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From Good to Great: Lightroom Color Grading for Portrait Photos

Lightroom color grading tool Macbook

In October 2020 a color grading tool was introduced in Adobe Lightroom.

With this new tool, you can adjust the colors in your photo to evoke specific emotions, set the mood, and convey a specific message to the viewer.

Unfortunately, many photographers don’t understand how to use this tool correctly and miss out on the fantastic benefits that color grading can bring to their photos.

In this article, I’ll explain how to use Adobe Lightroom color grading tool specifically for portrait photography.

What Is Color Grading?

Color grading is the process of manipulating the colors and tones to create a desired aesthetic, mood, and atmosphere in a photo.

It involves adjusting the brightness, contrast, saturation, and hue of midtones, shadows, and highlights in a photo.

Color grading allows photographers to add their personal touch to a photo and influence how people will perceive it.

In addition, color grading can help accentuate a photographer’s style and make it more unique and recognizable.

Joana Kustra Photography
Fashion Photographer - Joana Kustra

Psychology of Color in Photography

Color psychology is a study exploring how colors impact people’s emotions, behavior, and attitudes. 

It takes into consideration how specific colors are associated with different meanings. For example, most people tend to associate blue color with calmness, while red color is usually associated with energy, action, danger, and aggression.

Apart from branding and marketing, color psychology is also often used in cinematography and photography.

To provide a better understanding of how color psychology can be used in photography, let’s take a look at how it is used in famous movies.

Play Video about Psychology of color video thumbnail

In a classic scene from James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) movie, where Rose and Jack end up in freezing water after the ship has sunk, the primary color of the scene is blue. This color has been chosen for this scene to convey the sadness and dispiritedness that this short-lived romance is about to end.

Final scene from Titanic movie with Jack and Rose in the cold water
James Cameron’s Titanic (1997). Jack and Rose scene

Another classic example to demonstrate the use of color psychology is The Matrix movie. The primary color in The Matrix movie is green. According to Bill Pope (the film’s Director of Photography), “The Matrix, created by the computers, is a decadent, decaying world, so it has a green hue.”, (Source).

The Matrix (1999) movie scene
The Matrix (1999)

In photography, color also plays an integral part in conveying certain feelings, emotions, and messages.

For example, if your goal is to communicate happiness, warmth, and joy, you can apply an orange color grading to your photo, which is perceived by most people as an energetic, bright, and happy color.

On the other hand, if you’d like to communicate sadness in your photo, you can apply blue or gray color grading to achieve that.

If you are interested to learn more about color psychology in photography, I recommend you to watch the “Secrets of color-grading in photography” video from highly acclaimed fashion and commercial photographer Joanna Kustra.

Play Video about Secrets of color grading in photography video thumbnail

My Lightroom Editing Process

A step-by-step video tutorial (25 minutes) showing how I edit my photos in Lightroom

How to Color Grade Portrait Photos in Lightroom

Inside the Lightroom’s default view, the color grading panel has three different circles.

Lightroom color grading panel
Lightroom color grading panel
  • The bottom left circle represents shadows or dark parts in your photo. 
  • The bottom right circle represents highlights or the white tones in your photo.
  • The top circle represents midtones, which are the grays in your photo.

Each of these circles has its own dedicated control view which can be accessed by clicking on the icons above the Midtone circle in the color grading panel. 

Lightroom color grading midtones panel
Lightroom color grading midtones panel

Inside these dedicated controls, you’ll find a much finer control of the following settings:

  • Hue: You can choose a specific hue that will be applied to the selected portion of the image.
  • Saturation: This controls how much color/hue will be added to the image. 
  • Luminance: controls the brightness of a selected hue. Dragging the slider to the left will make your image darker while dragging the slider to the right will make your image brighter.
  • Blending: Is used to adjust the smoothness of the color overlap between the shadows and highlights of the image. Dragging the blending slider to the left will reduce the smoothness of the color overlap, resulting in a more distinct transition between shadows and the highlights in your photo. While dragging the blending slider to the right will make the overlap between shadows and the highlights a lot smoother.
  • Balance: Determines whether shadows or highlights are more dominant in your photo. Dragging the balance slider inside of the color grading panel to the right will make the tint from the highlights more visible. Whereas, dragging the balance slider to the left will make the tint from the shadows more dominant.

PRO TIP: As you may have noticed, apart from the default 3-Way color grading view and separate panels for shadows, midtones, and highlights, there’s also one more panel called “Global”.

Lightroom color grading "Global" panel
Lightroom color grading "Global" panel

The “Global” panel is used to apply a certain tint of color to an entire image. For example, let’s say that you want to make your photo feel warmer. You can easily do it by going to the “Global” panel under the Color Grading section and applying a yellow or orange tint to the entire image. You can also adjust saturation and luminance settings to adjust the intensity of your color grading.

Now that we covered the main parts of the Color Grading panel, let’s see color grading in action!

For the purpose of this short color-grading tutorial, I have selected a portrait of my wife that I took during one of our recent trips to Spain.

Lightroom color grading tutorial 1
Portrait photo of my wife without any color grading applied

PRO TIP: It is important to do the basic color correction prior to color grading. It is also important to visualize the end result that you’d like to achieve with color grading before you start.

For this photo, my goal was to convey a warm atmosphere of a small and beautiful town called Benahavís, Andalucia in Spain.

To achieve that, I went straight to the Global color wheel and applied a yellow tint to the entire image with a subtle increase in saturation and luminance.

As you may have noticed, when you select a Global color wheel blending and balance sliders aren’t visible. This is because the same color tint is applied to shadows, highlights, and midtones of the photo making blending and balance settings unnecessary.

Lightroom color grading tutorial 2
Hue: 45; Saturation: 42; Luminance: +6

(!!!) Remember to pay attention to the skin tones in your photo when especially when you are adjusting and applying yellow and orange color grading to your photos.

If I wanted to try an alternative color grading variation, I could utilize color theory and find a complementary color to the skin tone of the subject in the photo.

To do that I can use a simple color-picking tool (I use an App called Drop on my Mac), to select the color and get the Hex code e.g. #AC7C70.

After that, simply go to the Canva Color Wheel tool and enter your Hex code and select “Complementary” from the color combination drop-down. The tool will automatically show you a complementary color that you can use in your color grading.

In this case, it would be a cool-toned blue/green shade (Hex code: #70A0AC).

To apply the cool tone to my photo, I went back to Lightroom, selected the Highlights color wheel, and applied a blueish tint: Hue: 163, Saturation: 10; Luminance: 0.

Lightroom color grading tutorial 3
Color grading with blue tint in highlights

Here are the results of two different color grading options:

Lightroom Color Grading Shortcuts

Below are three main keyboard shortcuts to help you speed up your color grading process in Lightroom:

  • Option (Mac)/Alt (Windows): Makes the controls less sensitive and easier to use for very precise results.
  • Shift: Adjusts only the Saturation settings.
  • Command (Mac)/Ctrl (Windows): Adjusts only the Hue.

PRO TIP: You can click an eye icon below the color wheel to enable or disable the color grading effect to quickly see the difference that it is making to your photo.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Color Grading Portraits in Lightroom

Applying Too Much Color Grading (Oversaturating Colors)

The most common mistake among beginners and amateurs is the tendency to apply too much color grading, resulting in oversaturated colors in a photo.

Young male standing with a cocktail in his hands
An example of oversaturated color grading in Lightroom

It can be tempting to go overboard with color grading and turn your photos into super vibrant and colorful pieces. However, if the colors in a photo are too saturated and intense, it will look unnatural and unpleasant to viewers.

Therefore, it is important to pay attention to how much color grading you apply and keep it subtle and natural-looking.

Color Grading Before Doing the Basic Color Correction

A lot of beginners and amateur photographers apply color grading to a photo without doing the basic color correction first.

Lightroom basic color correction panel
Lightroom basic color correction panel

This is a mistake as color correction should always come before color grading. Especially if you shoot in RAW format, which you should.

Color correction is the process of adjusting the brightness, contrast, white balance, and other parameters from the “Basic” panel to enhance the photo before moving to color grading tool (if necessary).

Disregarding Color Theory

Another common mistake is not applying color theory knowledge during the color grading process.

As mentioned above, color theory is a study exploring how colors impact people’s emotions, behavior, and attitudes. It is scientifically proven, that some colors go well together and some don’t.

For instance, the yellow color goes really well with the blue color. The pink color goes well with the green color.

You can use color theory to plan your photo shoot – e.g. choose clothes color that will complement the environment in which the photo shoot will take place, or use color theory during the color grading process.

Messing up Midtones (Skin tones)

Good skin tones are essential for any portrait photo. A lot of beginners and amateur photographers mess up the midtones when color-grading their photos, resulting in unnatural or washed-out skin tones (when the skin looks too pale and unnatural).

Therefore, it is important to pay attention to the midtones when using color grading tool and make sure that the skin looks natural and healthy.

Color Grading With Uncalibrated Display

If you export a photo to your iPhone (or any other device) and notice that colors look widely different from what they looked on your computer display, there might be a problem with the calibration of your display. This means that your display shows the wrong colors.

Play Video about How to calibrate your monitor

Color Grading With Night Mode Switched On

Night mode is a feature, which adjusts the brightness of your display to reduce eye strain in low-light conditions.

However, when color grading photos, it is important to switch off night mode, as the colors will look different from what they look on a properly calibrated display.

Applying Color Grading to Each and Every Photo

There might be a tendency to adjust color with the color grading tool for each and every photo you take after learning this feature in Lightroom.

However, color grading isn’t necessary for every photo. Sometimes, a good basic color correction is enough to enhance a photo and make it look great.

The next time you edit a photo in Lightroom, think twice whether you really need to apply any color grading or leave the photo as it is.

Not Taking a Regular Break

The final mistake a lot of people do when color-grading their photos are not taking regular breaks.

You see when you spend a lot of time color-grading photos, your perception of colors can become distorted and the colors on your screen can appear differently than they should.

Therefore, it is very important to take regular breaks when using color grading tool to give your eyes a rest and come back with a fresh set of eyes.

Recommended Videos About Color Grading in Lightroom

Play Video about Color grading video tutorial 1
Play Video about Color grading video tutorial 2
Play Video about Color grading video tutorial 3

Frequently Asked Questions About Color Grading in Adobe Lightroom

Why Color Grading Is Important?

Color grading is the process of adjusting colors in a photo to achieve a desired look or mood. This process involves coloring of midtones, shadows, and highlights of a photo.

Color grading in photography is important for several reasons:

It allows photographers to create a consistent look for a set of photos.

For example, when I recently traveled to the Amalfi Coast in Italy, I decided to create a coherent look by applying a warm color grading to most of my photos from that trip. It allowed me to create a consistent visual style across all of my photos in my travel photo book and tell a better story.

Color grading tool allows photographers to create a unique look in their photos and develop their own photography style.

For example, famous photographer and YouTuber, Peter McKinnon, has a very distinct photography style. He utilizes a lot of dark tones together with rich colors to create a moody and mysterious atmosphere.

Finally, color grading is important because it helps photographers to convey the story and feelings that they are trying to tell through their photos.

For example, if you want the viewers of your photo to feel joy and happiness, you can apply a warm orange-ish color grading to achieve that. Or if you’d like to convey mysteriousness, you can apply dark blue or grayish color grading to your photos.

Is Lightroom Better Than Photoshop for Color Grading?

When it comes to color grading for photography, Adobe Lightroom’s interface is much more streamlined and easier to use than Photoshop’s.

Lightroom color grading panel

Lightroom allows you to quickly access all the required tools and adjust the colors in your photos quickly and easily. This makes Adobe Lightroom a better choice for photo color grading for beginners and enthusiasts.

What Color Tones Are Best for Portrait Photography?

The choice of color tones depends on the desired look and feel that you are trying to achieve in your photos.

However, here are some general guidelines to help you choose the best color tones for your portrait photos:

  • Warm tones such as orange, yellow, and red can create a sense of warmth, intimacy, and happiness in your portrait photos. These colors can also enhance skin tones and make the subject in your photo look more vibrant and energetic. I personally really like to color grade my vacation photos in yellowish and orange color tones because traveling is associated with the sun and a lot of happy moments for me.
  • Cool tones such as blue and green can create a calm and relaxed atmosphere in your portrait photos. These colors can also translate a sense of sadness and seriousness in your photos if that’s what you are trying to achieve.
  • Neutral tones, such as gray, beige, and brown can create a classic look in your portrait photos.
  • High-contrast color tones, with bright highlights and deep shadows, can create a dramatic and intense mood in portraits. This can be especially effective for black and white portraits.
Shades of yellow

Is Color Grading Difficult?

If you have a good understanding of how to use Adobe Lightroom and the psychology of color, it will be relatively easy for you to color grade a photo or a set of photos. 

On the other hand, if you don’t have much experience working with Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop, or Adobe Premiere and you have never used color grading tool previously then you might find it quite challenging to do. 

Color grading in final cut

Also, more complex color grading tasks, such as achieving a specific mood or feeling, may require a much deeper understanding of color theory and advanced color grading techniques that requires a lot of practice to learn.

Do You Edit Before Color Grading?

In general, it’s better to edit your photo before color grading.

By editing your photo before the color grading process you will be able to correct any issues in your photo such as unwanted blemishes on the skin of your model.

This will make it a lot easier for you to work with the photo during the color grading process.

Lightroom basic color correction on an iPad

In addition, some color grading techniques may require specific adjustments to the image, such as adjusting the contrast or brightness or removing unwanted color casts.

By editing a photo beforehand, you’ll have more control over the final look and feel of your photo.

How Long Does It Take To Learn Colour Grading in Lightroom?

The time it takes to learn color grading in Lightroom depends on a number of factors:

  • Your existing knowledge of photo editing in Adobe Lightroom.
  • Your understanding of color psychology.
  • Your watchfulness (in other words how much time you spend watching and analyzing photos of other photographers to get a better understanding of what makes a good photo.
  • Your willingness and motivation to learn new things.

Generally speaking, if you are a beginner in color grading, it will take around 1-2 weeks of practice before you can really get a hang of the color grading tool in Adobe Lightroom.

You can also speed up your learning curve by watching video tutorials that explain the basics of color grading and color psychology.

Which Photo Format Is Best for Color Grading in Lightroom?

The best photo format for color grading in Lightroom is a RAW file format, such as the Canon CR2, Nikon NEF, Sony ARW, Fujifilm RAF, or Adobe Camera RAW.

fujifilm raf file format photos

RAW files contain all of the photo data captured by your camera’s sensor, which means they offer much more flexibility and control when it comes to editing and color-grading photos in Adobe Lightroom or any other photo editing software.

RAW files also allow you to recover more details in shadows and highlights, making them a more versatile format for color grading.

In contrast, compressed file formats, such as JPEG or PNG, are already processed by the camera and have less dynamic range and color depth than raw files. 

While you can still adjust the color and exposure of these files, you’ll have less flexibility to recover details in highlights or shadows, and you may experience more image degradation as you make adjustments in post-production.

Where Is the Color Grading in Lightroom?

The color grading panel in Adobe Lightroom and Lightroom CC is located in the “Develop Panel”, on the right side of the screen below the HSL panel.

By default, when you open Lightroom’s Develop panel on the right side of the screen you’ll find various adjustments panels in the following order:

  1. Histogram
  2. Basic
  3. Tone Curve
  4. HSL/Color
  5. Color Grading
  6. Detail
  7. Lens Corrections
  8. Transform
  9. Effects
  10. Calibration
Lightroom color grading tool 2

What Is the Difference Between Color Grading and Split Toning in Lightroom?

Color grading and split toning are two different techniques used to adjust the colors in a photo in Lightroom.

Color grading is a newer feature that was introduced to Adobe Lightroom in 2020 instead of split toning.

Lightroom color grading tool

The color grading panel in Adobe Lightroom allows you to control the color balance of your photo by controlling the midtones, shadows, and highlights separately.

The color grading panel also includes controls for adjusting the saturation and luminance of the colors in your photos.

Color grading allows much more precise control of the color adjustment compared to the previously used Split Toning panel.

On the other hand, split toning is a technique used to adjust the colors in a photo by adding different colors to the highlights and shadows of the photo. Split toning was introduced in earlier versions of Adobe Lightroom (before Adobe Lightroom 2020).

Where Is Split Toning in Adobe Lightroom Classic 2023?

In 2020, Adobe Lightroom replaced the Split Toning panel with a new and better Color Grading panel.

The color grading panel includes a lot more functionality and allows a much more precise adjustment of color in photos compared to the Split Toning panel.

You can find the Color Grading panel in the “Develop” module on the right side of the screen below the “Tone Curve” panel.

How to Steal Color Grading From Someone Eleses Photo Using Lightroom?

Play Video about How to copy color grading from another photo

To Sum Up

In this article, I provided an in-depth overview of color grading and what it is used for in photography.

Color grading can be a great tool to give your photos more depth and life, and with some practice, you’ll be able to create stunning images. With the help of this article and the embedded videos, you should be able to start color grading in Adobe Lightroom and Lightroom CC.

P.S. If you’ve liked this post, I recommend you to sign up for the OHMYCAMERA newsletter to get insightful articles about photography, post-production, and marketing for photographers.

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Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

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