Colour is tough. When processing black and white images, contrast and density make up the bulk of our vocabulary; with colour the dictionary explodes. And where a monochrome process will automatically unify a series of photographs without much effort, colour can easily make an awful mess of things. Over saturation, unnatural tones, unwanted colour casts...all these elements—unless intentional and part of the narrative—can diminish the strength of what we’re attempting to communicate.
I tend to believe in a less is more approach but this doesn’t mean we can’t experiment and push boundaries: as always, we just need to build on what already exists in the photograph. Extending as opposed to imposing. Simply put, it’s always about making sense. With this in mind, let’s take a look at colour not as the main focus but as a “mood enhancer”.
We feel colour before we see it. It’s a physical response based on how we decode, based on our environment and the spectrum of the world around us—night and day, summer and winter, hot and cold. Movie posters use this extensively to very quickly communicate a film’s “personality”: if it’s blue/green and slightly desaturated, chances are we won’t be expecting a romantic comedy. At the subconscious level we know what certain colours represent, regardless of cultural differences.
Cornucopia: Curves, Levels, Wheels and Split Toning
Boy that’s a lot of options. When it comes to manipulating colour, there’s no dearth of tools at our disposal these days. And although each requires its own approach, they‘re all based on the same concept: targeting a colour channel along an exposure axis, from shadows to highlights. So let’s first look at the most common and visual one of all: the humble RGB curve. In Adobe parlance this would be the Tone Curve but set to RGB mode, not the default sliders. The great thing about this tool is its ubiquity: most apps offer a version in one shape or another. Which means all of the following tips can be applied regardless of the software we’re using—it’s the fishing rod as opposed to the free bucket of fish. Here’s how it looks in three well-known desktop apps (Lightroom, Capture One and Luminar 2018):
And mobile apps (Snapseed and Adobe Lightroom CC Classic Mobile):
In each case the principle is the same: the top of the curve represents the highlights, the bottom represents the shadows. Points can be added anywhere along the line to manipulate all values in-between by raising or lowering each point. In full RGB mode this will affect contrast because we’re processing all colour channels at once—I’ve previously written about this here if you’re interested. But if we switch to an individual channel—red for instance—then any control point will now affect the amount of this very specific colour...in the shadows, highlights or everything in-between. The curve still represents the same thing but we’re manipulating colour instead of contrast/exposure. Let’s look at example to make this a bit clearer. In the following image I’ve selected the blue channel but there’s no curve applied yet.
Now, let’s say we wish to affect only the deep shadows in the image. To accomplish this we add two points to our blue channel curve. Why two? Because with the top and bottom points this gives us an equal distribution across the curve. Think of each point as a lock in this case: we’re making sure our curve will remain linear everywhere except in those shadows we’re targeting.
Right, so let’s raise the lower point and see what happens.
By raising the blue channel in the lowest portion of the curve, we’ve added a blue tint to the shadows of the image.
Now, from this point on anything is possible: the same principle can be applied to any colour channel and any point on the curve.
If we look at levels in C1 for instance (no such thing in LR), the concept is similar but instead of an infinite number of possible control points we get three main controls across the histogram: shadows, midtones and highlights.
The difficulty with curves or levels however, is that affecting only a single channel at a time (red, blue or green)—while precise—can sometimes make it awfully hard to achieve a specific overall tone: lower the red and blue gets punched up, raise green and you now have magenta...it’s a whack-a-mole three-way balancing act, with each value immediately impacting the others. It’s often more complex than what we really need. In most cases, I turn to Colour Balance (C1) or Split Toning (LR).
I wrote about colour wheels way back in the Aperture days so switching to Capture One and its Colour Balance tool really felt like coming home. The big difference with wheels, compared to the tools we just discussed, lies in how colour is affected: as a whole as opposed to per channel. So for instance, pushing midtones towards green doesn’t push the green channel—it actually makes midtones green. Period. The mathematics are different. It’s more like applying a tint. Capture One offers three wheels: All, Shadows, Midtones and Highlights. I use this tool enough that I’ve created a tab in my workspace where I can see each individual wheel at a glance.
With colour wheels we can very quickly add or subtract warmth, tint the shadows or highlights, all individually. Capture One also provides individual sliders for saturation and brightness making it very easy to pinpoint the intended effect. It’s extremely powerful.
Lightroom doesn’t offer anything close. But Split Toning—a tool usually reserved for emulating tinting processes in monochrome—can provide surprising results when looking to simply tweak the mood of a colour image. Try experimenting with very subtle values using the shadow slider (tinted highlights tend to be less natural and more obvious to the eye).
Shaping colour this way, altering or skewing the tones, can be a very effective way of creating visual continuity across a series of pictures. The following essay from May 2017 is a good example of this: tinting was used to intensify the feeling of heat and warmth that was already present in the images but not as obvious out of camera.
In my March 2018 KAGE essay the approach is similar but the effect is diametrically opposed: less saturation and much colder tones result in a very different mood. Yes, I know lighting and subject are part of it as well...don’t get smart with me guys. You understand the point I’m trying to make here ;)
I love the power and intensity of black and white images. I love how immuable they are, how timeless. Colour photography will always be a challenge because it moves with the times in a way monochrome never will; probably because the latter is not actually part of our reality—our only frame of reference for monochromatic images is photography itself. As I said, colour is tough. But beyond purely naturalistic renditions, the prize is a second, third and fourth layer to play with.
The trick is in finding the right mix...and convey the proper message.
P.S If you’re interested in continuing the analysis, I touched on several of these points (using a “real-world” situation) in the following post: All the Green We Wanted | A technical Follow-Up