What is color correction in photography: a clear explanation

Color correction is an essential part of every photographers’ post production workflow in digital photography.

What is color correction in photography?

Color correction is the process of adjusting the colors of an image overall to make it look natural and reflect real life colors. It can include changing white balance, tint, brightness and color saturation to correct color issues created during the shooting process. So, color correction can make a significant difference to the final image.

Photo color correction is about accuracy, unlike color grading, which is the more creative process of adjusting colors in an image to enhance a specific mood, like creating brown tones, or make an image more appealing than the original image.

color graded portrait for brown tones

This is an example of color grading vs color correction – I changed the green tones for a more brown toned image. You can see another photo from this shoot without color grading further down.

Why use color correction in photography

Not all photographers want accurate colors in digital images, however, for certain types of photography, like fashion and product photography, it’s essential that the product colors are the right colors.

With image color correction you ensure that your photos look as natural and as close to real life as possible.

1. Correcting color imbalances

Sometimes, the lighting conditions during a photoshoot can cause color imbalances in your digital images. Color correction in photography helps to correct these imbalances, making your images look more natural.

2. Consistency

Color correction ensures a consistent look across all images from a photoshoot, which is why professional photographers use color correction whenever necessary.

If photographing in a studio you regularly use, with the same studio lighting and background color throughout, with the correct white balance setting, chances are you won’t need to color correct photos in post.

However, whenever you include any form of ambient lighting in photos, particularly natural light, you run the risk of inconsistent color. Likewise for photoshoots in multiple different settings, the different color surroundings could create a color cast that you need to correct in post production.

Examples of photo color correction settings

I took this shot in the shade of a covered walkway shortly after midday on a bright sunny day. I set my camera white balance to shade. To show how white balance settings affect the colors in an image I used 5 different white balance settings in post production from left: as shot, auto, shade, daylight, custom white balance set using the eye dropper tool for accurate color correction

Understanding color temperature

The human eye adjusts to the color temperature of different light sources, so we’re not usually aware of it, except for in extremes, like at sunset.

However, our cameras aren’t as evolved as our eyes and need to be told what to do with different colored light sources. This is why we have a white balance setting, although using the wrong setting causes odd color casts in images.

Color temperature, measured in Kelvin (K), refers to the warmth or coolness of light. It’s confusing at first, because:

  • The lower the color temperature, the warmer the light appears, with more yellow and orange tones
  • The higher the color temperature, the cooler the light appears, with more blue and white tones

As you can see in this table of common color temperatures and their corresponding light sources:

KelvinLight SourceColor temperature of light
2000-3000KIncandescent bulbsEmit warm, yellow/orange light so create a yellow/orange color cast in images
3000-4000KFluorescent bulbsEmit cool, greenish light so create a green color cast in images
5000-5500KDaylight (midday)At midday natural light is considered neutral, however it varies depending on the time of day and weather conditions
5600KFlashNeutral, similar to midday daylight
6000-7000KOvercast skyLight is cool and blueish so creates a blue cast in images
Table of different light sources’ Kelvin readings and color temperatures

Understanding the color temperature of light helps you select the correct in-camera white balance settings and adjust lighting setups to avoid spending unnecessary time correcting color in post processing.

Examples of different white balance settings

I took this shot mid morning in the shade of a building on a bright sunny day. I set my camera white balance to shade. As with the white balance examples above I used 5 different white balance settings in post production from left: as shot, auto, shade, daylight, custom white balance set using the eye dropper tool for accurate color correction (see screenshot further down). Incidentally, her leather jacket is dark brown, but it appears black in some examples.

How to use color theory for color correction

A basic knowledge of the color wheel helps to understand the process of color correction in photography, which uses complementary colors to correct color casts. For example, green is opposite magenta on the color wheel and is therefore its complementary color. So if you want to remove a green color cast, you need to add magenta to the overall image. Likewise with blue and yellow.

You’ll notice that the white balance tool in Lightroom consists of two sliders:

  • Temperature slider – with blue to the left and yellow to the right
  • Tint slider – with green to the left and magenta to the right

Understanding and correcting color casts

The first step to ensuring the best quality digital image is to shoot in RAW format to give yourself more flexibility in post processing. RAW files contain much more color information than JPEG files so can be manipulated (and corrected) more.

What is a color cast?

A color cast is an unwanted tint of color in your image. This can be caused by a shift in lighting conditions (like when a cloud temporarily blocks sunlight). Or it can be caused by reflected light casting color onto the subject as reflected light casts the same color as the object it reflects off.

To avoid a color cast in photos:

  • Set the correct white balance in camera for the lighting conditions
  • Ensure any light that’s reflected onto the subject bounces off of a neutral color surface, preferably white
  • If using flash with another light source, match it to the ambient light with color correction gels, for example a CTO gel to warm up an image with tungsten lighting or a CTG gel to neutralize the green of fluorescent lights and set your camera’s white balance for the ambient light.

Of course avoiding capturing inaccurate colors is ideal, but if that’s not possible, you can correct color in post production.

Woman in summer green grasses

The model is backlit by the late afternoon sun, walking towards me standing just inside a leafy wood. Light bouncing off the leafy trees and the green summer grass created a slight green color cast to her skin. I corrected this in Lightroom by moving the tint slider towards magenta.

Steps to correct color in photos

Correcting a color cast is part of post production color correction in photography to make an image look more natural with true to life colors.

Correcting color can mean:

  • correcting a specific color that’s been projected onto the subject (like bright sunlight reflecting a green color cast from grass onto the subject)
  • or it can be correcting the overall image (like when an image is yellow because of the wrong white balance setting)

1. Identify the color cast

Determine which colors are affected by the color cast and what caused the color cast.

2. Use a reference image

Sometimes it’s difficult to identify the color cast, or find a neutral area in an image to check against.

Using a gray card or a color checker at the start of a photoshoot is a simple way of ensuring accurate colors in photos with a reference image.

  • Place the color checker or gray card in the same light as your subject, get in close to fill the frame with it and take a photo of it
  • Even better, ask your subject to hold it near their face
  • At the start of your post production workflow, select the white balance eyedropper tool and click on the white block in the color checker or on the gray card
  • This automatically adjusts the color balance and corrects color casts
Lightroom color correction tool

Screenshot of how I used the white balance selector tool in Lightroom to target a neutral color for accurate color correction. Note the RGB values are almost identical.

3. Adjust the white balance

If the color cast affects the entire image, use the white balance tool to change the image’s white balance and make the whites look white.

  • For an image that appears too warm or too cool, use the temperature slider to neutralize the color cast. For example, to cool down an image taken in tungsten lighting conditions with the incorrect white balance in camera, drag the slider to the left to make it bluer.
  • Use Lightroom’s tint slider to adjust a green or magenta color cast in your photos. For example, to reduce the green color cast in a portrait taken near green vegetation add magenta.
  • To adjust white balance automatically using a white point, select the eye dropper in the white balance tool and click on a neutral colored area in your photo (the RGB values will be equal). This corrects the color balance based on that point by adjusting both the temperature and tint sliders for more accurate colors.

4. Color correcting part of an image

Reflected light is usually to blame for only part of an image needing color correction. Whatever the cause, to remove a color cast from your portrait subject in Lightroom:

  • Create a mask – either a facial skin and/or body skin mask or paint over the area with a brush mask
  • Correct color by adjusting either the white balance sliders, hue sliders, calibration sliders or RGB tone curves. Or a tinker with all four editing tools if necessary.

Adjust exposure

An underexposed image is much more saturated than an overexposed image. So, if your exposure isn’t correct you’ll need to brighten or darken your image in post production.

However, this might make the image appear over or under saturated.

Adjust saturation

Use the saturation and vibrance sliders to adjust the intensity of the colors in photos. Start with the vibrance slider, especially for portrait photography as it preserves skin tones better than the saturation tool.

Lightroom color correction presets

White balance presets in Lightroom for easy color correction

Presets for color correction

Lightroom has default settings for white balance to color correct digital images according to the lighting conditions. You can access all white balance presets for a raw image file, but not for a JPEG file.

Alternatively, you can create a custom preset:

  • For a particular photoshoot during processing
  • If you regularly shoot in a particular setting with the same colors and artificial lighting, a custom preset for that specific use will save time

Once you’ve color corrected one image in a series of images taken in the same lighting conditions, you can sync your edits across multiple photos in Lightroom.

Color correcting for different media

In the digital age we need to be aware that our photos could be viewed in many different settings, both digitally and in print.

Color correction for different monitors

Even if you don’t need 100% accurate color in your images, you no doubt want a particular look. To ensure your images look their best digitally you need to make sure that your computer monitor is calibrated.

Unfortunately, you can’t control every screen that they’re viewed on, but at least with a calibrated monitor you’ll know that you’ve done your best to create the look you want.

For accurate colors in digital image editing:

  • Calibrate your monitor regularly to ensure accurate color reproduction as color changes as the monitor ages
  • Make sure that the room you edit in is ideally set up for viewing accurate colors on your monitor

Color correction for prints

Just like with different screens, your choice of printer or print lab affects the colors in a physical print, as does the choice of paper.

For this reason I don’t do my own printing and prefer to outsource printing to professional labs who are experts in color accuracy in prints. Reputable labs use high quality printing equipment and color management software to ensure accurate color reproduction of digital files.

When printing photos be aware that:

  • Different printing methods (e.g. inkjet vs laser) may produce different color results
  • The lighting conditions of a room will affect the appearance of color in printed photos

Working with different color profiles

Color profiles in digital photos dramatically affect the colors in photos. You can set color profiles in-camera and also in Lightroom, and other photo editing programs. If shooting in RAW you have the option to change the color profile at any point, however not with JPEG files.

A color profile is a set of instructions telling your camera or computer how to interpret colors. There are different types of color profiles, each designed for a specific purpose. When you export an image as a JPEG or TIFF to send to a print lab it uses the color profile information to understand how the image should be printed.

Some of the most common color profiles used in photography include:

  • sRGB, the standard color profile used for most digital image files, is compatible with most devices, including computer monitors and printers
  • Adobe RGB has a wider color gamut than sRGB, so captures more colors and is used by professional photographers for prints that accurately reflect the colors in their images
  • ProPhoto RGB has an even wider color gamut than Adobe RGB for the highest level of color accuracy and detail

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