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Have you heard all the buzz about the Color Grading in Lightroom but are unsure what it is or how to use it?
Don’t worry! This tutorial will explain what color grading is and show you how to use the NEW Color Grading Tool in Lightroom.
Color grading is a post-processing technique that allows you to make color adjustments that can change the mood of a photo by adjusting the tint of the pixels based on their brightness. So, you can now apply a different color to the shadows, the mid-tones, and the highlights using the Lightroom Color Grading Tool.
You have probably used color grading indirectly without even realizing it. For example, many Lightroom Presets and Photoshop Actions utilize color grade settings to quickly change the color tints you see.
Recently, the color grading tools in Lightroom were updated and significantly improved along with a name change from the Split Toning Tool to the—yes, you guessed it—the Color Grading Tool. So if you see references to Split Toning, you are running an older version of Lightroom.
While the color grading process isn’t entirely new in Lightroom, it has been significantly upgraded with the new Color Grading Tool.
As I mentioned previously, in October 2020, Lightroom upgraded the Split Toning Tool to the Color Grading Tool. Both tools do similar things - adjusting the tint independently in pixels with different brightness values. However, the new Color Grading Tool is more advanced and provides much more control:
Note: Lightroom features non-destructive editing, which means you can ALWAYS revert back to the original at any point in your editing workflow (including color grading adjustments) if you aren't pleased with your results.
Before you start color grading, you should go through your typical editing workflow in the Develop Panel, including adjustments to shadows, highlights, contrast, white balance, etc.
Keep in mind that the edits you do here won't prevent you from going back and fine-tuning things after you color grade in the next step. These initial edits simply ensure that you have a good starting image to work with. In other words, the image has good exposure and white balance, and there is no clipping or color bias in the image that wasn't intentionally put there.
Editing at this stage is particularly important when working with a SET OF IMAGES. That way, you will have the same starting point and achieve a consistent result across all images in your set when color grading.
You will find the Color Grading Tool on the right side of the Develop Panel, underneath the HSL/Color Tool, as you scroll down from the basic editing tools.
If you see a tool called "Split Toning" instead of the Color Grading Tool, you are using an older version of Lightroom and should consider updating to a newer version. As I mentioned previously, the Split Toning Tool was the older (more basic) color grading tool.
By default, the Color Grading Tool will open, showing three color wheels; a separate one for shadows, mid-tones, and highlights.
Inside each color wheel, you will see a small circle - you just need to click and drag it to start color grading. You can adjust the hue, saturation, and luminance on each one of the three color wheels (shadows, mid-tones, and highlights)
Ideally, you will already have an idea of the color palette you want to use. If not, feel free to experiment.
In addition to the color wheel adjustments, there are two sliders at the bottom of the Color Grading Tool that you can use to adjust the Blending and Balance.
What do these sliders do?The Blending slider controls how much of the shadows, mid-tones, and highlights blend together.
And the Balance slider determines whether shadows or highlights are more dominant.
If you want an even greater degree of control, you can view each color wheel independently. You will see several icons at the top of the Color Grading Tool. The first icon with the three small circles is the default three-wheel view. If you click on any of the next three icons, you can switch to larger single-wheel views.
The single wheels are much larger, allowing better control when dragging the pointer. The single-wheel view also offers the ability to use sliders for hue and saturation in addition to the luminance slider that is available in the three-wheel view. If, for some reason, you don’t see these sliders, click on the arrow icon underneath the eye to expand the menu.
The last icon at the top of the Color Grading Tool is the global color wheel, which can be used to change the tint of the entire image. If you are only looking for a simple color grading effect, you can use this global wheel as your primary tool. You can also use it as a final adjustment after making individual changes.
A favorite feature of Lightroom (and a huge time saver) is the ability to batch edit. This can also be done with the Color Grading Tool, so whatever color grading adjustments you do on one image can be applied to another image or multiple images.
Here are two ways to do it:
One of the beauties of Lightroom is that you can copy any or all of your edits from a photo and apply them to other images.
You can find this option in the menu by clicking on Settings>Sync Settings. This will open a pop-up window where you can select which edits you want to synchronize across multiple images. Simply check the Color Grading box and click on the Synchronize button to apply the color grading of one image to another.
If you want to have specific color grading adjustments available in one click, you can save it as a preset.
To do this, simply go to the Presets panel on the left side of Lightroom and click on the plus icon next to it. Then, choose "Create Preset" from the menu.
When the dialog box opens, make sure the Color Grading box is checked, give your preset a name, choose a storage location, and click Create.
If you have ever taken photos at golden hour because you wanted to capture those beautiful warm tones that can be achieved during that time of day, you already know the important role that color creates with the mood and feeling.
In this regard, color grading is a fantastic tool to have in your storytelling bag of tricks because it can help the viewer understand much more about the scene than meets the eye.
For example, let’s say you are doing a food photoshoot. Tint adjustments can help the viewer understand if it’s a homemade dish or prepared in a professional kitchen. In landscape photography, you can use it to reinforce seasonal colors like Spring or Fall.
Color grading is also helpful in maintaining a consistent look throughout your portfolio or your social media feed.
More conceptually, you can create photographic projects using visual conventions where we unconsciously associate colors with a particular photographic genre or style.
With the growing popularity of mobile editing, Adobe has included the Color Grading Tool in its FREE Lightroom Mobile App.
The mobile Color Grading Tool works the same way as the Lightroom Classic version, except you won’t have access to the three-wheel view. This probably has to do with how small the three wheels would be on a mobile phone's screen.
Strangely enough, the Color Grading icon found in the Color Section of the Lightroom Mobile Edit screen is still a three-wheel icon, even though there is no three-wheel view available.
All of this information may sound complicated, but the Lightroom Color Grading Tool is very intuitive.
The tricky part is deciding on the right color palette and training your eyes to apply just enough color grading to create the desired effect without overdoing it. I hope you give it a try.
Do you have any questions or comments about Color Grading in Lightroom? Leave us a comment below - we would LOVE to hear from you. And PLEASE SHARE our tutorial using the social sharing buttons (we really appreciate it)!
Ana Mireles is a Mexican photographer and researcher with a passion for writing and teaching. She’s collaborated in artistic and cultural projects in Mexico, Italy, and the Netherlands.