Like with many things, there’s a time and a place for color grading in photography. Photographing products for a client, is a great example of when not to get creative with your Lightroom color grading, unless the photos are editorial and not meant to be an accurate portrayal of product colors.
A creative shoot is of course the perfect opportunity for creative color grading in Lightroom.
Before I get into the ins and outs of what is color grading, it’s important to note that you need to start with a RAW file. JPEG files don’t have the necessary detail in the colors for effective color grading in Lightroom, or any other editing programs.
Further reading: Shooting RAW vs JPEG image quality pros and cons
What is color grading photography?
Color grading is a way to manipulate colors in an image to create a stylized look for mood and atmosphere.
Not every photo needs to be color graded, but developing your color grading techniques for a unique look is a great way of establishing a personal style. It’s not the only way, of course. I’m just referring to the post production side of developing a personal style.
How you shoot, where you shoot, how you light your subject, even your favoured focal lengths are all aspects of your style. Some of these things will also affect your color grading, which is why just applying a preset to your photos won’t necessarily result in the look you want.
Further reading: Why buying Lightroom presets is a waste of money
Lightroom color grading involves adjusting the following:
- White balance
- White point
- Black point
- Tone curve
- Hue saturation luminance
- Split toning
- and sometimes calibration
Of course you don’t have to use every single color grading tool available on every photo. That would be like adding every condiment in your cupboard to every meal.
What is cinematic color grading?
To understand cinematic color grading we need a look at the color wheel. Well, actually, with any type of advanced color grading, knowledge of the color wheel and color theory is essential. All color decisions in art, film and photography are made with the color wheel in mind.
The reason it’s referred to as cinematic color grading is because photographers have followed in the footsteps of the movie industry when processing photos and use the same techniques.
However, many have become stuck on just one type of color grading.
Get our color wheel sent straight to your inbox to help with planning a shoot and color grading in post production…
What is the most common cinematic look for a color grade?
Most often when photographers talk about creating a cinematic color grade, they’re referring to using complementary colors in their color grading. Very often this means orange and teal, because this is what you see in many big blockbuster movies.
So much so that orange and teal is referred to as the summer blockbuster color grade.
Orange and teal are opposite each other on the color wheel, so they’re complementary colors and therefore dynamic.
In portrait photography orange and teal color grading works well, because it creates maximum contrast between orange in skin tones and highlights and teal in neutral colors in the background and shadows. This contrast helps the subject to stand out.
It’s particularly effective to bear in mind your planned color grading before shooting. This way you can plan for it in clothing and background.
But there’s much more to color grading and the cinematic look than just adding orange to the highlights and teal to the shadows in Lightroom, or whichever software you choose to use.
In fact, using complementary colors is just one way of color grading photos.
Color schemes for color grading photos
Using balanced color schemes creates unity in an image. To achieve a balanced color scheme, refer to the color wheel to find colors that are considered harmonious. The four most common balanced color schemes are:
- Complementary colors
- Monochromatic colors
- Analogous colors
- Triadic colors
Each version uses different combinations of complementary colors in split toning. The first is orange and teal, the second yellow and purple and the last red and green.
1. Complementary colors
We’ve already touched on the popular orange and teal complementary colors of color grading. Although it’s the most popular combination, they’re not the only complementary colors on the color wheel.
For a complementary color scheme, use a color from the warm side of the color wheel with its opposite on the cool side of the color wheel.
Aside from orange and teal, other great complementary color combinations to use in portrait photography are:
- Yellow and purple
- Red and green
Further reading: Using color in photography composition for standout photos
2. Monochromatic colors
This doesn’t mean that your photo has to be black and white. To create a monochromatic color scheme,use shades of just one color, such as orange, in:
- the scene,
- your subject
- and your color grading
This creates a harmonious feel to the image.
3. Analogous colors
When you use three colors that are next to each other on the color wheel, you’re using analogous colors. Again, they emphasize harmony in an image as there’s no tension created by using opposing colors.
I used analogous colors of green, greeny-yellow and yellow to color grade this image (before on the left): Split toning – yellow in highlights, green in shadows. Blue tone curve dragged down slightly for more yellow in the mid tones. White balance pushed more towards yellow.
It’s easy to find analogous colors in nature as a backdrop for your shoot, for example:
- Rolling green hills with green shrubs, grasses and trees
- Autumn woodland with shades of orange leaves
- The sea with shades of blue
Next, just plan outfits that work with the scene, then process in Lightroom using these colors in your color grading.
Further reading: Why an analogous color scheme in photography works so well
4. Triadic colors
You’ll see triadic colors used less in portrait photography as it’s quite a vibrant color scheme. Think superheroes. For this scheme select three colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel, such as red, blue and yellow.
When using a triadic color scheme, one color should be dominant and the other two used as accents.
Is color grading necessary?
No, it’s not necessary for every photo you create. However, it’s a lot of fun and, as I mentioned, a way to develop your style as a photographer. It will take your photography to a higher level.
Because color affects us emotionally and psychologically, if you want to sway your viewer’s mood and make the most of an image, color grading in Lightroom is an ideal way to bring your image together for maximum impact.
If you’ve planned the location and your subject’s clothing colors, it makes sense to finish off with color grading in Lightroom, or similar processing software.
Further reading: Color in photography – the ultimate guide
How to color grade in Lightroom
There are three main tools for color grading photos in Lightroom:
- Lightroom tone curve
- Hue Saturation Luminance sliders
- Split toning
Of these, the RGB tone curve and the split toning panel are used heavily for cinematic color grading, such as the orange and teal blockbuster look.
1. Using the tone curve for Lightroom color grading
First add contrast to a photo by:
- setting the white point and black point
- creating an S-shape tone curve
Adjust the RGB channels individually to affect color in the dark, mids and light tones. Each channel affects just 2 colors. Use the:
- blue channel to increase and decrease blue and yellow
- green channel to increase and decrease green and magenta
- red channel to increase and decrease red and cyan
I use the blue channel more than the other two channels.
When using the RGB tone curve, your adjustments will be very small. The slightest change can have a big impact on the colors in your photo.
Further reading: Master the Lightroom tone curve for much better photos
2. Lightroom’s Hue Saturation Luminance sliders
There is no end to the number of adjustments you can make using the HSL sliders. The HSL panel is designed to adjust the hue, saturation and luminance of individual colors, so you can really fine-tune the look of a photo with this tool.
There are no rules on how much you should or shouldn’t adjust the HSL sliders.
Above are screenshots from two different photos showing extensive use of the HSL sliders and minimal use.
Sometimes I don’t touch these sliders at all. Everything depends on the look you’re going for, so it will vary from one photo to the next and from one color grading effect to the next.
3. Split toning panel for Lightroom color grading
The split toning panel has been replaced in the October 2020 Lightroom update by the color grading panel, which is much more powerful and versatile.
Further reading: 2020 Lightroom update for advanced color grading
If you’re on a previous version of Lightroom, you might still be interested, so I’ve left the split toning panel information in this tutorial…
Split toning was a very popular choice for beginner color grading in Lightroom as it’s easier to use than the RGB tone curve. Here you adjust both the color and the saturation of:
You can also adjust the balance of the split toning if you want more emphasis on the highlights or the shadows by moving the balance slider.
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