Adobe Lightroom recently added a very exciting new feature that professional photo and even video editors will find familiar and quite useful…the color grading tab.
Adobe Lightroom’s color grading tab allows you to add specific color tones to the shadows, mid-tones, highlights, and overall image separately and also adjust the saturation and luminance of those color tones as well as how Lightroom balances those colors between the shadows and highlights.
But if you aren’t familiar with this method of color grading, it can seem a little confusing, so I’ll break it all down and show you how to use color grading in Lightroom Classic.
What Is Color Grading?
Color grading is a method of adjusting or adding color to specific areas or tones of an image in order to create a specific look or feel in the image.
It is used by professional photographers, photo editors, and even video editors on a regular basis to enhance their images and create a specific style or look.
Often color grading is accomplished by adjusting or adding colors to specific areas of an image based on their luminance.
For example, it is very common in Hollywood movies to add a blue or teal color to the darker areas of an image and add orange to the brighter areas. This helps to create color contrast between the background and the skin tones of the actors. The resulting effect is that the attention of the viewer is drawn to the actor.
How To Use Color Grading In Lightroom
Now that you understand the basics behind color grading, lets talk about how you can accomplish this in Lightroom Classic using the new Color Grading tab.
Selecting The Areas To Adjust
The first step to color grading is deciding which tones of the image you want to target and adjust.
Lightroom makes that pretty easy by giving you separate color wheels for shadows, midtones, and highlights (as well as one for overall adjustments to the image).
You can choose these right at the top of the tab where it says “Adjust.”
Most of the time, you should find yourself working on the shadows and highlights. Midtones are used less often and a global adjustment even less so (unless you want a dramatically stylized image).
I would recommend working on them individually rather than using the 3-way setup. With shadows, midtones, and highlights all on the screen at once, even slight movements will result in big changes. So unless you are using a gigantic screen, adjust them one at time to give yourself more control.
Using The Color Wheels
The most noticeable part of the Color Grading tab in Lightroom is the color wheels.
The big benefit of using color wheels is that you can easily visualize complimentary colors since they would be on opposite sides of the wheel. The Split Toning tab that preceded this had a square setup.
If you want to experiment with different combinations of colors and how they work together, check out the Adobe Color Tool.
Blending and Balance
The Blend and Balance sliders are where you go to fine tune your color grading.
Blend in the color grading tab is used to control how much the colors in each brightness tone blend into each other. In other words, increasing the blend means that the colors you selected for shadows, midtones, and highlights will combine more and the division between them will be softer. Decreasing the blend slider makes that division more abrupt.
It’s rare that you would want to go all the way to either end with this slider, but it is a good idea to move it around a little once you have the colors you want and see if it gives you a better look.
Balance in the color grading tab controls where the division between shadows and highlights occurs. If you move the slider to the right, it will prioritize highlights and essentially increase the range of tones that Lightroom considers “highlights” and apply your chosen highlight color grade to a larger range of brightness values. Moving the slider to the left has the opposite effect, prioritizing shadow areas.
Why Use Color Grading Instead Of The HSL Panel
The HSL (Hue, Saturation, and Luminance) panel has been in Lightroom for a long time.
It still remains a very powerful tool in Lightroom for adjusting color. But I don’t recommend it for color grading your image.
The HSL panel is very specific and precise. It allows you to target specific colors and adjust their hue, saturation, and luminance.
However, the HSL adjustments are global, meaning that they apply to the entire image. You cannot limit them based on brightness. So if you added more orange saturation to the image, all the orange in the image would become more saturated.
Additionally, HSL targets specific colors, so if the image does not have a color in it already, you cannot use any of the HSL panels to add that color tone to the image. The closest you can get to adding a new color is using the hue adjustment of one color to change it to another color.
This is why the HSL tab is much more appropriately suited to color correction rather than color grading.
Color Grading vs. Split Toning in Lightroom
The Color Grading tab in Lightroom replaced the split toning tab.
Color grading in the 2020 update is essentially a more complete version of split toning. The old split toning tab had a portion of the functionality that is now in Color Grading.
Rest assured that anything you could do with Split Toning, you can still do with the new Color Grading tab, just with more options and more control.
In fact, if you have Lightroom presets that used the split toning function, they will work seamlessly in the new color grading tab and you’ll be able to see how the old settings are translated into the new user interface.