Guest Post: Dennis Dunbar – Making Smart Color Grading Moves
by Alan Winslow – November 1st, 2018
Today we are fortunate to have digital artist and X-Rite Coloratti Dennis Dunbar share with us an amazing way to color grading your photographs. As we have discussed in the past color can have a dramatic effect on how the viewer reads and interprets your images. Color choice is a crucial step in the editing workflow.
Dennis opened his studio in 1991 and has since been an industry leader in creating artwork for movie posters and commercial ads. He is also a sought-after instructor recently co-authoring: Photoshop Restoration & Retouching – 4th Edition which now available. We are honored to have him share a quick tip on locking in amazing colors.
Making Smart Color Grading Moves
Compelling photographs tell a story. Using values of light and color great artists craft images that draw us into the scene to ponder their message a little deeper. With the advance in all the tools, photographers have at their disposal working the color in your images to help tell the story has become easier than ever.
The image above, shot by William James Warren, is an excellent example of how a complementary color theme can make the story of the image. In this case, the shirt of the skateboarder and the reds in the building are closely related while they compliment the blues of the VW and the sidewalk, giving the image depth adding to the visual interest of the image.
(For a great look into color theory try reading the book “Color Choices” by StephenQuiller.)
Color grading your image begins with taking a look at the colors that are present in the image so you can make informed decisions as to what kind of treatment you think will help tell the story you’re after.
Good color grades can be as simple as giving the right colors or tones a subtle nudge in the right direction. Sometimes pulling say the shadows close in agreement with the dominant colors in the image can give your image a nice analogous color look where all the colors are in harmony with each other. And sometimes pushing those shadows farther apart from the other colors can create an excellent sense of depth in the image giving it a more dramatic look.
But before you know what colors you want to push or pull you need to look at the colors in the image to see just what you’re working with.
Adobe Color Themes extension panel
Photoshop CC has given us a powerful tool that makes this process much easier, the Adobe Color Themes extension panel. (This panel can be accessed via Window>Extensions>Adobe Color Themes.)
Looking at the panel, we see there are three tabs at the top: Create, Explore, and My Themes. Below those tabs is a choice to use the Wheel color model or the Sliders. Then we have five patches of color. And below that, we see a color wheel.
The color wheel choice makes it possible for the user to see the relationships between the five colors. Seeing where each color in the ‘theme’ lies on the color wheel, it becomes easy to tell if the colors you’ve selected are in harmony with each other. In the case seen here, the warm yellows oranges are all pretty close to each other while the blue lands nicely on the opposite side of the wheel making for a nice complimentary color scheme.
But suppose instead of a nice blue that color was more in the purples, we could see that nudging that color either closer to or farther away from the warmer ones could make the color harmony of the image work better.
Putting the tool to use
Let’s take deeper look at how we can put this tool to use. In the image below, shot by Marko Stamatovic, we see a scene that could be a little haunting, or maybe a little hopeful. Examining the colors in the scene can help us see how we can push the image in either direction to help viewers see the story we want to tell.
To use the Adobe Color Themes extension we need to do a little setup work. Under the patches of color, just above the color wheel are four icons, here we’re concerned with the two on the left. The one on the far left indicated below, will set which ever patch is selected to be the foreground color in your color picker.
And the one next to it will do the opposite; it will set the patch color to be what your foreground color is.
Using the 2nd icon from the left, the one circled above, we’ll sample different colors from the image and turn them into patches in the color theme so we can see where each one lies on the color wheel and how they relate to each other. Knowing there are only five patches we’ll have to be selective about which colors we pick.
On the left, the five red circles show where the colors have been sampled from and on the right we can see how those colors relate to each other on the color wheel. The four patches of warm color on the right show they’re pretty close, much like an analogous color theme. But that dark shadow color on the far left of the panel is farther away and has a yellow/green hue that is out of line with the warmer colors. (That shadow color is the one from the red circle on the far right of the image.)
Knowing the shadows on the right of the image are out of line with the other colors in the image helps give some ideas for how we might want to grade the colors. What if we brought those dark yellow/green shadow colors closer to the other warmer colors? Or what if we pushed those shadow colors to the opposite side of the color wheel to give the image a more complimentary color theme?
With these ideas in mind let’s take a look at how we can use the Color Themes extension to make this process easier.
First, we’ll try moving the patch of shadow color on the far left, so it falls in line with the other colors by grabbing the dot for that color on the yellow/green part of the color wheel and move it, so it lies in between the others, as seen below.
Using the hue slider
Now that we’ve moved the color in the color wheel, changing that yellow/green shadow color to an orange one we need to pull a little more information from the Color Themes extension. Clicking on the icon on the far left, (below the five patches), will set this color to be the foreground color in the color picker. And that looking at the Hue slider in the Color palette, as seen below, we can see that color has a hue angle of 39 degrees. This information will come in handy in our next step.
Getting back to our image of the abandoned carousel we want to move the shadows towards that warmer orange that has the 39-degree hue angle. To do this easily, we can use the Split Toning option in the Adobe Camera Raw filter in Photoshop. Before doing so, I like to make a copy of my background layer and make that copy a Smart Object so I can use this filter non-destructively.
To do this click on the background layer in the Layers palette and choose
Layer>Duplicate Layer, (Cmd/Cntrl + J). Then go to Layer>Smart Objects and choose Convert to Smart Object.
Camera Raw filter
Next, bring up the Camera Raw filter in the Filters menu, and the Split Toning tab enter 39 for the Hue in the shadows. To keep the color grade subtle enter a low value for the Saturation setting, here we’re using 13.
This simple move brings the shadows closer to the warm oranges that dominate the image giving it a nice analogous color harmony. Below you can see this warmer version on the right contrasted with the original on the left.
Next, let’s see how a complementary color theme might look. Returning to our original version let’s move that dark shadow color to the opposite side of the color wheel so we can find out what hue angle that color should be.
After loading that blue color to be our foreground color we can see the Hue angle for this new shadow color is 215. Returning to our image, we can bring up the Camera Raw filter by double-clicking on it in the Layers panel. Then instead of the 39, we used for the Hue in the first version we’ll use 215 for the Hue angle.
Below you can see this new, complimentary color theme version compares with the original. Notice how the cooler shadows add a sense of depth and drama to the image.
With a very simple tweak to the shadow colors, we’ve created two very different versions that tell us different stories. Taking a look at these two versions below we can see how the colors used to contrast with each other.
The warmer version on the left has a more hopeful feeling while the cooler version on the right has a different sense of drama and depth. As a retoucher, I would leave it up to the photographer to decide which one better fit the story.
In the end, we were able to easily see what color moves we may want to make because we took a little time to analyze the colors already present in the image. By working with the information we gained about the colors in the image, along with little basic color theory, we could bring the colors into better harmony giving us two beautiful versions of this image.
We want to thank Dennis for taking the to share this fantastic tip! To see what he and other Coloratti are up to check their profiles here.
Finally, to get more information on X-Rite’s color management solutions, more tips and training head over to xritephoto.com.