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

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Color Grading - Palette Effects

This is the fourth and final installment of the color theory and grading series. I started looking for ways to expand my initial method of using three layers highlights, midtones, and shadows to include additional layers that would encompass the entire image. I was having some success with this but not quite what I was looking for. I knew there was still much to learn.

It was about this time I came across Palette Effects. Just looking at the palette told me it held tools that I was looking for. Closer examination of the Grading Palette shows there are five rows, each targeting a different area of the tone curve, highlights, midtones, shadows, as well as an overall effect. This tool has a comprehensive tutorial base. I quickly realized I could use this tool to color grade using the Adobe Color Themes palette. In this tutorial I will show how I use the Adobe Color Themes palette, the tool I started with, and Palette effects to color grade. It is important to note, Adobe Color Themes is not a necessary tool with Palette Effects. On its own Palette Effects is quite capable of providing excellent color grades. This is just an extra element I have added.


Organizing Tools

The last step of photo post processing is color grading. Tone adjustments, sharpening, and enhancements have been made on this image. It is ready to color grade. To simplify and keep my layers organized I have moved all of the adjustments into a group called Tone.

Adobe Color Themes

To access the Color Themes palette in Photoshop click on “Window” > “Extensions” > “Adobe Color Themes”.



You will also need to open Libraries by clicking on "Window" > "Libraries".

Color Themes and Libraries

I like to keep my Adobe Color Themes docked on a narrow toolbar and Libraries docked in the workspace just above Layers. Wherever you decide to put yours you will want to be able to see Color Themes and Libraries at the same time.  

Color Grading with Analogous Colors

Choosing a Base Color

The sky was a beautiful mix of soft pastel colors, such as blue and magenta, resulting in an almost lavender color. I decided to use the overall color of the sky to grade with. Placing my color picker over the sky I selected an area for the foreground color.

Locate a small icon on the Adobe Color Themes palette directly under the center color swatch. When you fly your mouse over it a popup message will say “Set selected color from active color”. This takes the color you sampled in your foreground color and makes it the base color on the Adobe Color Themes palette. This may or may not update the other colors on the palette, but we will take care of that in the next step.  


On the far-right side of the Adobe Color Themes palette you will find a small icon. This is used to set the color rule you wish to apply to the image. In this case the image is monochromatic. An analogous color scheme would work well. Click on Analogous. You should see the five swatch colors, along with the color wheel at the bottom, update to reflect five analogous colors.  

The analogous color theme needs to be saved to libraries in order to use it. At the bottom of the Adobe Color Themes palette enter a name and click on Save. This photo was taken in Cuba, so I named it “cuba analogous”.  

You will be asked to pick which library to save the color theme to. Typically the default library is the only choice, unless you have made additional libraries. Click on Save.  

The color theme “cuba analogous” is now located in my library. It can be used and reused as it remains in the library until deleted. It can also be shared with others that you grant library access to. When you put your mouse over the color theme it gets larger. This will be important to us shortly.  


Palette Effects

At this point we can start using Palette Effects. Keep in mind two things. First, the following technique will work exactly the same if you use my simple three-layer scheme we learned about in the last tutorial. All the settings you need for Blend If are found there. You can write an action to create the layers and simply use the techniques you learn here to apply the colors. Second, if you decide Palette Effects is a worthwhile investment, this technique is a departure from how one might traditionally use Palette Effects. I employ additional steps to get the effect I want. You will see this as we get further into the lesson. Palette Effects is designed to yield excellent results without use of the Adobe Color Themes Palette. 

Before running Palette Effects ensure any layer group you may have is collapsed (closed) and the top layer in the Layers Palette is selected. If this isn’t done Palette Effects will run on the layer that is selected and if it is an open group will place work in that group.  


It is time to add colors from Palette Effects. This will set up the image for applying the analogous color grade. I look for similar colors in the Grading Palette and in the color theme. In this case the magentas are close match to the color on the left of the color theme and cyan close to the color on the right. 

We will add one color from each of the five columns on the Grading Palette to represent one color for each of the five colors in the color theme. From left to right begin adding colors. In this example I clicked on Magenta 1 from the color palette to stand in and represent the color on the far the left of the color theme. Clicking on a color from the Palette Effects Grading Palette will cause Palette Effects to create a layer with the selected color as the fill. Underneath the layer Blend If will be set to fill the highlights, midtones, or shadows. In the case of the middle column the fill will be over the entire image. Palette Effects will also set a layer type, such as color or Linear Dodge. This is all handled automatically by Palette Effects.

Repeat this process for the color in column 2 of the color theme. In this case I picked Magenta 2 from the Grading Palette to represent the color in the second column from the color theme. Clearly it is not the same color. It is only meant as a place holder at this time. Some colors will be a close match. Others will not have a close match on the Grading Palette.

 Repeat this process for the color in column 3 of the color theme. In this case I picked Blue 3 from the Grading Palette to represent the color in the second column from the color theme. As previously mentioned, it is not an exact color match. It is only meant as a place holder at this time. While the two previous colors were applied to specific tones, this layer washes the entire image.


 Repeat the process of adding colors to all five layers. In this example Blue 4 from the Grading Palette is added to represent the color in the fourth column of the color theme and Cyan 5 added to represent the fifth column in the color theme.


Preliminary Results

At this point your image has taken on a completely different look. Perhaps not what you were expecting. In the next couple of steps we will fine tune this image.

Group the Layers

Select the five color grade layers. On Palette Effects click on "Group" then click on 40% opacity. The image should start to look better. At this point we may be satisfied with our results, however; let's fine tune the colors and see what we can come up with.

Fine Tune the Grading Colors

Select the Cyan 5 layer and fly your mouse over the color theme. The color theme will open up. Click on the color in the first column. This will set that color in the Cyan 5 layer. Note that the name of the layer becomes inconsequential. Obviously, it is no longer the Cyan 5 color. What is important is the blending mode and opacity/fill.  

Repeat this step for each of the four remaining colors, moving left to right on the color theme and top to bottom on the layer palette. The Grading Palette provided us with a solid base to build our grade. It did all the heavy lifting by setting blend modes and opacity/fill levels for us. We merely added a step of fine tuning those colors to more closely match colors available in the image.  

The image may or may not look like what you want. In some cases the image may be exactly what you had in mind, but even then, I will want to see if I can do better.  

Reverse the Order

If you weren’t quite happy with the way the image turned out reversing the order almost always works. Start with Cyan 5 and select the far-right color swatch from your library. Go back through each color grade layer and reset the color, working right to left, top to bottom. You will notice Blue 3 will not change. Remember, you are selecting a solid color from the layer palette and clicking on a color in the color theme library. You are not reordering layers. When finished the layers palette should be similar to the image on the right.  


 In this case reversing the order produced a pleasing result. I am happy with the order and color grade but there is one additional step to try.

Final Steps

Toggle individual layers on and off to find a combination that appeals to you. In this example Blue 2 and Blue 3 are not used. This is a personal taste decision. Either image looks good but I tend to like this result.

Note: If after all of this you still do not have a color grade you like you may need to pick a different base color. Simply examine your photo closely and pick a color that you think would make a good base color. Load that into your Adobe Color Themes palette and create a new theme. Once the new theme is saved in your library update the colors in the Layers palette.  


Analogous Color Grading: Before and After

The first image is before color grading. The second image is after a simple color grade, which makes for a rich image. No adjustments to vibrancy or saturation were made in Lightroom or Photoshop. Analogous color grading is more subtle in its changes and typically useful to set a mood.

Before Color Grading

After Color Grading

Color Grading with a Triadic Color Theme

 This image has been adjusted for tone and contrast. It is ready to be color graded. In this example we will use a triadic color scheme to enrich the colors and tie everything together.

In this image I am particularly interested in the orange color right under the sun. It is rich and vibrant and should do nicely to grade with. Using the eyedropper tool I clicked on that area to set the foreground color.

Open Adobe Color Themes and click on the small icon directly under the middle swatch. This will transfer the color in the active color picker from Photoshop as the base color in Adobe Color Themes.  

Click on the small color rule icon directly under the color swatch on the right. Pick Triad as your color scheme.  

 Give your color scheme a name and save it.

The color scheme should now be available in Libraries.

 From this point on everything is done exactly as we did for the analogous color grade. In this example there is a warm color on the left of the color theme and a cool color on the right. We will pick approximate colors from the Grading Palette, moving from left to right.

Warming 1 from the Grading Palette was used to represent the warm color in the first column of the color theme.  

Moving across the Grading Palette left to right I picked colors as close as possible to represent the color theme.

Warming 1 > Warm color in 1st column
Green 2 > Green color in 2nd column
Yellow 3 > Warm color in 3rd column
Magenta 4 > Purple color in 4th column
Magenta 5 > Purple color in 5th column

Select the five layers, click on ”Group” in Palette Effects, and reduce the opacity of the group to 40%.  


Our image looks pretty good and you can see that we can get amazing results with Palette Effects. However, I still like to fine tune the colors, not necessarily to get something better but something more personal to me.

Using the same methodology from the analogous example, working from left to right and top to bottom, select a layer then fly your mouse over the color theme and click on the appropriate color. Do this for all five layers. Remember the name of the layer is not what is important. We only need the blending mode and opacity/fill which Palette Effects has already done for us.  

The results look good, but as always, I want to experiment a little.

Reverse the Order

This time working from the color theme right to left and the layer stack top to bottom reassign the colors. Remember, you are selecting a solid color from the layer palette and clicking on a color in the color theme library. You are not reordering layers. When finished the layers palette should be similar to the image on the right.  


This works for me. I experimented with turning layers on and off to see if there was an improvement. I eventually decided having all 5 layers enabled yielded the best results.  


Before and After Triad Color Grading

The first image is before color grading. The second image is after color grading.

Before Color Grading

After Color Grading

Tools for Complimentary Color Grading and Analyzing an Image

There are two tools on the Grading Palette I find very useful. Analyze 2 is useful in helping find a color to grade with. The Blue/Orange icon is used to find complimentary colors for complimentary color grading. 

Analyze 2

Many of our images have a number of possible colors to chose from. It may be hard to focus in on an appropriate color. Click on Analyze 2.  

The result is a simplified version of our image. The number of colors to consider is reduced to a manageable range. We could use the red in the rug or the brown in the walls. I want to go for a subdued look so I will select one of the brown tones.  

Using Photoshop’s Eyedropper tool I selected one of the brown tones as my foreground color.  

While still in the Analyze 2 image open the Adobe Color Themes palette and set the foreground color as the base color by clicking on the small icon under the center color square. Then chose the color rule. In this case I picked Triad. Don’t forget to save your color theme.


Return to your original image and use the color grading technique we learned earlier in this presentation.  

Complimentary Color Grading

We have learned to use Palette Effects combined with the Adobe Color Themes palette for analogous and triadic color grading. We can also use Adobe Color Themes when color grading with complimentary colors, however; Palette Effects provides a tool to identify complimentary colors. Lets try color grading with the red color in the rug. Using the eyedropper tool we click on the rug to set the foreground color.


Click on the Complimentary Color icon on the Grading Palette of Palette Effects.

Palette Effects creates a new document showing the foreground color and its complement color. Set the color picker tool so that the background color is active. Using the eyedropper tool click on the complement color to fill the background color. Toggle the color picker tool so the foreground color is again the active color.  

Add the Complimentary Color Gradient and adjust as needed.  

Finished Grade:

Blending mode = Soft Light

Opacity = 50%  

This brings to a close our discussion on Palette Effects. If you find this useful and have an interest in it, f.64 has an active Facebook with many examples of finished work. In addition, Blake Rudis, the developer, maintains a website where Palette Effects and a host of other tools may be purchased. If you decide to purchase any of his products I encourage you to become a member, at least for a month. The benefits are worth it. Members get a discount on the products. In addition members can stream a number of courses Blake offers for sale at no cost. If you do not become a member there are still plenty of free and valuable learning opportunities.


Throughout these tutorials we have learned about the color wheel used in digital media. We learned about complimentary, triadic, and analogous color schemes. We learned how to use Blend If to apply adjustments to specific target areas. We also learned about tools available for color grading as well as how to use two different tools, Infinite Color Panel and Palette Effects. We learned how to use Adobe Color Themes to aid in our color grading. 


1. Why should I color grade?

Color grading is used to set mood and invoke an emotion. It also can enhance an image without using saturation or vibrance, two settings that are greatly overused. More importantly, color grading ties the components and colors of your image together, providing a balanced color scheme.

2. Do I need to purchase a tool such as Infinite Color Panel or Palette Effects to color grade?

The simple answer is no. They are simply tools that make it easier to navigate what seems like an overwhelming task. If you aren't sure if color grading is for you start with the three layers I developed and discussed in the beginning of lesson 3. This action will build the three layers needed of highlights, midtones, and shadows. Use the techniques you learned with Adobe Color Themes to identify a color scheme and apply those colors to the appropriate layers. You can download the action in the link below.

{rsfiles path="Photography/Color Grading/Color"}

3. You discussed two tools, Infinite Color Panel and Palette Effects. Which of the two would you recommend?

I wouldn't be able to give a specific recommendation because everyone uses tools in a different way. The lesson on Palette Effects took more effort and time to write because it is more involved when using it with Adobe Color Themes. If you use it as it is, without incorporating the additional effort of Adobe Color Themes, it is straight forward and less involved. Each tool is capable of delivering the same results when a user is willing to invest the time and effort to learn the tool and apply it. Either of the tools discussed can take your images beyond what I presented here. Infinite Color Panel and Palette Effects are both excellent tools. There are other tools available but these are only two I have evaluated. Visit the websites for each of the tools to help decide which would work best for you. 




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