Image by AlessandroBiascioli. Gear: Sony A7 II camera, Carl Zeiss 50mm / f1.4 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/400 sec; f1.6; ISO 100.
“Color correcting makes the difference in the stock world,” Shutterstock Contributor AlessandroBiascioli tells us. A slight difference in hue, brightness, or saturation can elevate your images in seconds, and with the convenient array of tools offered by software like Lightroom, there’s no excuse for not putting in a little extra effort to make your photos pop. But where to start?
We interviewed nine talented photographers from all over the globe to see what go-to techniques they use while color correcting in Lightroom. You can use one of these methods or all of them, depending on your subject matter and preferences. And while you’re working on post-processing for stock, remember to keep the image-buyer in mind. It’s great to have a basic understanding of color theory, and, as Biascioli stresses, it’s always crucial to do your research on current color trends to make sure you know what’s going on in the marketplace. (Hint: the 2019 Creative Trends Report indicates that bright colors will be big this year.)
1. White Balance Dropper
Image by Ingus Kruklitis. Gear: Sony A7RII camera. Settings: Exposure 1/250 sec; f8; ISO 100.
The White Balance tool looks like an eye-dropper (keyboard shortcut “W”), and it provides a super easy fix for when your photos have an annoying color cast. Simply grab the tool and find a neutral gray or white area in your photo. Hover over that spot and click, and Lightroom will take out that color cast.
“One of the first tools that I use in Lightroom is the White Balance tool,” Shutterstock photographer Ingus Kruklitis says. “Basically, that controls the temperature of the photo. In almost all cases, you will need to adjust the white balance of the photo to make it look real and authentic.”
Can’t find any white spots in your photo? No problem. “If nothing is white in the photographs you’re taking, then bring a white balance card (you can get them cheap on Amazon) and take a quick photo with your subject,” Mike Ver Sprill advises. “You can use the eye-dropper tool on that white balance card and get your accurate white balance. Then you can copy and apply those white balance settings to all the other images from that photography session. This helps speed up time and accuracy when color correcting a large number of images.”
2. “Temp” and “Tint” Sliders
Image by Kzenon. Gear: Sony ILCE-7RM2 camera. Settings: Focal length 35mm; exposure 1/200 sec; f4; ISO 200.
If you want to have extra control, hover that same eye-dropper tool over a spot you notice has an unattractive color cast. From there, you can manually move the “Temp” and “Tint” sliders to your liking. If you’re trying to get rid of any color cast, you’ll want your R, G, and B readouts to be as close as possible to one another; alternatively, you can take a peek at your histogram to see if you have any strange color spikes that shouldn’t be there.
You don’t always have to conform to what the readout’s telling you, but use it as a guide. “I aim for a correct white balance using the Temp/Tint sliders,” Shutterstock Contributor Kzenon explains. “Depending on the subject of the picture, I may go a bit cooler or warmer than ‘technically’ correct.” Trust your eye as well as the numbers. “This is a powerful tool to enhance sunsets,” Kruklitis adds. “For example, you can use it to make your photo a little bit unreal with a crazy orange sky over the horizon.”
3. Tone Curve
Image by zeljkodan (Željko Dangubić). Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, Tamron 28-75mm 2.8 lens. Settings: Focal length 75mm; exposure 1/160 sec; f3.2; ISO 100.
You can also play with color by visiting the Tone Curve panel and moving the Point Curve around in the four different channels (RGB, Red, Green, and Blue).
“If you use all four channels in Tone Curve, you can achieve any look that you want,” Shutterstock Contributor Željko Dangubić explains. “It is important to understand that color channels work on complementary colors. Opposite of red is cyan, green from magenta, blue from yellow.”
He continues, “By clicking on the ‘Adjust Point Curve’ tool (that little circle in the top left corner), you can adjust the color for a specific tone range directly on the image. For example, if you click on something dark while the blue channel is open and slide up or down, your shadows will become blue or yellow. After that, you’ll need to put the middle range back in the center; otherwise, the entire image will get a blue tone.”
Kruklitis also uses this technique for correcting highlights and shadows. “You can really do crazy things with Tone Curves,” he says. “And another good thing is that you can easily experiment just by moving the curve.”
Image by Ingus Kruklitis. Gear: DJI Mavic 2 Pro. Settings: Exposure 1/60 sec; f11; ISO 100.
While using Lightroom, Dangubić has also used his Hue Saturation sliders for any “final tweaking” that needs to be done on an image. Use the individual sliders under “Hue,” “Saturation,” and/or “Luminance” to modify the image to your liking. The sliders in “Hue” will move your hues along the color wheel; for example, it can turn reds to orange or purple, depending on whether you move it up or down. The sliders in “Saturation” will affect the intensity of the color, while “Luminance” dictates brightness.
If you’re like Kruklitis, you’ll probably end up using the first two sliders (“Hue” and “Saturation”) most often. “These are the tools you can use to replace colors,” he explains. “For example, you can make a yellow sunset look orange or change a bright blue sky to a darkish grey-blue. That’s a very popular theme in 2019, by the way.” For more control over the image, you can select the Targeted Adjustment Tool (again, that little circle), hover over a specific color that looks off to you, and pull up or down to change it.
5. Split Toning
Image by Twinsterphoto. Gear: Canon 6D camera, Sigma 50mm F1.4 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/100 sec; f2.8; ISO 500.
“For stock photos, I try to keep it as clean and natural as possible, but it depends on what I want my photos to express to audiences,” Twinsterphoto explains. “I usually do split toning to color correct my photos because it’s easier to take control of shadows and highlights, and that will make a big difference in the style of your photos if you master it.”
Split toning will separate the lights from the darks within your image and allow you to correct them independently. Within the Split Toning panel, you can change the hue and saturation of your shadows without affecting your highlights, or vice versa. Keep in mind that the “Balance” slider will determine whether or not the shadow color or highlight color dominates.
Image by S.Borisov. Gear: Sony a7r2 camera, Sony 16-35 F4 G SSM lens. Settings: Focal length 21mm; exposure 1/45 sec; f13; ISO 100.
Use split toning with care and delicacy, as a little bit can go a long way. The travel and landscape photographer S.Borisov might introduce split toning as one of the final steps after checking the white balance, contrast/exposure, vibrance/saturation, etc., and adding any filters. “Basically, in the beginning, I try to make the image as natural as possible but properly exposed and saturated, and sometimes that is enough to get a good image,” he tells us. “If I am not happy with the result or if the image looks boring, I decide how to make it more interesting. That’s where split toning, extra vignetting, or more color come into play.”
6. Camera Calibration
Image by Ingus Kruklitis. Gear: Sony A7RII camera. Settings: Exposure 1/125 sec; f8; ISO 100.
You can also use the Primary sliders under Camera Calibration to increase or decrease saturation and/or alter your hues. “Calibration is a powerful tool to achieve an interesting look,” Dangubić tells us. “However, without a true understanding of how each slider affects the other colors, it can ruin the entire image.”
In other words, tread carefully. “Now, in most cases with camera calibration, you want to edit only the Red, Green, and Blue Saturation sliders,” Kruklitis points out. “Each affects a broad range of color and can be hard to predict. The red slider is often great, the green less so, and blue tends to get used least.”
7. Radial Filters
Image by Pawel Uchorczak
“My editing technique in Lightroom is using radial filters,” Pawel Uchorczak says. “I love them! This works as a substitution for layers in Photoshop. With radial filters, however, I can’t easily manage the light, colors, contrast, and clarity in my photos, so I might also use a fake graduated neutral-density filter for any portions of sky in the image.”
Filters allow you to modify the temperature, tint, exposure, saturation, and more effects on any specific area in your image. Select your radial filter (keyboard shortcut “Shift + M”) on the right and make sure all your sliders are set to zero. From there, you can move up or down on any of the sliders based on the look you want. On the image itself, click and drag to apply your filter where it’s needed.
8. Graduated Filters
A graduated filter (keyboard shortcut “M”) works similarly to the radial filter, though it can be applied in different circumstances. While the radial filter is best for spotlighting a focal point within an image, the graduated filter will help guide the eye by introducing your effects across an even gradient. You’ll see that when you’re using the graduated filter in Lightroom, three lines will appear; the first line applies all your effects in full force, while the middle line signifies a halfway point, and the final line shows where the effects stop. Adjust and rotate the filter as needed, and feel free to combine multiple filters in the same image if you’d like.
9. Download Presets
One technique we heard over and over again? Presets! These can be a real time-saver. Lightroom has built-in presets, and, as Ver Sprill puts it, “you can find free presets for LR everywhere.” Simply browse Google to find what works for you. You can even upload several photos with different presets to see what gets accepted and downloaded most from your stock portfolio.
Borisov explains, “Microstocks give us a unique opportunity to try and learn: you can always try two to three different develop options for similar images, submit them, and then see what gives you the best result in terms of customers’ interest.”
10. Make Your Own Presets
Image by Mike Ver Sprill. Gear: Nikon D800 camera, Tamron 28-75mm lens. Settings: Focal length 28mm; exposure 1/200 sec; f8; ISO 100.
“If you color correct an image a certain way and you are afraid you will forget what you did in the future, then simply save it as a preset,” Ver Sprill explains. “What’s great about presets is they can be adjusted after applying them.”
The team over at PR Image Factory agrees. “We create a bunch of our own Lightroom presets,” they tell us. “Once we confirm which preset we are going to use in any given project, we will apply it to the whole project, slightly adjusted for each photo. Creating your own preset is very important if you want to speed up your working process.”
Don’t be intimidated by the prospect of making your own presets, either. Borisov reassures us, “I believe anyone can learn how to make their own color correcting presets with unlimited options and variants just in a day or two.”
Lightroom tools are powerful, and a light touch can do wonders. “Remember, the main point of editing is to make your photo look awesome, and, at the same time, to make people believe that this is how it was in reality,” Kruklitis explains. “It’s a bad indicator if people can instantly notice that the photo has been edited. Unless, of course, you’re going for the artistic result.”
And most importantly, practice makes perfect. “First, learn the basic principles and follow the rules,” Borisov advises. “But as soon as you learn it well enough, do not be afraid to break the rules and try to experiment.”