and enhance colors in photography

What we’ll cover on color in photography

There isn’t any part of the photographic process that doesn’t involve color. It impacts:

  • How camera choice impacts color in photos
  • Colors in color and black and white photography
  • Using color in photography composition
  • Using color to set the mood of a photo
  • How choice of light source affects a photo’s color
  • Natural light colors at different times of the day
  • In camera color settings
  • Screen calibration for accurate colors
  • Color space options in digital image processing
  • Processing color in post production
  • What happens to your color photos – a warning

Now let’s have a look at color in photography in more detail…

How your camera choice impacts color

The importance of color in photography is so big that it can even be the deciding factor in our choice of camera manufacturer, because all camera brands record color differently. For example, many portrait photographers will use Canon cameras, purely because Canon is known for its excellent handling of skin tones.

Even different camera models made by the same manufacturer record color differently.

However, you can change how your camera records color. More on this in a moment.

Color in black and white photography

You’ll find this zone system cheat sheet really handy for seeing how color photographs in black and white, including skin tones.


You know how sometimes you convert a photo to black and white and it just looks right? Better than it was in color?

Well, apart from the impact of light in black and white photos, color actually has a big influence on the outcome of a photo, which is also true for black and white photography.

  • A big expanse of clear blue sky looks great in color, but in a black and white photo it’s just a big expanse of gray. Black and white skies need clouds.
  • In portrait photography, red clothing with dark skin won’t stand out as red is dark in black and white. Yellow would look great, because it appears light gray in black and white photos, so will contrast well. With pale skin though yellow looks bland in black and white. So the dark tones of red in black and white photos work well with pale skin .
  • If the colors in your photo are complementary colors, they probably won’t photograph well together, because they are too similar in black and white.
  • A black and white photo without contrast can be dull, but not always. If you want a muted, light and airy feeling, a lack of contrast is needed, so colors that photograph as light gray will work well.
Color wheel in black and white showing how color appears in black and white

Using color in photography composition

Even before we pick up the camera, we should think about photography composition and the impact of color in the photos.

1. Complementary colors

On the other hand, using complementary colors in color photography is always a good idea, because they stand out from each other in color photos.

2. Isolating a subject with color

Color is also a great composition tool for isolating the subject. If your background is blue or green and your subject is red, orange or yellow, it will really stand out from the rest of the image.

3. Color in the background of photos

When you blur a busy background to make it less distracting, you need to consider if there are any colors that’ll demand attention and draw eyes away from the subject. Dominant colors in the background are distracting:

  • Red and blue carry a heavier visual weight and so demand our attention
  • Yellow and green are lighter and therefore less distracting
  • White is distracting, because, our eyes go to the lightest part of an image
Red bin in photo background distracts the eye
That red bin way in the background of the photo on the left is very distracting…as you can see by the photo on the right with it removed. Much better.

4. Color balance in photos

Speaking of dominant colors, balancing color in photos helps to direct the viewer’s eye. Colors that hold more visual weight than others, like bold, bright colors, should be smaller to reduce their visual weight. Subtle, neutral colors should occupy more space as they hold less visual weight.

Color balance also applies to balancing cold colors with warm colors. You’ll see on the color wheel that warm and cold colors are on opposite sides so they’re complementary colors. Not only do the colors work well together, they balance the image as well.

Using color to set the mood of a photo

Comparing the two extremes of high key and low key photography demonstrates how color impacts mood in photography.

High key photography conveys a happy, positive atmosphere. The colors in a high key photo are light, but not necessarily white, and have minimal tonal range. If there are any dark colors in a high key image, they’re kept to a minimum.

On the other hand, low key photos are moody and dramatic with dark colors, deep shadows and stark contrast between light and dark.

How choice of light source affects a photo’s colors

The reason we have the white balance setting (which we’ll get to in a moment) on our cameras and in our processing software is to cater for the color of different light sources. So, we know that the color of light changes.

But what about the times that we purposefully use light to cast color on a scene?

1. Using color with flash photography

With flash photography you can add gels to the front of the flash to color the light.

Sometimes gels are used to balance the color of the flash and ambient light. For example, if you photograph somebody indoors with house lights on, the tungsten lighting of the house lights is much warmer than the flash light.

So you would use a CTO gel (Color Temperature Orange) on the flash to warm it up to match the color of the tungsten lights. Then, setting your white balance for tungsten light captures the light as your eyes see it, instead of the very warm tones that the camera sees.

Other times, gels are used to light a scene creatively with color, such as red or blue, or both at the same time (on different light sources) to create a mix of interesting lighting.

2. The changing colors of natural light

Aside from how light changes in color throughout the day, which we’ll get to next, the color of natural light is different in different situations.

For example, outdoors in shaded areas the light is bluer than in areas of direct light.

This is because shaded areas are lit mainly by reflected light from the sky, which is blue. While a scene lit with direct sunlight is warmer colored, because of the color of the light.

Shadow and sunlight color difference

Natural light colors at different times of the day

Even the time of day that we photograph (if on location and not in a studio) is often decided based on the color of the light.

Photographers don’t photograph much in the middle of the day, because the light is harsh and white. However, either side of that the changing color of the light makes it much more interesting.

1. Golden hour photography

Photographers love the golden hour, not just because the sun is at a good angle and not as harsh as earlier in the day. It’s the beautiful golden colors of the golden hour that draw so many of us outside in the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset.

2. Sunset photography

Speaking of golden light, sunset photography is the ultimate for beautiful natural light color.

White balance settings can be adjusted to warm up an image and counteract the bluer light of shade and clouds. For sunset photos a warm white balance will make the image even warmer and really bring out the golden colors.

3. Blue hour photography

Like the golden hour, the blue hour occurs twice each day – just before sunrise and just after sunset. However it’s actually much shorter than an hour and the main colors range from deep blue purple to a dark blue and then light blue.

The blues combined with the yellows and oranges of street lights (complementary colors), makes it an exciting time to photograph in cities for beautifully saturated photos.

Warm colors of natural light at sunset

In camera color settings

The image you see on the LCD screen of your camera is actually a JPEG, even if you shoot in RAW, and does not accurately depict the RAW file that you import to your computer.

So, if you shoot in RAW, you should either:

  • Set up your camera so that photos will look like they will you import them, or
  • Be aware that it’s not an accurate color depiction and you’ll have to adjust the colors (amongst other settings) in post processing

How you record an image has a big impact on how much time you spend in post production.

My preference is always to spend as little time as possible on the computer, so here are three camera setting tips for great colors in photos and less time on the computer.

1. Calibrate your camera for color

All digital cameras have a set of color profiles to choose from – in the same way that you used to be able to choose different types of film. In fact, Fuji camera color profiles are named after the types of Fuji film, such as Provia and Velvia, and produce the same color in digital photos as their film counterparts in print.

To color calibrate your camera, go into the menu system and choose a color profile (also called a picture profile) you like.  You can choose:

  • From very flat images with minimal contrast and color
  • To vibrant colors
  • And even black and white

LCD histograms of camera color profiles

These two photos were taken seconds apart, same camera settings, except for camera color profile. The photo on the left is a flat profile and the one on the right is a vivid profile. 

2. Choosing a file format for better colors

While we’re on the subject of the JPEG preview on the LCD screen, did you know that your histogram is also based on the JPEG preview of your photo?

So if you use your histogram to make exposure decisions, it’s a good idea to set a very flat color profile without much contrast and color. Your histogram will be more accurate and the JPEG preview will look more like the RAW photo that you import to your computer.

If you prefer to shoot JPEGs, rather than the RAW file format, just be aware that you won’t be able to adjust the image as much in post processing, because JPEGs record far less color detail than RAW files.

There are many advantages to photographing in RAW, but the three that are relevant to this tutorial on color in photography are:

  • Wider range of colors recorded, so you can get creative when editing
  • 2 stop exposure allowance for recovering detail in highlights and shadows
  • Greater dynamic range is recorded

3. Using white balance camera settings to enhance colors

Using the correct white balance setting for the conditions you’re shooting in helps to achieve accurate colors in photography. Your whites will be white and your colors will be natural and as expected.

But your white balance doesn’t have to be set to accurately record white!

You can get creative or give the natural colors a little bump with white balance settings. For example, the beauty of sunset is the golden light, so if you set your white balance to cloudy or shady, you can maximise those warm colors.

I mentioned earlier how color affects the feel of an image, well if you experiment with white balance, you’ll see how you can really bring out the mood. For example, you can make a scene bluer for a cooler, gritty feel. Or, in the blue hour to really bring out the blue tones in the sky.

Your camera’s inbuilt white balance settings, in order from a blue color temperature to an orange color temperature are:

  • Shade
  • Cloudy
  • Flash
  • Sunshine
  • Fluorescent lighting
  • Incandescent lighting
Capturing colorful scenes in photos

Screen calibration for accurate colors

After all the careful planning that went into capturing colors in your photos, it makes sense to ensure that your screen for processing your photos shows color accurately. Otherwise the results might be very different from what you’re expecting. Aside from the screen brightness being potentially too high or too low, the colors might also not be right.

To ensure that your screen colors are are accurate, it’s essential to calibrate your monitor for photography. Also, you need to do it regularly, because your monitor’s colors change over time. Newer monitors can cast a blueish tint which, as they age, then becomes warmer.

Another really important factor to consider is where you process photos. If your monitor is calibrated correctly, but you process photos in a room with green walls, instead of a neutral color (ideally gray) you won’t see accurate colors.

Also, the color of the light source in the room will affect the colors you see in your photos, and lastly, where your monitor is in relation to the light.

So, if photos on your laptop look different when you take the laptop to a different room, now you know why.

Color space options in digital image processing

All devices used in photography (i.e. your camera, monitor and printer) use a particular range (or gamut) of colors called color spaces. Editing color spaces are for processing digital photos on the computer and include Adobe RGB and sRGB, which you may have heard of.

Lightroom Classic displays color using the large Adobe RGB color space, except for in the Develop module where the default color space is ProPhoto RGB. However, you can see what your photos will look like online by using the soft proofing tool. This will show colors using the smaller sRGB color space used online.

So, for accurate colors in your photography, you need to set the correct color space for the end use – printer friendly and web friendly. As a general rule, when exporting from Lightroom, set your color space to sRGB and you’ll be good to go for almost any situation.

Processing color in post production

When processing color in post production it’s not always to color correct photos. Often it’s to change or add to the colors in photos. Sometimes it’s subtle, but these changes can be quite extreme too, as any scroll through many photography accounts on Instagram will prove.

Color correction and color grading is a very hot topic – just look at the number of people selling Lightroom presets. But if you know how to adjust color in Lightroom, or other photo processing software, you won’t need to buy presets, you can create your own. Win!

So, it’s well worth it to invest some time learning about processing color in photos.

Online Lightroom workshop for professional photo editing

Below is an introduction to the Lightroom Classic color tools you need to master to fully explore the color possibilities of processing photos.

Just remember, that you don’t need to throw everything at a photo in post, even though it can be fun. Small adjustments and selective use of the tools can make big differences.

Three versions of the same photo with different color processing

The photo on the left is straight out of camera. I processed the photo two different ways for different looks.

1. Local adjustments to color in photos

Speaking of not throwing everything at a photo, not all color processing in Lightroom Classic needs to be applied to the entire image. You can apply color adjustments locally (in certain areas only) using the:

  • Graduated filter
  • Radial filter
  • Adjustment brush

For example, you can:

  • Use the brush tool to paint over and desaturate the whites of eyes that might have gone red from being blasted by cold wind
  • Or use the graduated filter with a touch of color, or warmed up white balance, to enhance sunset colors
  • The radial filter is great, with a dash of orange added and increased exposure, for creating or adding to sun flares in photos

Lightroom graduated filter to enhance sunset colors

The photo on the left is before and on the right after I used a graduated filter with added orange color.

Exciting Adobe update to how you can adjust hue in Lightroom Classic

As of the June 2020 update to Lightroom Classic you now have even more control over color processing! In this exciting update they added a hue slider into the local adjustment tools. So, instead of adjusting the hue of the entire image, you can change just one area.

For example, you can change the color of someone’s clothes and even correct skin tones very easily.

2. Lightroom Classic color profiles

Just like you can set color profiles in camera, you can also set Lightroom color profiles. Some of these profiles are matched to your camera so that your photos look the same when you import them as they do on your camera, but there are many other creative color profiles to choose from too.

Your default Lightroom color profile is applied on import into Lightroom, but you can change the color profile at any time.

Lightroom color profiles for quick color change in photos

I processed this photo in Lightroom Classic. The only change I then made to get the other two versions was to select a different Lightroom color profile for each.

3. Lightroom Classic white balance settings

Sometimes you might not set your white balance color temperature correctly in camera, but fortunately, that’s easily fixed in Lightroom if your photos were shot in RAW for the times that you didn’t get it right. It happens to all of us.

The white balance slider is the first place to start when correcting skin tones in Lightroom but it’s also a great way to warm up or cool down the color temperature an image if you want to get creative with color in photos.

To adjust white balance in Lightroom you have two options:

  • Temperature
  • Tint

a) Temperature

Use the temperature slider to adjust the color temperature in a photo. It covers blue and yellow colors and is what we use primarily to fine tune white balance so that colors are accurately depicted in photos, with white whites.

It’s also a great tool for either cooling down or warming up photos creatively.

Using white balance to warm up photos in Lightroom

Above the white balance slider is all the way to the right, as warm as it can go. Below it is as far left as it can go to the cool blues. Obviously these two examples are extremes. As a side note, you can see the change in the histograms of the two screenshots.

Lightroom white balance slider for cool colors in photos

b) Tint

The tint slider is for correcting green or magenta color casts in photos.

It’s not used as much as the temperature slider, because of the type of light that we use most of the time. If you’ve shot in an environment with fluorescent lighting though you will probably need to adjust the tint more towards magenta to reduce the green.

Like the temperature slider, the tint slider can also be used creatively instead of for color correction, for example to enhance purple in a purple tinged scene.

4. Lightroom Classic vibrance slider

Because I’m a portrait photographer, I use the vibrance slider more than the saturation slider (which I’ll get to next) if I want to boost or mute colors. This is because the vibrance slider is not as global an adjustment as the saturation slider.

With the vibrance slider the less saturated colors are boosted, while the colors that are already vibrant are left unchanged.

5. Lightroom Classic saturation slider

Boost, or mute, colors globally in Lightroom with the saturation slider.

However, be careful that you don’t go too far as it’s very easily done with the saturation slider. When you’ve been processing for a while it’s easy to “get lost in the colors” and overdo it (surprisingly easy!).

It helps to step away from the computer from time to time as you’ll come back with fresh eyes.

Sometimes you’ll wonder what on earth you were thinking with all those crazy colors, but you’re not losing it. It’s just that, like processing in a room with colorful walls, over time our eyes adjust to the colors and we don’t see the craziness.

A great Lightroom shortcut to check on your basic edits in Lightroom, preferably before moving on to the other color tools, is the backslash key.

When you press it you’ll see what your photo looked like before your edits. Just press it again to go back to your processed version. The before and after tool has many features to help us not overedit. 

Lightroom vibrance and color saturation in photos

6. Lightroom Classic HSL color adjustment

HSL stands for hue, saturation and luminance and each of these elements handles a different aspect of adjusting color:

  • Hue – changes the color tones
  • Saturation – changes how strong the colors are
  • Luminance – changes the brightness of the colors

Any adjustment to the colors in the HSL panel has an impact on the color throughout the photo. If you move the orange slider, for example, you’ll affect every part of the photo that has an orange color.

This is another tool that’s easy to get carried away with, so switch it on and off regularly to keep a check on your progress.

Red hue exaggerated with Lightroom hue slider

7. Color grading in Lightroom Classic

Color grading used to be called split toning in Lightroom. With color grading you can alter the color in the highlights, shadows and midtones, and adjust their saturation. 

Color grading is very popular for photos on Instagram, and if you’re a fan of orange and teal, this is one of the areas that you can make it happen.

Of course, it’s not just an Instagram thing, color grading is a fantastic way of subtly warming or cooling an image, or bringing an interesting balance of color to a photo. It’s just that on Instagram it’s everywhere and very often not subtle.

Before we carry on though, a quick comment on orange and teal – they’re complementary colors (see earlier point on color in composition), which is why they work so well for color grading photos.

Split toning for orange and teal color grading in Lightroom

I used orange and teal split toning in both of these photos with the same settings – i.e. the color and amount of saturation. The difference is that on the left I used orange in the highlights and teal in the shadows. For the photo on the right I used the same settings in reverse – teal in the highlights and orange in the shadows. Just goes to show how much and how quickly you can alter an image!

8. Using the tone curve tool for color adjustment

Another effective way to change colors in digital photos is to adjust the RGB channels in the tone curve. Here, small changes make big differences.

Red RGB channel in tone curve adjusts color in photography

Before I adjusted the tone curve.

But before we get into adjusting colors, it helps to know that RGB refers to the colors of light used in screens, scanners and digital colors. RGB stands for Red, Green and Blue. The various combinations of just these three colors creates the huge variety of colors you see in digital photography and on any screen.

To understand how to change colors using the tone curve, you first need to know that the opposite of:

  • Red is cyan
  • Green is magenta
  • Blue is yellow

And if you were paying attention, you’d notice that Cyan, Magenta and Yellow are the first three letters of CMYK, the color model for printing. That’s no accident. And if you’re wondering, the K in CMYK stands for key, which is black.

But getting back to colors in photography… As an example, to adjust colors using the red channel of the tone curve:

  • When you reduce it, the colors will shift towards cyan
  • Increase it, and the colors become more red

Lightroom RGB tone curve changes red to cyan

For the left photo I adjusted the tone curve up in the red RGB channel to increase the reds. On the right I adjusted the tone curve down to reduce red and increase cyan.

9. Calibration panel in Lightroom Classic

This takes us back to my very first point on how different cameras record color differently. With the calibration panel you can make micro adjustments to correct/alter/tune how your camera records color.

If getting your colors exactly right is important to you, as it would be with product photography, then this is a great tool for fine tuning your camera’s recording of color. It’s also handy for correcting skin tone, so is useful for

  • Portrait photographers with cameras that don’t record skin tones as well as Canon,
  • Or if the hues in the surrounding environment have affected your subject’s skin tones

There are two parts to the calibration panel that come in handy for colors in photos:

  • Shadows slider
  • Primary sliders

a) Shadows slider

Sometimes shadows can have a green or magenta tint, which you can correct in the calibration panel in Lightroom. It’s for color correction, rather than creativity.

b) Red, green and blue primary sliders

Because every pixel contains red, blue and green, when you adjust the primary calibration sliders, you affect every pixel in the image.

If you adjust the red slider, you’re adjusting the red of the RGB mix in every pixel in your photo, not just the parts of the image that appear red, as would happen if you adjust red hue in the HSL panel.

So, that’s the real reason for the calibration panel, but you can also use it creatively instead of to correct color if you choose, because now you know what you’re actually changing when you adjust sliders.

I like to use the calibration panel for removing the unhealthy looking green cast on skin caused by sunlight reflecting off grass on a sunny day.

Remove green cast with Lightroom calibration panel

The image on the left is unprocessed and on the right the only change I made was to use the calibration panel to reduce the green color cast on her skin from the grass.

What happens to colors in photos – a warning

After all your care with color decisions, there’s the one thing you can’t control – the end user.

If you:

  • Post images online, the screen on which your audience views your photos could be way off. Just remember that it’s social media, not an art gallery.
  • Give digital files to non-commercial clients to do their own printing, they won’t be using a pro lab for printing, so who knows how the color will turn out. Rather offer physical products printed at a pro lab.

So, my advice is, do your best and accept that when your photos go out into the world, they’re on their own.

Photographers are far more aware of color than people who are not into photography. Also, as I said at the beginning, as you become more advanced in your photography, your eyes will become much more sensitive to colors in photos.

Color in photography conclusion

Above all else, enjoy taking your photos to the next level with a deeper awareness of color, from even before you pick up your camera, to the last moment when you export your finished photographs for print or sharing digitally.

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

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