Advanced Color Correction Tutorial

This tutorial shows you an advanced method of evaluating your photograph’s color accuracy and making the proper color correction adjustments. It is a more sophisticated technique of removing unwanted color casts, but the result’s will knock your socks off. Does require some basic knowledge of Photoshop. For this tutorial I will be working in Photoshop CS3 using a stock photograph that came with Aperture 2.

The original

As you can see above, the original photo is much too dark…

original_dark-wedding

But even with some basic ‘Levels Adjustments’ to brighten up the original, even though the image is much improved, we can now see a red color cast in the people’s faces, in the lower part of the wedding dress and in the white shirt of the man in the background. If you don’t see it now, you sure will by the end of this tutorial.

original-wedding

Preparing Photoshop

Open the original photograph in Photoshop. Open your ‘Info’ palette (F8 on a Mac or Window > Info) and make sure your ‘Layers’ palette is showing, if it’s not already.

On the bottom of your ‘Layers’ palette you will notice a half black, half white circle, which is your ‘Create new fill or adjustments later’ button. Choose ‘Curves…’ from the pop-up menu.

You should now have your a ‘Curves’ window open like the one pictured below.

curves window

Let’s get into it…

First we need to find the “whitest” white in the photo. Within your ‘Curves’ window, check off ‘Show Clipping’ – This will make your photo look funky!

Now click on the highlight handle on the diagonal line (see below). This will change your image to all black.

picture-271

Start by dragging the ‘highlight handle’ (circled above) to the to the middle of the histogram until you start to see your whitest whites appear on the image. You might start to see various colors of red, yellows and blues, but what we are looking for are the first whites to start to appear on the image.

Once you see the FIRST WHITE areas start to appear, stop dragging the handle. You should see something similar to below on your image. NOTE: The below image is zoomed in to demonstrate the white areas.

whitest whites

Locating the white points

Now it’s time to starting setting points. The first two points (point #1 and #2) we’ll be setting is to find the whitest whites in the image, without being blown out (or overexposed).

It is important to note that you should zoom way in when setting these points. It’s easy to mistake the white areas when your actually on a yellow. While holding the Shift key on your keyboard, click on two different white areas. They should create circles with tiny numbers next to them as seen below:

creating white points

Locating accurate skin tones or neutrals

The next two points we will be setting are for evaluating unwanted color casts. For this tutorial we will be testing them through the skins tones, but the same can be done through neutral greys in any image.

First, bring your ‘highlight handle’ back to its starting point on the right hand side of the histogram AND uncheck ‘Show Clipping’ — This will make your photo look normal again.

Now locate 2 areas on the skin tones that are well lit and still have some detail (we don’t want areas that area over exposed and lacking detail). It helps if you squint when looking at the photo, but for this example I selected the bride’s well lit forehead and her right check (our left since we’re looking at her).

Using the same techniques as above select two more points (point 3 and 4). See below:

four evaluating points

The Info palette

If you now look at the ‘Info’ palette you should see your four points you just set, with values next to R, G and B. We want to concern ourselves with the numbers to the right of the / symbol.

Setting a good white point

Paying close attention to points 1 and 2 on your ‘Info’ palette, change your ‘Curves’ window channel from RGB to Red:

picture-46

Now move your ‘highlight handle’ around until you see both point 1 and 2 change on the ‘Info’ palette. Make this number 242!

Continue this for both the Green and Blue channels, until points 1 and 2 of your Info palette area 242 — If your having difficulties setting both points at 242, try to get them within 5 points of each other.

Why 242?
242 is a good white — it still has plenty of detail without being blown out/ overexposed and is not too dark where you don’t get “pop!” to your picture. Your photo should now have better whites, and in this particular photo, much improved lighting throughout. It also helps a bit in removing color casts. But continue reading below for more on that.

242

picture-53

Getting rid of those unwanted color casts

Now it’s time to remove those unwanted color casts.

In the above photograph you might notice some red casts showing on the wedding dress or in the skins tones. If not, don’t worry… you will at the end.

Unlike the magical number of 242 being used for a good white point, there is no secret number for skin tones, BUT there is a method to the madness:

Red is greater than Green and Green is greater than Blue. The value (number) between Red and Green should be greater of that between Green and Blue. Little confused? Don’t worry we will do it together…

Adjusting RGB Channels for the skin tones

Using the same methods as above for ’Setting a good white point’ by dragging the ‘highlight handle’ of each channel, we are going to do something very similar similar.

This time before we start adjusting the highlight handle for each channel we need to analyze the ‘Info’ palette for points 3 and 4.

We need to adjust the points so that Red is greater than Green, greater than Blue and the number between Red and Green is double that between Green and Blue without changing the Info setting values for point 1 and 2 (our white points).

Here’s what my Info palette looked like before they were adjusted:

picture-120

The numbers we’re concerned with is to the right of the / symbol. Although Red is greater than Green and Green is Greater than Blue in points 3 & 4 of the above image, the distance Red and Green is NOT greater that of Green and Blue — it’s actually opposite of what we want, so we must fix this WITHOUT changing the other channels for points 3 & 4 AND WITHOUT effecting points 1 & 2. Here’s the trick:

Find the channel that you want to adjust (in this example, it’s the Green channel).

First, make sure you’re on your Green channel in the ‘Curves’ window and while holding down your Command (Control on Windows) key click on point #3 on your photograph. This will create another point of your ‘Curves’ line. See below:

picture-29

Drag this new point around and you will see your Green channels in your ‘Info’ palette changing.

Set them to meet the “Red is greater than Green…” requirements. You probably will have to make other adjustments to the other values, so repeat the process for each Channel (Red, Green and Blue).

Here’s what your Info palette should look like after you made the White Point and Skin tone adjustments:
NOTE: Each photograph is different so the numbers for skin tone will never look be the same values.

picture-47

That’s it! We’re done! I hope you’re not too confused by this point. If so, go back and keep on trying… it will eventually make sense.

Let’s compare

Original, with only a basic Levels adjustment:

bad

After the tutorial:

picture-210

Notice the huge difference now? That nasty color cast is gone! Here’s a closer look of the dress:

upclose

Feel free to share your thoughts or methods of color correction. Also, let me know if you’ve had success with the tutorial.



Discussion and Comments

+ Add to the discussion
  1. I won’t lie: I went a little cross-eyed with the “red is greater than green, green is greater than blue” explanation.

    The result, however, is awesome, and this tutorial came at the perfect time for me (I was just given a memory stick full of raw images with which I’m supposed to somehow make a website).

    Great work!

    -Jason

  2. [...] Advanced Color Correction Tutorial that will Knock Your Socks Off! | The Design Cubicle – [...]

  3. Brian says:

    Jason,
    Yes, that explanation does take a second to digest, as it did for me the first time I heard it. Glad you got it to work for you… would love to see the results from it!

  4. [...] Advanced Color Correction Tutorial that will Knock Your Socks Off! | The Design Cubicle – [...]

  5. Graham Smith says:

    Wow mate
    Very impressive tutorial, must of taken some time to do, as they all do so it would seem.

    Well done and thanks for putting it together.
    Graham

  6. Brian says:

    Graham,
    Thanks, and yes, it did take a bit to do. It’s a really great tutorial that was passed down to me by a very talented photographer a while back. Never knew a lot of the photographs I worked with in designs had color casts until I learned this method and was able to compare. Have a great holiday Graham!

  7. Tommy Grant says:

    I found another tutorial pretty much related to this, but removing color casts in the LAB color space. Complicated, but a nice step-by-step. You can check it out at:

    http://www.photoshop-pro.com/tutorials/tuts_ps/cswift/lab_color_adjustments_b.html

  8. Jim MacLeod says:

    Great tutorial. I was planning on tackling this same issue soon, but this answers any questions that would need to be addressed. Coming from the land of print, I’ve always used Curves in CYMK. It’s strange to see it done in RGB. Completely different mindset.

  9. Carrie says:

    very nice, i’ve wanted to know the ins and outs of this process for a long time. thanks!

  10. Cameron says:

    Brian. Wow. Thanks so much, have always wanted to get into Curves for ages now. Have just started, but this is a Hulk-size jump forward. Thanks :)

  11. [...] Advanced Color Correction Tutorial that will Knock Your Socks Off! [...]

  12. Dave Conrey says:

    Awesome tut. Thanks!

  13. Brian says:

    Cameron,
    It definitely is a “Hulk-size” jump forward, but it’s also a hulk-size improvement over other methods ;)

    Dave,
    Thanks for the comment. Glad you enjoyed the tut.

  14. [...] Advanced Color Correction Tutorial that Will Knock Your Socks Off [...]

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  17. hello friend

    i have been a graphic designer for almost five years and within this range of period what i actually notice is color correcting is in depth the most difficult and complicated thing to play with your photographs… and so far i found this tutorial is critically needed for almost everyone working with a photos in photoshop.. it was an amazing , well explained tutorial…

    Rabten

  18. Hello!
    “We need to adjust the points so that Red is greater than Green, greater than Blue and the number between Red and Green is double that between Green and Blue…” Is it meant that is R10 and B4 the G must be 6 (R-G=4 and G-B=2)? If so, the is some mismatch in your final result: R-G=42=G-B (174-132=42 and 132-90=42). Sorry if it is my mistake and, please, try to explain it to me. Sorry for my terrible English.

  19. [...] Advanced Color Correction Tutorial that Will Knock Your Socks Off [...]

  20. Michael Igoe says:

    So many tutorials online are incomprehensible or useless. This one is great. It’s useful and it makes sense.

  21. Jamie Madrigal says:

    I am wondering the same thing as Rodion Kovenkin. If I adjust so that the Red is greater than green and green is greater than blue, and the difference in the values are the same (as in your example), I get a very green tone in my picture. If I adjust the them so that the difference of the Red>Green is double the difference of the Green>Blue, the tones still don’t look right, it looks like it is adding a red hue to the photo. I guess I am just not understanding totally, any help you can offer is greatly appreciated. Thanks for the tutorial.

  22. ado.f says:

    Interesting technique, but all of that can be done with the white balance picker or the “tint” slider in Lightroom or any professional photo editing software.

  23. Joe Dyndale says:

    Hi,

    Nice tutorial, but this can actually be simplified a lot :O) This is basically the same approach taught by Scott Kelby in his Photoshop books. Instead of mucking about with all those individual color channels manually it can be done automatically by finding the neutral greys. Basically you use the same technique as above in the curves dialog, but what you’re after are, first, the blackest point, second, the whitest point, and third, the closest thing to 50% gray.

    BTW, there’s no need to select two white points or two of any other point.

    Before you start any of this, you can set the values of your preferred black point, gray point and white point by double-clicking on their respective eye-dropper tools in the curves window. I’ve followed Scott Kelby’s advice and set my black point to 10, gray point to 133 and white point to 245.

    How to find the whitest point was described in the article. To find the blackest point you do the same, but move the lower left handle to the right until you see black areas appear.

    How to find the 50% gray areas (or the ones that come the closest) is actually pretty easy using this trick:

    1) Add a new empty layer above the photo layer. Fill it with 50% gray and set its blending mode to “Difference”.

    2) Add a “Threshold” adjustment layer above the previously added layer.

    3) Drag the threshold value all the way to 0, and then slowly increase the value of the threshold until you start seeing black areas appear. The first black areas to appear in the photo are the areas closest to 50% gray, so mark it in the same way as described in the article (shift-click with the color-picker tool).

    4) Delete the two layers added in the previous steps.

    Now, in the curves window, simply choose the black point tool and click on the black point you found in the image. Do the same for white point, and then finally for the gray point.

    As you can see, this is basically the same procedure, only quicker, and you don’t have to consider any color values or work with different channels.

  24. Jen B says:

    I learned the first half of what you have in this tutorial a long time ago. Off to go play with some pictures…

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  26. rod keeler says:

    I am using photoshop cs, and I see no show clipping. Do you have a work around?

  27. Joe Dyndale says:

    @rod I think it should be there, but if it’s not you can see the clipping by holding down the alt key while dragging the sliders.

  28. Diane Brandt says:

    Nice! Thanks for sharing this information free of charge!

  29. Great tutorial. Its really helpful.
    Well done & thanks for sharing this.

    Razib

  30. mohit says:

    nice work man

  31. I like this tutorial. Its really nice and inspiring. Thank you very much.

  32. After reading this tutorial i applied these tips in my won photos and now the photos are looking so colorful so that i am happy now. Thanks.

  33. James says:

    I followed both the tutorial and the method that Joe Dyndale explained in his comment, and they gave similarly great results. Thank you both!

    Regarding Rod’s problem with the missing “Show Clipping” option, in CS4 I also did not see this option when creating a curves adjustment layer as described in the article, but it did appear in the curves window when adjusting the layer directly (Ctrl-M or Image->Adjustments->Curves), so I just went with that.

  34. Nice tutorial. We usually do this type of color correction. Well explained & easy to learn. Very clean tutorial. Thanks for share this very useful tutorial. :)

  35. This is a fantastic job and great tutorial. I like how you turned the bride’s dress into clear white. I’ve never tried this technique before, I only use level adjustment, but this is clearly much better, although it needs a little bit more work but the result is satisfying. Thanks for the tutorial.

  36. It’s incredible how easy it was following your instruction! I was pretty happy of the result I got, this is very valuable stuff ;)

  37. Md. Habib says:

    What a great tutorial here. Very informative and helpful part described here with easily. Thanks you very much for share such a outstanding post.

  38. In Photoshop CS5 “show clipping” button absent at the ‘Curves’ window. Instead of that, there are tricky option: click by mouse pointer to white or black arrow at the X axe below the diagramm and in a same time press “Alt” tab. Your picture immediately will changed into wanted view; holding “Alt” tab, try to move arrow and you’ll see changes of picture and highlights on it.

  39. A.J. says:

    “the number between Red and Green is double that between Green and Blue”
    I’ve analyzed this in every way and just cannot understand how this is so in the final solution.

Brian Hoff
About Brian Hoff: Designer, Writer and Speaker

I’m a graphic designer living in Brooklyn, New York who loves creating compelling and useful websites and memorable interactions across the web. When I’m not designing I can be found writing, speaking and occasionally part-time teaching at colleges — all on the subject of design. I started this blog to share my passion and experiences with designers and clients. I'm most active on Twitter; say hello:


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