Fixing problematic colors with HSL by Tim Gray
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Fixing Problematic Colors with HSL

(Editor’s note: This is a guest post by photographer and educator, Tim Grey.)

There are many situations where the color in our photographs can be particularly challenging to get right. When a scene features a variety of different light sources, the different colors of light can combine to create colors that don’t look right and can seem impossible to correct. As you shift the color balance in one direction to improve certain colors within the scene, the opposite colors get worse, for example. Fortunately, these types of color issues can often be solved with relative ease by adjusting the hue, saturation, and luminance values for individual ranges of color values. These “HSL” adjustments are available with a variety of software tools, such as within Adobe Camera Raw and in the Develop module in Adobe Lightroom.

Initial color photo

Basic White Balance Adjustments.Adjust Overall Color

The first step to correcting problematic color in a photo is to adjust the overall color. The first step is to adjust the color balance so the overall color is as accurate as possible particularly when mixed lighting and other issues cause the in a photo’s color to be inaccurate. Adjusting the overall color balance, of course, is a standard part of any workflow for optimizing the appearance of a photo. Quite often, in fact, it is during this process that you will realize the color in a photo is going to need some extra attention. In any event, it is best to get the overall color as close to perfect as possible before you start adjusting individual ranges of color. In the context of software such as Adobe Camera Raw or Adobe Lightroom, you will typically adjust the overall color using the White Balance controls, which consist primarily of adjustments for Temperature and Tint. In other software, you might apply a Color Balance adjustment to shift the balance based on the primary colors of red, green, and blue. The point is that you should make use of this type of adjustment to improve the overall balance of colors before moving on to more sophisticated adjustments.

Basic White Balance.

Testing Color

Orange HSL Adjustments.Refine Individual Colors

With the overall color of the image adjusted to the extent possible, turn your attention to adjustments for individual ranges of color values. For instance, in Adobe Camera Raw and Adobe Lightroom CC, you will find individual Hue, Saturation, and Luminance sliders that enable you to adjust individual ranges of color values. There are also sliders for each color: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Aqua, Blue, Purple, and Magenta. This photo, already globally color corrected still has many areas of the scene illuminated by warm light that was excessively saturated and had a color that was far too yellow along with a slight green tint. The first step in correcting the yellow tones was to identify which specific color values needed to be adjusted. In this case, I would describe the problem color as being somewhat yellow, so I reduced the slider value for Yellow under the Saturation heading to the minimum value. This confirmed that the problem color was primarily yellow. But there was also some orange areas left behind. In other words, I needed to adjust the sliders for Orange in addition to those for Yellow in order to correct the issue with the yellows. I decided that the orange color issue could be easily resolved by shifting the hue for the orange color range into the yellow range, and then reduce the saturation of yellow. That would affect the color values that were already yellow, as well as the orange color values that had now been shifted into the yellow range. By increasing the value of the Orange slider under the Hue heading, the orange values would be shifted in color to appear more yellow. I then reduced the Yellow slider value under the Saturation heading to tone down the color intensity for the pixels within the yellow range within the image.

Orange HSL

Of course, the yellow and orange colors within the image weren’t the only problem. In fact, that was only the beginning. There were also red tones that needed to be brought closer to blue, and green tones that needed to be shifted toward yellow. In addition, saturation needed to be reduced for the Red, Green, Blue, Purple, and Magenta sliders.

Final HSL
The changes that make the final photo that leads off this post (and one below) are shown here.

Final ColorThe overall process here involves first identifying which color values in the image don’t look quite right. Then, you need to determine what adjustment will improve the color. The Hue sliders enable you to effectively shift the color balance for a color to neighboring values. The Saturation sliders enable you to increase or decrease the intensity of a range of color values in the image. In addition, you can brighten or darken individual ranges of color values using the Luminance sliders.

Color Power

Hue, Saturation, and Luminance are attributes that together can be used to define specific colors. In the context of applying adjustments, the ability to modify these attributes means you can completely redefine what a range of colors will look like. By working carefully to identify problem color ranges within an image and then apply adjustments with the Hue, Saturation, and Luminance sliders, you can dramatically improve the appearance of colors in a photo

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