Now, I’m not a huge fan of Instagram filters and most Lightroom preset packs. The reason I don’t like them is that they try to mask mediocrity with fad color tones. Using a celebrity’s preset won’t make your picture look like theirs — it’ll just make your shadows look as colorful as theirs.

Hate me if you like, but your “style” should not be based on someone else’s color tones.

Your style should be based on your vision, both in the camera and on the computer.

Make your own color tones

You can get great looking color tones that are all your own in Lightroom, and since yesterday’s update to Lightroom Classic, you’ve got even more control.

Lightroom now has a panel for Color Grading. In the movie industry, color grading is what you and I would call color and tone adjustments. Unfortunately, Lightroom’s Color Grading panel is not nearly as powerful as the color grading tools in video editing software. It’s really just an update to the previous Split Toning panel. It now adds a Midtone adjustment to the Shadow and highlight sliders, as well as Luminance and Blending for each tone.

These controls let you choose a Hue (color), a Saturation level and a Luminance level. Then you can use the blending to adjust how it mixes with the other tones. Above are the settings I used to make the changes to the photo below.

When you’ve got a look you like, save it as a preset so you can use it again. Next time, you might tweak it a little and update the preset. Pretty soon, you’ll have it dialed in and you’ll be on your way to building your own color tone style.


The most important thing is that you need to get good color first. That’s the problem with someone else’s presets: Their picture isn’t the same color as yours. The camera model you use, the light at the scene and even the brand of lens you have all affect the color and contrast of your photo.

You need to make that look great first before you start washing it over with color gradients. I highly recommend using the X-Rite ColorChecker to get things looking great. Many people use this for a gray card to set white balance, but when you use it with Lightroom and other editors to build a custom camera profile, then you can get great looking color, which will give you a baseline for your grading.

During this shoot, the sun went down. The light after the sun was gone was completely different, and I shot the ColorChecker again and made a new camera profile for those pictures. That gave me consistently good color even in different lighting conditions.

Color Grading with B&W

The sliders in the Color Grading panel will be applied on top of black and white settings. This is how you make a sepia-toned photo, and Lightroom has presets for that (which are terrible). Too bad they didn’t update the presets with the new tool.

Although the included presets are terrible, the tool is terrific for toning your black and whites. Below, the Before is a black and white with the color tones I used above. The After is my current favorite blue tone (school colors at my University) adjusted with the new Color Grading tools.

Start well, make it yours

Coloring the tones in your photo can help define your style. The key is to get great-looking color first. Get excellent white balance as well as excellent saturation and contrast using the X-Rite Color Checker.

Once you’ve got a solid starting point, you can mess around to your heart’s content with Lightroom Classic’s new Color Grading panel. You’ll adjust the settings each time you use it until your personal presets work to help you show the mood and feeling you intend for your own photos, not that which was fitting for someone else’s.

Portrait Tips come out each week, and you can see them all right here.