I have to admit I wasn’t massively impressed by the Color Grading panel when it was added to Lightroom. It looked like it was replacing the Split Toning panel with something less focused and more complicated. I was wrong!
In fact, the Color Grading panel has a much bigger and more interesting role. At first glance it looks like a color balance tool split into shadows, midtones and highlights, but its effects are wider and subtler than that and it really does bring the kind of color grading used in video editing to still photography.
Not only, that, it can also do the same job as black and white toning and split toning tools, and with all the depth and subtlety you could ask for.
1. The Color Grading panel controls
It looks complicated, but actually the panel controls are there to offer different ways of working, not because it’s a complicated technical process.
There are five ‘Adjust’ icons in a row along the top of the panel, with the middle three split off from those at either end. The left-most icon, activated here, shows your shadows, midtones and highlights adjustments all at the same time, but independently adjustable. This is for when you want to see and adjust all three at once.
The three middle icons let you see and adjust the shadows, midtones and highlights individually. You might find this gives more precision and is less confusing. I’ll use these in the editing steps below.
The right-most icon shows a single color wheel for the shadows, midtones and highlights combined. It’s a way of applying a single adjustment across the whole tonal range – and for adding a single tone to a black and white image.
Below the color wheels are two sliders: Blending and Balance. I’m not sure what the Blending slider does except to increase saturation if you move the slider to the left or reduct it if you move the slider to the right.
The Balance slider effectively ‘pushes’ your shadow adjustments further up the tonal scale or pushes your highlight adjustments further down the scale, however you want to look at it.
In my color grading examples below, I adjust both sliders to perfect the look I’m trying to achieve.
2. My Color Grading shadow adjustments
I’ve already applied my color grade to this portrait, shifting the colors towards an in-vogue teal and orange look. Let’s start with what I’ve done with the shadows.
Here, I’ve dragged the color control away from the center of the color wheel, its default position, half way to the edge of the wheel in the blue part of the spectrum. The further you drag it towards the edge, the stronger the saturation. You can change the hue either by moving the control or, for more precision, dragging the second control at the edge of the wheel around its circumference.
You’ll see I’ve also made an adjustment to the Luminance slider underneath. I’ve reduced the value which has the effect of making the shadows in this image darker. That’s all part of the same color grade.
3. Midtone adjustments
For the midtones I made no color adjustments with the color wheel at all – the color is pretty much exactly right as it is. However, I have pushed up the Luminance slider value to make the midtones lighter and lift the tones in the subject’s face.
4. Highlight adjustments
For the highlights, I’ve moved the control towards the yellow/red part of the color wheel to add some warmth to counteract and contrast with the cooler shadows. This time I’ve left the Luminance slider alone as the image doesn’t need any improvement here.
So that’s my completed color grade. I’m not a professional colorist, but I’m pretty pleased with the effect I’ve achieved. And remember, although it involved a series of individual tweaks, this is a single color grade that can easily be copied to other images or saved as a preset.
5. Black and white toning
Black and white fans probably thought Adobe had ditched the Split Toning tools when it added in the Color Grading panel, but this capability is still here.
To apply a single tone across the whole image, first switch to black and white mode in Lightroom (Basic panel) or choose a black and white profile. Now, in the Color Grading panel, select the last icon in the row at the top to display a single color wheel for shadows, midtones and highlights combined. Any color grade/toning color you choose will be applied equally across the range of tones. Top tip: for the best-looking results, keep the saturation low. Reducing the Luminance value has also added a little depth.
6. More selective toning
If you want to be more selective, switch to the triple-wheel Color Grading display – again, I’m working with the image in black and white here.
Now I can use my preferred technique, adding a stronger tone to the shadows, a lighter tone to the midtones and nothing at all to the highlights, which will help keep them clean and white.
7. Split toning
Some black and white photographers also like split toning, where you have one tone for the shadows and another for the highlights. This is simple too. Again, working with a black and white image I’ve chosen a cold tone for the shadows, a touch of warmth for the midtones and a stronger warm tone effect for the highlights.
This gives an attractive blue-brown split tone effect – one of the few, in my opinion, that really adds much to a black and white image.
Why I (now) love the Lightroom Color Grading tool
Yes, I was sceptical at first, but once I set out to learn this tool properly and use it as intended, I was quickly won over. It’s not as complicated as it looks, but it’s a lot more powerful than you might think. You can use it to color grade color images with great subtlety and control, but it’s also extremely effective for black and white and split toning effects.
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