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Mastering Mood: Colour Grading Your Photos

beginners creative post production technique tips Mar 27, 2024

 In the world of photography, capturing the shot is just the beginning of the creative journey. Once you've got your image, the next step – post-processing – is where you can begin infusing your photos with personality and mood. One of the most powerful tools at your disposal during this phase is colour grading. It's a technique that might sound complex, especially to those new to photography, but it’s an invaluable skill for any photographer looking to add depth, emotion, and atmosphere to their images. Let's dive into the basics of colour grading and how you can use it to transform your photos.


What is Colour Grading

Colour grading is the process of altering and enhancing the colour of a film or photograph to achieve a specific look or mood. It's a step beyond basic colour correction, which adjusts for accurate colour representation. Instead, colour grading is about creative expression; it's how you can make a photo feel warm and inviting or cool and mysterious.


A "blue" grade makes this image appear colder.  By changing to a warmer colour grade through colour temperature adjustment we can make the image more inviting (which may or may not be what you are trying to achieve. Neither image is "wrong", they have different moods).

Why Colour Grade?

The colours in an image play a crucial role in evoking emotions. Warm tones, like oranges and reds, can create feelings of warmth and comfort, while cooler tones, such as blues and greens, often evoke calmness or detachment. By adjusting these tones, you can significantly alter the viewer's emotional response to your image. Using colours that are slightly unnatural can create images which have a “retro” feel as it mimics the inconsistent colour fading which occurs with old colour film and prints.


Tools of the Trade

Most photo editing software, from Adobe Lightroom to Capture One, offers robust colour grading tools. These tools allow you to adjust various aspects of your image's colour, including the highlights, shadows, and mid-tones, as well as overall saturation and vibrancy.


Starting with Colour Theory

A foundational pillar for effective colour grading is a solid understanding of colour theory, the study of hues and their interaction. Colour theory illuminates the psychological and emotional impact colours have on viewers, serving as a compass for photographers aiming to evoke specific feelings with their images. For instance, colours are divided into warm and cool tones; warm colours, such as reds, yellows, and oranges, often evoke feelings of warmth, energy, and passion. Conversely, cool colours like blues, greens, and purples tend to suggest calmness, sadness, or even detachment.

Moreover, colour theory introduces concepts like complementary colours (those directly opposite each other on the colour wheel), which create high contrast and vibrant looks when used together, ideal for making elements in your photos stand out. Analogous colours (those next to each other on the colour wheel) offer harmony and are pleasing to the eye, suitable for serene and cohesive compositions. Understanding these relationships allows photographers to use colour grading not just as a tool for aesthetic enhancement, but as a means to strengthen the narrative of their photographs.

When colour grading, consider the emotional weight of your colour choices. For instance, adjusting the hues towards amber can infuse an image with nostalgia or warmth, while a shift towards teal might imbue it with a sleek, modern aesthetic. By manipulating colours, you can guide the viewer’s emotional response, aligning it more closely with your vision for the photograph. In essence, mastering colour theory empowers you to use colour grading not merely as a technical skill, but as a nuanced form of artistic expression in the digital darkroom.


How to Colour Grade

Work in RAW: To have the most control and flexibility during colour grading, it’s best to shoot and edit RAW files. These files contain all the data captured by your camera's sensor, providing a greater range of adjustment before quality degrades.

Balance Your Image First: Before applying creative colour grading, ensure your image is balanced in terms of exposure and white balance. This creates a neutral starting point for your artistic adjustments.

Selective Colour Grading: Most editing programs allow for selective colour grading, enabling you to adjust only certain colours within your image. This is particularly useful when you want to make the sky in your landscape photo a deeper blue without affecting the rest of the colours.

(In lightroom use the Colour Mixer and Colour Grading panels. Photoshop has a wide range of tools for colour adjustments including Channel Mixer, Colour Balance and Hue & Saturation options)

Split Toning: This technique involves adding different colours to your shadows and highlights. For example, blue tones in the shadows and orange tones in the highlights can create a popular and visually appealing contrast.

Use Presets Sparingly: While presets can be a great starting point or source of inspiration, relying on them too heavily can make your work look generic. Try to tweak and adjust presets to fit the specific needs of your image. Every image is different and you’ll get the best results by adjusting them individually.


Practice Makes Perfect

The best way to master colour grading is through practice and experimentation. Here are a couple of exercises to get you started:

1. Emotional Shift: Take a photo and create two colour graded versions, one that conveys happiness and another that conveys sadness. Notice how changes in colour affect the mood of the image.

2. Recreate a Look: Choose a photo with a colour grade you admire (this could be from a film, magazine, or another photographer's work) and try to recreate that look in one of your own photos.


The Impact of Colour Grading

It’s worth noting that colour grading can turn a good photo into a great one, but it can't fix a bad photo. The composition, focus, and exposure all need to be on point for colour grading to work its magic effectively.


Colour grading is more than just an editing technique; it's a form of visual storytelling. It allows photographers to enhance the narrative of their images, guiding the viewer's emotions and drawing them deeper into the scene. As you become more comfortable with colour grading, you’ll find it becoming an integral part of your post-processing workflow, opening up new avenues for creative expression in your photography. Remember to not overcomplicate the process.

Once you’ve done the initial colour and exposure balance for your image then you’re ready to colour grade it - but this might be just a single adjustment of the overall colour temperature rather than in depth tweaking of individual hues. The aim is to use grading as a way to achieve your vision for the final image, and there’s no right or wrong result as long as you are happy with it.

So, grab your editing software of choice and start exploring the wonderful world of colour. Remember, the only limit is your imagination.

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