Cinematic Color Grading in Adobe Photoshop – Pt. 1

In this multi-part tutorial, you’ll learn how to create a movie-like effect by using color grading techniques in Adobe Photoshop.  We’ll focus on re-creating the look of a summer blockbuster action film using adjustment layers.

The term “color grading” is usually reserved for film, but it is now being used to describe creative color corrections in photography.

Keep in mind that what we are doing is applying a color style to an image to convey a story.  There are no rules as to what color should be used, or how they should be used.  This is completely up to you and the story that you’re telling with your photograph.

However, in this tutorial we are going to focus on re-creating an effect used in action films, and it tends to use certain colors in specific ways.

Here are six movie stills from some very popular action blockbusters, so that you can get an idea of the color scheme that we’re going for.

00-01-movie-samples

As you can see from the examples above, action blockbusters tend to use a teal (blue-green) and orange combination. Teal in the shadows and orange in the highlights, especially in the skin tones.

This combination works well because these colors are complimentary, and when complimentary colors are put side-by-side, they tend to “pop” and standout.  In movies, this combination makes the actor standout, which is one of the reasons that this particular color scheme is so popular.

You will also notice that there’s a lot of teals, greens, and blues in the dark areas of the examples above, but the skin tones are not really affected by those colors. Skin tones tend to have a natural skin color, even in the shadows.

The still from the movie, “The Matrix,” is an exception. The color grade is very exaggerated and blown-out in this case.  The skin tones actually do have a green tint, most noticeably in the shadows.

Again, there is no right or wrong. There was simply an artistic decision to include these colors in the dark tones, which worked out best for the story being told.

The still from the movie, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” shows the same teal-orange color scheme. Even though there are no actors in the scene, you still see teal in the dark areas and orange in the light areas.

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If you look at the color wheel on color.adobe.com, and click on “Complementary,” you’ll see the color relationship we’ve been discussing.  The yellows, oranges, reds, and magentas are usually where you find skin tones, and the complementary colors are the blues, teals, cyans and greens.

To color grade film, you typically would use an application like Adobe Speedgrade, but if you’re working with photos, then you can use Photoshop to apply the movie-look effect by using just a few adjustment layers.

For this tutorial we are going to use an image from Adobe Stock.

You can download the preview into your Creative Cloud Library or to your desktop to follow along. You can license the file to remove the watermark if you like.

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If you decide to follow along with a different image, then make sure that the image has neutral grays.  That means that there should be no color casts on the image. You can also watch the video version of this color grading tutorial here.

3 color grading examples

In this multi-part tutorial, I will show you 3 ways in which you can color grade an image. I’ll show you how to do it with a Curves Adjustment Layer, with a Color Balance Adjustment Layer, and with a Color Lookup Adjustment Layer.

In my opinion, the Curves Adjustment Layer gives you the most control and best results, but it is the most difficult to understand, which is why I will also show you two other methods to achieve the movie look.

Color grading with Curves

In this first example, we will use the Curves Adjustment layer.

But before we go any further, I’ll briefly explain how Curve adjustments work, so that you have an understanding of what is happening when you make adjustments.

This will be a quick overview, some things are simplified to make them easier to understand, but this explanation should give you a good understanding of how Curves work.

If you’re familiar with Curve adjustments, then you can skip this part.

How Curve Adjustments work

In this section we’re going to focus on the Curves Adjustment Layer, but keep in mind that everything we discuss here, also applies to the Curves adjustment under Image > Adjustment > Curves.

Once you create a Curves Adjustment Layer, you can access the Properties Panel, which allows you to make tonal adjustments to your image. You can make these tonal adjustments to the image as a whole (RGB), or make adjustments to each individual channel (Red, Green, or Blue).

You can make adjustments by either creating new points along the curve and dragging them to a new location, or by adjusting the Black Point or the White Point of the curve.

00-04-points-curve

To create a new point, simply click anywhere along the curve. To delete a point, click-and-drag it out of the panel.

To adjust a point, you can simply click on it, and drag it to a new location. You can also click on it, and use the arrow keys on the keyboard to move it.

The upper-right area of the graph represents the highlights; this is where you find the White Point. The lower-left area represents the shadows; this is where you find the Black Point.

When you look at the Curves Properties panel you will notice a histogram; which is the graph that displays the tonal rage found in the image. The more of a particular tone that you have on an image, the steeper the graph will be in that area.

The histogram for this image shows that the majority of the tones land on the left side of the graph, where the darker tones reside. You can confirm this by simply looking at the image.  You can see that the image is dark, and that there are not a lot of bright pixels.

The horizontal black-to-white gradient below the graph represents the input levels (original values), and the vertical black-to-white gradient on the left side of the graph represents the output levels (adjusted values). In other words, the horizontal gradient shows you the “before” values, and the vertical gradient shows you the “after” values.

You can see how this relationship works by simply clicking on the Black Point, which of course controls the dark tones, and moving it straight up halfway through the graph. All the tones that were once dark are now light gray. And of course the changes are represented in the image.

Notice the horizontal and vertical gradients, and where the Black Point now is. The horizontal gradient below the graph is showing you that the “before” color was black, and the vertical gradient to the right of the graph is showing you that the “after” color is a mid-gray. The example below shows how the image was affected by that adjustment.

00-05-adjusted-points

Another way of thinking about Curves is relate them to a dimmer light switch. Something like what you may have at home.

If you drag your dimmer switch up, you will get more light in your room. If you drag the dimmer switch down, you will take away light, thus making the room darker.

The same thing happens with Curves. When you drag a point up, you add more light, making those tones brighter. If you drag a point down, you reduce the light, making those tones darker.

In the example above, we took the Black Point and moved it up. Which of course brighten up those dark tones.

00-06-dimmer-switch

You can also make similar adjustments to each individual RGB Channel: Red, Green or Blue.

When you’re working on an individual channel you have to look at the color of the channel and know what the opposite color is in order to understand how the adjustment will affect the image.

Each RGB channel has an opposite color. Red’s opposite color is cyan. Green’s opposite color is magenta, and blue’s opposite color is yellow.

On individual RGB channels, the dimmer switch adds or reduces colored light. For example, if you are in the Red Channel, and you drag a point up, you will introduce more red light, which makes the image redder.

If you drag a point down, you will reduce the red light, making the image darker in the opposite color, cyan.

The graphic below shows the relationship between RGB channels and their opposite colors within the Curves Properties panel.

00-07-curves-rgb

For a more detailed explanation of what Curves can do, check out Adobe’s Curve Overview.

Movie look effect using Curves

Now that you have a general understanding of how Curves work. Here’s the step-by-step tutorial on how to achieve the movie look using Curves!

1. Create two Curves Adjustment Layers. Name one “Color,” and the other “Luminosity”

To get the movie look effect we will need to add teal (blue-green) in the darks and oranges in the light areas, especially in the skin tones.

I like to have as much control as possible when working in Photoshop. I think that you get better results when you have the ability to control color and luminosity separately. So we will use Curves alongside blending modes to get a little more control.

The first step is to create two Curves Adjustment Layers. Name the first “Color,” and the second “Luminosity.

01-color-luminosity-curves-layers

2. Change the “Color” Layer’s Blending Mode to Color

First click on the “Color” layer and change the Blending Mode from Normal to Color.

This will make it so that this adjustment layer only affects the colors of the image, and not the luminance values.

02-color-layers-blend-mode

3. Use the individual RGB channels in the Curves Adjustment Layer to apply the Color effect

To apply the teal-orange color effect, use the individual channels in the Curves Adjustment Layer.

To do so, click on the “Color” layer thumbnail, and go into the Curve’s Properties panel. Then click on the RGB dropdown to select the channels to adjust.

Note: If you don’t see the Properties panel, go to Window > Properties to enable it.

 03-rgb-color-adjustment

4. On the Red channel, add Cyan to the Dark Tones and Red to the Bright Tones

First select the Red channel from the RGB dropdown in the Curves Properties Panel.

Click on the Black Point and drag it to the right to add cyan to the dark tones. Then click on the White Point and drag it to the left to add red to the bright tones.

Look at the image below so that you can see how far over I dragged each point.

After making the adjustments your image should have a blue-green tint.

Note:
*** If you are following along with a different image you may have to make different adjustments to get similar results.

Tip:
You can use the arrow keys on the keyboard to move the points around. You can also use the Plus or Minus keys on the keyboard to switch between points in a Curve. The point that is selected will be completely solid.

04-red-channel-adjustment

5. On the Green channel, add Green to the Dark Tones and Magenta to the Bright Tones

Select the Green channel from the RGB dropdown in the Curves Properties Panel.

First click on the Black Point and drag it up slightly to add green to the dark tones. Then click on the White Point and drag it down slightly to add magenta to the bright tones.

Your image should now look a bit more teal.

05-green-channel-adjustment

6. On the Blue Channel, add Blue to the Dark Tones and Yellow to the Bright Tones

Select the Blue channel from the RGB dropdown in the Curves Properties Panel.

Click on the Black Point and drag it up to add blue to the dark tones. Then click on the White Point and drag it down to add yellow to the bright tones.

Your image should now have the teal-orange color scheme that we’re going for!

However, the image looks a bit bright, so we’ll work with the luminance values to adjust that.

06-blue-channel-adjustment

7. Change the “Luminance” Layer’s Blending Mode to Luminosity

Click on the “Luminosity” layer and change the Blending Mode from Normal to Luminosity. This will make it so that the adjustments will not affect the color or saturation of the image, only the brightness values.

07-change-blending-mode-luminosity

8. Add contrast to the image by using the “Luminosity” Curves Adjustment Layer

In this adjustment layer we will work with the RGB composite. No need to work on individual channels.

The image is looking a bit bright, so we will make it darker to better match the film look that we’re going for.

Start by adding two points on the Curve. You can create a point by simply clicking on the curve directly.

Create the first point right in the center of the Curve, and create the second point between the first point and the Black Point.

Click on the first point, the one in the center, and drag it down slightly. Then click on the second point and drag it down.

Look at the screenshot below to see placement of the points.

The image should not be darker in the shadows, but the highlights should be roughly the same brightness.

08-make-luminance-adjustment

9. Make a selection around the red hand wraps.

The adjustments that we just applied are global, affecting the entire image. Not all areas will have the appropriate colors or saturation. For example, the hand wraps are too red and saturated.

To fix this, we will first need to make a selection around hand wraps.

First, select the Quick Selection tool from the Toolsbar, then click-and-drag over the wraps to select them.

Tip:
If you select an undesired area by mistake, you can deselect with the Quick Selection Tool by holding Alt (Mac: Option) as you click-and-drag.

09-quick-selection-tool

10. Make a Curves Adjustment Layer

With the selection still active around the hand warps, create a new Curves Adjustment Layer.

Notice that this created a Curves Adjustment Layer that has a layer mask targeting only the hand wraps. So any adjustments that you make will only affect those areas.

Move the adjustment layer in between the “Color” and “Luminosity” layers, and name it “Wraps”.

Then change the Blending Mode to Color.

10-wraps-curves-layer

11. Remove the Red from the hand wraps using the “Wraps” Curves Adjustment Layer

In the Curves Properties panel, select the Red Channel from the RGB dropdown, and click on the White Point and drag it almost half way down the Curve.

This will remove most of the red from the hand wraps and introduce cyan, making the hand wraps match the rest of the image better.

11-wraps-remove-red

12. Select a soft brush

If you look at the movie still examples, you will notice that there’s a lot of greens and blues in the dark areas, but the skin tones are not really affected by those colors, even in the shadows.

Unfortunately, the Curves adjustment did add those colors to the shadows of the skin tones. One simple way of solving this issue is to simply “mask out” the color adjustments over those shadows.

To do so, select the Brush tool from the Toolsbar, and select a soft brush.

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13. Mask out the teal color from the dark areas in the skin tones

First activate the “Color” layer mask by clicking on the layer mask thumbnail. Then paint with black over the dark areas of the skin tones to hide the color effect.

 13-paint-black-mask

Final image – Curves Adjustment Layer

This is my final result using Curves!

All these effects are none-destructive and you can always go back and adjust them if you need to.

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In the next part of this tutorial, I’ll share how to color grade using a Color Balance Adjustment Layer. Until next time!