The Quick and Easy Guide to Color Correction Part 1

By Jerrol Krause

This guide will serve as an introduction to people who are not familiar with how to color balance their photos as well as serve as a refresher for those who are. Part 2 will feature more advanced techniques and methods to take your great looking photo and make it look incredible.

Step 1: Work with a high quality photo for best results

Color correction can only achieve so much. Don’t expect to take an overexposed grainy picture from your cell phone and turn it into a commercial grade stock photo. Digital editing can only improve an existing photo, not make a great photo out of a lousy one. Generally, the better the photo the less post production work it needs. Try to stay with photos that have a good range of value and color and are well exposed.

Step 2: Bring the photo into your image editing program

I’m using Photoshop CS3 for this example; however the tools for basic color correction and color balancing are fairly universal and have been around forever. Other alternatives to Photoshop CS3 are the low cost PhotoShop Elements as well as Gimp which is open source (free). The menus and functionality may be different across the various programs but the core principles for editing photos will be the same regardless of the platform.

If you are using a different application, please share your experiences in the comments so other people can benefit.

For this example I’m using an underwater photo of some soft coral shot off the Solomon Islands. Underwater photography provides a unique challenge for photographers because the ocean washes out the warm colors from the image.

Underwater coral without color correction

Step 3: Color Balance the Photo

Go ahead and save a copy of the above photo if you’d like to follow the tutorial along exactly.

Add a levels adjustment layer by going to the Layers Menu > New Adjustment Layer > Levels. A levels layer will let you edit both the color and tonal range of the image. You can also use a Curves Adjustment Layer for this step. For those not familiar with the histogram, it’s basically a graph that plots the overall tonal value of your image. The goal of this step is to get an absolute black and white point in each one of the color channels (red/green/blue) to balance the over all color.

A quick overview of the levels palette:

Levels palette explained

  • To Lighten or Darken the overall image, drag the midtones slider
  • To Increase the Shadows drag the shadows slider
  • To Increase the Highlights drag the highlights slider
  • To Increase Contrast drag the shadows and highlights sliders toward each other
  • Decrease Contrast drag the cutoff sliders toward each other

Now, from the channels drop down menu select the red channel. Notice on the histogram that the pixel data doesn’t really start to appear till about the 10 mark on the shadows slider and about 190 on the highlights slider. Drag the sliders in until they are sitting at the point where the color data starts to increase. It doesn’t have to be precise so don’t worry about getting it perfect. For now ignore the midtones slider in the color channels.

Color correction in the red channel

Color correct all 3 channels before you evaluate the result. The color in your image will look heavily skewed if you have only done 1 or 2 channels.

Now for the green

Color correction in the green channel

And the blue

Color correction in the blue channel

Now that you’ve balanced the color in the color channels, you can adjust the overall shadows, midtones and highlights in the RGB channel. A little bit of contrast will help the image to pop, so drag the black and white point sliders closer together. In addition, the image is still a little too light, so adjusting the midtone slider to the right will darken it and bring out a lot more image detail.

RGB Channel

And voila, a much improved image. Color correction is an important skill for any designer or photographer.

Underwater coral before and after color balance

As good as it looks, I don’t think it’s quite ready for the cover of the National Geographic just yet. Be sure to not miss Part 2 where I cover more advanced techniques and methods for improving your images even further (get free updates via RSS or Email so you don’t miss part 2!).