Photoshop Tutorial: Quick and Easy Color Grading

A while back, I wrote a tutorial on selective color grading where I discussed altering the color on specific parts of an image. For this tutorial, I’m going tone that down a bit, and go over a quick and simple process to color grade your photos in just a minute or two. Before I begin though, for those wondering, yes she is wearing grills. Now shut up and keep reading.

For those familiar with Photoshop and Lightroom, the easiest way to do this is adjust the photo’s temperature and tint values. Adobe makes this really easy for us by allowing us to make these adjustments with a simple sliding bar. But what if you want a little more control over those values, while still keeping the editing relatively simple and quick? This is where the curves tool comes into play. In Photoshop, you can access the curves tool in either the layer adjustments or image adjustments menus.

curves tool tutorial

Notice the clarity of Joy’s face and intensity of the shadows as the curve takes on different shapes

The curves tool is typically used to adjust the tones of an image. If you open up the tool in Photoshop, you’ll notice a straight slanted line. This line can be adjusted in any number of ways to take control of midtones, shadows, and highlights of an image. The lower portion of curve handles shadows, the middle part handles midtones, and of course, the highest end of the line will control your highlights. With that in mind, you’ll notice a submenu that allows you to select a color (red, blue, or green). The default option for the curves tool is RGB. By selecting a specific color, we’ll be able to control the tones of that color value and effectively alter the color of an image. In the above example, you’ll notice that the red curve is pointed down. By doing this, the blue and green values took precedence. The opposite effect can be noticed on the image to the right when I raised the red curve.

So give it a try. Simply adjust the specific curve for an image’s red, blue, and green values until you get something you’re happy with. Below is the example curves I used for Joy’s image. I decreased green along the shadows, increased blue along the shadows, and increased red along the highlights (this last part was necessary to keep her skin tone clear and natural). I went a step further by using the burn tool (exposure set to 14%) to add a very subtle contrast to her hair, eyes, and the background. You can see the contrast comparison to the right.

You can do a lot with the curves tool once you get used to it, which is why I prefer working with it over the standard temperature and tint adjustments. In the below photo, I used an S shaped curve for the red, green, and blue values to achieve a retro, slightly chemically (is that even a word?) effect on the image.