This is a tutorial that has been a long time coming. As I often review pictures for workshop clients I see quite a lot of pictures that look very muddy after post processing. Many clients wonder why about the reasons for this issue and rather than explaining this to each person individually, I think it is wiser to make a tutorial, so this can be of value to more photographers, or so I hope.
Most of the time a muddy effect is caused by not having enough separation in colours and a lack of contrast in the raw image and then applying global colour adjustments to the image. Rather than explaining this in words, I am going to show you a picture that is nothing special, but serves the purpose of explaining what colour separation is.
This picture was taken on a dull winter's day. As is often the case on dull winter days in a forest, the colours all look more or less the same. The problem is that our brain does not spot this, as we believe moss to be a certain kind of green and the trunk a certain kind of brown. If we however choose the colour picker in the HSL panel of Lightroom and put it on the moss, we can clearly see that it is actually mostly yellow. In fact....all colours in the image have a majority of yellow in them. If we were to edit this picture and use global colour adjustments we affect all colors equally. If we were too warm the picture up, the moss that now has a very, very slight percentage of green in it, will become even more yellow and the percentage of green will be even less. This means that all colors will end up looking more or less the same, especially since this picture was also taken in very dull and flat light, which means there is very little contrast.
By clicking on the little circle looking like a bullseye we select the targeted adjustment tool and as we hover over the moss, we can see the yellow hue being highlighted, which means that it is predominantly yellow, even though our brain tells is that it should be green. If I drag the tool up I move the sliders in the panel to the right and if I drag the tool down it moves the sliders to the left. I want the moss to be greener and so I place the tool on top of the moss and drag up. Now we can clearly see that by dragging the tool, two sliders are affected, which means there are two hues present in the colour of the moss ; a large amount of yellow and a small amount of green. By dragging up, the sliders moved to the right and so the green hue in the moss is being moved towards cyans and the yellow is moved towards green. This means that the moss will start to look greener. I am also going to affect the hue of the dead foliage which is of course also mostly yellow and has a bit of orange in it.
The picture has now already lost a bit of its muddy look.
It is good to realize that a global adjustment like white balance can make the separation of colours easier. If I add blue to this picture, the blue will make the greens more cyan and the yellows more green and this will come in handy. So I made this image cooler by using the white balance sliders. In this case I used the white balance colour picker and fine-tuned it afterwards.
I adjust the colors in the HSL panel again and end up at these settings, but pay no notice to the absolute values, as they will be different for each image
I also make some adjustments to the saturation of the individual colours to balance things out
The next thing I do to affect the colours in this image is to use a very little used panel in Lightroom which is Calibration. It is actually incredibly useful to affect the colours in an image. In this case I need to use the red primary slider most of all, because it affects the type of red in the image and I want to move away from that dull colour towards something more vibrant. Adding red to the green moss will dull them down even more and so I use this slider to liven the scene up a bit. To prevent the shadows in the image from also going green, which would reduce colour separation again, I move it ever so slightly to the magenta side. Don't underestimate the power of this little panel that very few people actually use.
After these steps I have now created a picture with more colour separation, which does not mean that this is the finished picture, but this provides a better base to now work upon. The greens look quite green and perhaps slightly too much so, but this was done only because I know there will be steps that I will be taking now that will warm the image up again. By having green greens, I prevent them from blending in with the yellows once I start to color grade this image.
In October 2020, Adobe exchanged Split Toning for Color Grading, which is an amazing panel that gives you loads of control over the colours in your images. Rather than to use it for really funky and artistic effects, I am going to use it to bring some life into this image, which the raw image clearly lacked. The main panel looks like this, but I never use the main panel with the three colour wheels as this is quite fiddly. I move straight over to the shadows, midtones and highlights panels than can be accessed by clicking on either of the circles to the right of the triangle of circles next to adjust
This is how the colour wheel looks. You can see that the shadows are selected and that no change has been made. The grey ball on the right side of the circle shows us that a shade of red is the starting point. The circle in the exact middle means there is no saturation for this colour and this means no changes were made. If you click on the little fold out arrow below the circle (to the right) you can see the values. The way I work is to drag up the saturation slider up first to about 20 and then drag the hue slider to see what colour would suit the image (in this case the shadows). After that I adjust the saturation to taste
You can see that I have chosen a warm colour. Dragging the sliders will move the ball in the colour wheel and you can see by the placement of the ball that the saturation of the colour used is rather low. My midtones get a slight adjustment with green with a very low saturation The next step is quite important, because even though the sky was dull, I know from experience that once I take this picture into Photoshop to do some extra adjustments to the contrast, all of a sudden the blue in the sky, which is not visible now, will pop up and attract the attention. I don't want the viewer's eye to go to a contrasting colour on the top of the frame if the main point of interest lies elsewhere. This is why I add yellow to the highlights. Yellow is the opposite colour to blue on a colour wheel and this means they neutralize each other when mixed. I also add a global adjustment to the hue in the last option of this panel
This is how the picture looks after the colour corrections. Again, I use this picture as the base for further editing in Photoshop, so this is not the finished image as I would present it.
And this was the before picture again
The fun thing about color grading is that it also works on blacks and white images
I do hope this tutorial has been of value to you. I often try out colour corrections on a virtual copy in Lightroom, which can easily be made by selecting the original raw file and then press the cmd and ' keys or ctrl and ' on windows. This creates a virtual copy which you can then easily compare to other edits of the same raw file.
Below is the picture after I have taken it to Photoshop where I added curves layers applied locally and where I added a custom Orton effect.
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