The Photoshop Color Adjustment Tool Survey – The Go To, The Exotic, And The Redundant

You can evaluate any color adjustment tool, in any software ­– past, current, or future –based on the control it offers over one or more of the three elements of color – Luminosity, Hue, and Saturation.

Use this as a strategy for quickly mastering the intricacies of color adjustment in Photoshop: own the six go to tools; familiarize yourself with the eight exotic tools; forget about the eleven redundant tools.

Go To Color Adjustments

There are a six color adjustment tools I shudder to think of living without; Curves, Hue/Saturation, Vibrance, Selective Color, Photo Filter, and Black & White

Curves offers the ultimate control over luminosity; no other adjustment offers such precision over the relative darkness and lightness of shadows and highlights. Using the separate channels, Curves offers the same kind of precision when adjusting hue.



Hue/Saturation and Vibrance are the two essential tools for adjusting saturation.

What’s the difference? Vibrance saturates less saturated colors more and prevents clipping in very saturated values, producing a heavier appearance. Hue/Saturation produces a lighter more intense effect, so use it cautiously; you can quickly clip values, producing an overly smooth, overly saturated synthetic appearance if used aggressively. Similarly, handle its Hue slider with care; it’s really more useful for color transformation than it is color enhancement. Unlike Vibrance, Hue/Saturation offers the ability to adjust individual hues without the need for masking. Neither has the ability to selectively adjust the saturation of highlights, midtones, and shadows; for this you’ll need a luminosity mask. Vibrance provides only a very limited ability to selectively adjust colors with different levels of saturation while Hue/Saturation provides none. (For a way to do this read my article Saturation Masking on


Photo Filter offers the ability to adjust the hue and to a more limited degree saturation of an image much like an analog lens filter would do, only much more precisely and flexibly. Though less intense, it preserves hue variety better that a Color Fill layer set to a blend mode of Color.


Selective Color trades in subtlety, referencing CMYK adjustments without leaving RGB working spaces. Its ability to adjust the hue of whites, neutrals, and blacks and its ability to mix white and black into other hues, producing reduced saturation tints and shades, makes it unique.


Black & White is the simplest and most powerful tool for converting color to black and white, first reducing saturation to zero and then adjusting luminosity based on original hues. It shines brightest when used in combination with Hue/Saturation and when applied selectively with masks in multiple passes.

Exotic Color Adjustments

You’ll see and think about color differently once you use Photoshop’s three most exotic color adjustment tools; Color Lookup Tables, Gradient Map, and Match Color. (For more detail on each of these adjustments read my previous articles on They affect luminosity, hue, and saturation in complex non-uniform ways.


Color Lookup Tables combines multiple color routines or recipes into a single adjustment, making it easy to create consistent effects across multiple images; it’s most frequently but not exclusively used for color grading the many stills in a video.


Gradient Map uses the luminosity values of an original to selectively distribute new colors into an image.

6c_MatchColorMatch Color applies the color values of one image to another, based on a complex statistical analysis of the color relationships in both; it has an added benefit of being able to neutralize strong color casts, such as those found in underwater exposures, without the use of a second image.

Five other exotic color adjustment tools are worth noting.

While preserving shadow and highlight detail is best done during exposure and Raw conversion, and while you can mask a Curves adjustment to the shadows or highlight, both the adjustment Shadows/Highlights and HDR Toning offer occasionally useful sharpening options that Curves doesn’t, in the form of Radius sliders, which potentially makes them more related to detail enhancement than color adjustment.

Cast Equalize (resets dynamic range), Posterize (reduces gradation), and Threshold (reduces all values to pure black or white) into the really exotic category. They have real uses for very graphic images and for analysis but offer little that is useful for photorealistic images.

Redundant Color Adjustments

Part of mastering a tool is learning what not to use. Many of Photoshop’s color adjustment tools are redundant, offering similar control over the same elements of color – with less power and precision. You can simplify your toolset by eliminating these eleven adjustment types from your workflow. Instead, use the tools that give you more control.

Brightness/Contrast (Use Curves instead.), Exposure (Use Curves instead.) Levels (Use Curves instead.), Color Balance, (Use Curves instead.), Invert (Use Curves instead.), Equalize (Use Curves instead.), Desaturate (Use Hue/Saturation instead.), Replace Color (Instead, use Select By Color Range and then Hue/Saturation.), and Channel Mixer, Apply Image, and Calculations (Instead, use Layer Styles to blend channels, with or without a mask. (For more on this technique see my previous article Blending Channels on

See the pattern(s)? Two adjustments, Curves and Hue/Saturation, and one layer technique can outperform all of these eleven adjustments.

Blend Modes

You can make any color adjustment in Photoshop more precisely target an element of color by using one of four Blend Modes – Luminosity, Hue, Saturation, and Color (a combination of Hue and Saturation). Simply change an adjustment layer’s blend mode from its default Normal. If, instead, you apply an adjustment directly to an image, immediately after applying it, select Edit: Fade (Command / Shift / F) to change the Mode. As a general guideline for all color adjustments, I recommend you make a standard practice of using the blend mode of the element of color you are adjusting, making exceptions when desired.

Lightroom & Camera Raw

Can the separate but related programs Lightroom and Camera Raw do things that Photoshop can’t? Yes. While the majority of these two interfaces, which differ in appearance but not in function, provide controls that are quite similar to but sometimes more limited than what you find in Photoshop, they can do three things that can’t be done in the same way in Photoshop: first, White Balance (Curves and Photo Filter are similar but different.); second, Clarity (High Pass filtration is similar but different); and third, the HSL panel is able to produce luminosity adjustments of individual hues without adverse side-effects on dynamic range.

While the precision of the adjustments provided in Lightroom and Camera Raw is often more limited, it’s usually best to do the basic heavy lifting during Raw conversion – it’s less destructive – and then either dramatic transformations and/or fine-tuning in Photoshop.

In the future, if we discover a single interface that allows us to precisely and without side-effects control the luminosity, hue and saturation of any range of brightness (L), colors (H), and intensities (S), then we’ll have found the Holy Grail of color adjustment. For now, the Photoshop interface, a product of more than 25 years of continual expansion, is more complicated than it needs to be, but it’s capable of producing magic – so much magic. When you clarify your thinking about color, you’ll find it becomes much easier to navigate interfaces and master color adjustment. Keep it simple. Remember, color only has three elements – Luminosity, Hue, and Saturation – so color adjustment is all about controlling the relationships between them … nothing more and nothing less.

Read more on Color Technique here.

View more in my Photoshop Videos here.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.


How can you change the appearance of a digital image without changing the numbers that assign the color values? Change what those numbers mean by changing the image’s ICC profile. Using abstract or synthetic profiles, you can make massive changes to an image with little to no cost, changes that ordinarily would cause big problems using standard methods, such as posterization and noise. It’s a practice known to color geeks and few others. When you’ve got a big job to do, it can get you out of a pinch in a hurry.

In most cases, we think of using color management to accurately match colors when moving between different color spaces; ICC profiles are used to describe different color spaces and to make precise transformations to values moved from one to another to maintain consistent appearances. In very rare cases, when profiles are assigned to image files without a color conversion, the appearance of the image changes; values stay the same, but their meaning changes, so the image looks different. So when you use this unorthodox method of color adjustment, you get a change in appearance without changing the values in the file, and this is particularly useful when you want to pay a very small price for making very big changes.

Am I saying that ICC profiles are used to change values so the appearance stays the same? Yes. Am I saying that a color space is just a recipe for color, and that there are many different RGB recipes? Yes, but while they’re the standards, sRGB, ColorMatch RGB, Adobe RGB (1998) and ProPhoto RGB are just a few among many.

With just a little experimentation, you’ll find you, too, can make big changes to your images and pay a small price using synthetic profiles. Using synthetic profiles is color adjustment without editing values; they change no values, but they do change the meaning of those values—and thus their appearance. Don’t believe it? Check your histogram when you assign a profile. You won’t even see it move! It’s kind of unbelievable. Try it. See it with your own eyes. You’ll quickly become a believer, too.

Learn the steps you need to take to make your own synthetic profiles …

Read more on Digital Photo Pro.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

Resonance in Blue and Gold IA

Originally designed for color grading film and video, Photoshop’s Color Lookup feature offers novel ways to adjust color that will quickly reveal new possibilities in your images. Capable of performing extremely complex calculations extraordinarily efficiently, color lookup tables (LUTs) work by looking up a source color in a table and using the replacement color specified in the grid to transform it for the final destination.

Like Match Color and Gradient Map adjustments (See my last two articles for Digital Photo Pro.) the color effects Color Lookup generates are so complex they are not easy to previsualize. Like anything new, this takes practice. And these are new! Experiment and you’ll find many rich possibilities. Unlike Match Color, Color Lookup is loaded with presets that will allow you to quickly explore many different effects, ones that are far more sophisticated than Gradient Map presets. In this way, using them can be as easy as using many smartphone app effects.

You can also generate your own Color Lookup presets. To do this create a color effect you like with any with any combination of adjustments layers, Opacity and Fill, Blend If sliders, blend modes. (Layer masking and transparency will not be included, because alpha channel information in alpha channels is not included in the recipe.) Then go to File: Export: Color Lookup Table, name the file, and click OK. (I recommend the titles you give your presets include the color space you created them in.) These files are stored in Photoshop’s Presets folder or if they’re saved as ICC profiles in your operating systems Profiles folder. You can now use your custom preset at any time on almost any file by making a Color Lookup adjustment layer and choosing your preset. You can share your custom Color Lookups with others by giving them these exported files. Color LUTs created in Photoshop can even be used in other programs such as After Effects, Premiere, SpeedGrade and other applications that use color LUTs.

Using Photoshop’s Color Lookup you can choose to create color effects as subtle or dramatic as you like. This game-changing color adjustment tool may seem exotic at first because it offers a new way of thinking about and seeing in color. Once you become more familiar with this mindset you’ll truly begin to see with new eyes. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

Read more on Digital Photo Pro.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.



Whether used subtly or dramatically, Photoshop’s Gradient Map color adjustment tool can open up new ways of seeing and working with color for any artist. Photoshop’s Gradient Map assigns new colors to existing brightness values. With it, you can enhance existing colors, transfer colors from one image to another or create entirely new color relationships. It can be wild!

The Gradient Map interface looks difficult to use, but with a few pointers, you’ll find it surprisingly easy to use. While you can apply a Gradient Map directly to a layer (Images > Adjustments > Gradient Map), I recommend you apply Gradient Maps as adjustment layers (Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Gradient Map) to take advantage of both the greater flexibility and control you’ll gain over the final effect.

Once activated, there are a number of default presets you can experiment with, but it’s most likely that you’ll want to create your own. Simply click on an existing gradient in the Properties panel to activate the Gradient Editor. Click New. Click at the bottom of the gradient to add new colors. A pointer will appear; double-click it or the Color box to choose a color. You can move the pointer to direct the color into different tonal values. (Move left to target darker values and right to target lighter values. Alternately, enter a new number in the Location field.) The diamonds left and right of it will control how each color fades into surrounding colors. You can add dozens of different pointers/colors, but for most applications, I recommend you restrain yourself to as few as possible. You can delete a pointer/color by clicking on it and clicking Delete or by pressing the Delete key. When you create an effect you’d like to use more than once, type a Name and click Save; you can easily store, retrieve and share these GRD files.

The color effects you can generate with the Gradient Map are so powerful and so varied, you simply must spend a little time experimenting with it to truly understand both how far you can go and how subtle you can get. Consider this kind of visual research time well spent.

After you’re done experimenting, then it’s time to deliver. Working with the Gradient Map often takes a little finessing. You’re likely to be a little disappointed if you try and get the perfect colors with the Gradient Map alone. You can spend a great deal of time picking and re-picking colors until you get it just right. Instead, try working more broadly, getting close to a desired effect and then fine-tuning the results.

Read details on how to do this on Digital Photo Pro.

Once you’ve mastered the interface, the real challenge begins—visualizing color possibilities. Previsualization can only go so far; instead, use software as a tool for visualization. Instead of rushing to a single finished result, I prefer to work on multiple copies of an image to make side-by-side comparisons of a set of variations. The possibilities are seemingly so limitless that you must perform experiments to find the best solution. If your experiments are both targeted and iterative, you’ll generate many solutions that are more likely to be optimum.

Here, a little color theory can be useful. Use dark colors in shadows and light colors in highlights; otherwise, you may posterize or solarize. Use analogous colors (similar color families) to create transitions; transitions between complementary colors tend to get muddy. Variations on earth tones work well for both realistic and antique effects. Variations on warm colors can add intensity, even fire. Variations on cool colors can generate nocturnal and even aquatic effects.

Photoshop’s Gradient Map is an exotic color adjustment tool that can be a real game changer. If you truly understand the possibilities this tool opens up, you’ll have learned to see in new ways. What could be more valuable?

Read more at Digital Photo Pro.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.


 How was this effect created? See the illustrations below.

Little explored and capable of opening up whole new frontiers in color adjustment, Photoshop’s Match Color is a tool every user should be aware of, even if it’s only to know what’s possible.

There are three primary reasons to consider using Match Color.

1  – Match two colors exactly.  

(Match the color of one object to another.)

2  – Remove strong color casts.    

(It’s great for neutralizing underwater casts.)

3  – Creatively apply the color in one image to another.

(This will blow your mind!)

A few tips will help you make the most of this fascinating tool …

Read the rest of this post on Digital Photo Pro.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.




 New colors


Tool used


Photoshop CC introduced a long-awaited feature that will change how you adjust your images, when you adjust your images and what you adjust your images with—the ability to use Camera Raw as a filter.

Since it was introduced, Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) has been the industry-standard tool for processing RAW files—the beginning of a digital photographer’s workflow before moving into Photoshop. Sometime later, ACR extended its functionality to other file types like JPEGs. Today, you can use its full power at any point in your workflow while working in Photoshop. This opens up many new possibilities.

Using the Adobe Camera Raw Filter is useful for noise reduction, detail enhancement, color adjustment, localized lens correction, creative distortion and even tone-mapping 32-bit HDR images. Go beyond the maximum setting of Clarity, with two ACR Filters. Set different white balances for different regions of an image. Apply Lens Correction distortions locally. Global, local, double and crossprocessing—the ACR Filter can do it all.

While the ACR Filter revises workflow, it doesn’t rewrite it completely. It’s still better to do the lion’s share of image adjustment during RAW conversion with ACR or Lightroom (both offer the same RAW conversion engine)—preferably as a Smart Object so you can easily change the settings or update the process version. For instance, you’ll get better shadow and highlight detail using ACR during conversion than you will using the ACR Filter after conversion.

So when would you use the Adobe Camera Raw Filter? When the ACR toolset does something Photoshop’s toolset doesn’t. Or, when the ACR Filter does a task more quickly and easily, without sacrificing quality or flexibility. To decide this, compare the two toolsets …

Read more at Digital Photo Pro.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops. 

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