Color Theory as it Applies to Photoshop: Part 1 of 4

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Color Theory and Color Grading

This is the first of a four part tutorial using color theory and color grading to enhance our images. In the next tutorial we will examine tools available in Photoshop as well as some excellent tools developed for use with Photoshop. In the last segment we will bring our knowledge together to show how these tools all work together to enhance our images.

Why Color Theory Matters

An artist starting out with a blank canvas would not just start applying paint straight out of the tube. Artists take time to mix colors and gradually build on underlying colors to get those masterpieces we so love. They took time to study color theory and how color affects the emotions of the viewer. As photographers we have the same opportunity to build on colors present in our photographs to enhance existing colors (without ever touching a saturation slider) and to evoke a mood. We have tools available to us in programs like Photoshop to help us bring a vision we have for an image to life.

Color Balance vs. Color Grading

Color balance is usually done first to get the image to look as close to what the eye saw as possible. The colors are an accurate representation of the existing color and light. Color grading is the process of improving the image by various means to create and enhanced image or mood. Color grading can should help tie all the elements of the photo together. Color grading is usually the last thing done. An example of color grading is the split tone slider in Lightroom but there are many ways to color grade that are more effective.

Color Grading for Mood

This image is an example of using color grading to convey a mood. The first image has been color balanced, or corrected for what the eye saw. The second image is color graded to present a mood, what it might be like to stand at a loom for hours in another time, before modern machinery.

Color Balanced Image

Color Graded Image

Color Grading for Enhancement

The following image is an example of using color grading to enhance an image. The first image is before color grading. The second image is color graded to enhance the photo.

Before Color Grading

After Color Grading for Enhancement

Primary and Complimentary Colors

If you took an art class in school, you will immediately notice this color wheel looks different than the color wheel you may have used in class. When mixing paint to achieve a color we learned that red is a primary color and green is its compliment. However, in photography and digital media we deal with RGB values. In digital color, using RGB as the example, red is a primary color and cyan is its compliment.


RGB Compliments

A closer examination of the RGB values reveals how this works. The RGB value of red, for example, is R:255, G:0, B:0. We can see that yields a pure red color. The compliment of red in RGB is cyan. The sliders are exactly opposite, R:0, G:255, B:255. Hence cyan is the compliment of red. This holds true for each primary color.  


Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors are achieved by mixing a full saturation of one primary color or its compliment with half saturation of another primary color. For our purposes we have enough colors on the color wheel to color grade. Later we will look at tools that gives us unlimited choices.

Complimentary, Analogous, and Triadic Colors

Although there are other color schemes, these three are the ones I use the most. In the next few slides we will look at each one. Later we will look at tools available to apply these schemes to your image along with example images.

Complimentary Colors 

We have already discussed complimentary colors. These are colors which are directly opposite each other on the color wheel. When the RGB values of each color are combined they cancel each other out, resulting in either white or black. Complimentary colors produce a strong contrast.

Analogous Colors 

Analogous colors are groups of three colors next to each other on the color wheel, including tertiary. Analogous colors tend to produce rich, monochromatic looks.

Triadic Colors

Triadic colors consist of three colors evenly spaced on the color wheel. The colors will either be all primary colors or all secondary colors and hues. Triadic color schemes produce a more harmonious and balanced look. I use the triadic color scheme frequently.

What's Next

There are numerous tools in Lightroom and Photoshop to color grade our images. Hue, Saturation, and Luminosity can effectively change the look of our image. The blend modes of Photoshop layers also gives us control of how our image can be effected. In the next segment we will look at one of the most powerful tools available in Photoshop that makes blending and control a breeze. It is called Blend-If and one of the most effective yet under used tools available. Finally we will look at available third-party tools that are effective at color grading along with how we can use the method I developed using the Photoshop Color Themes Tool that is included in Photoshop.  

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