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What is Color Correction in Photography? A Basic Breakdown (With 10 Easy Tips)

What is Color Correction in Photography? A Basic Breakdown (With 10 Easy Tips)

Part of being a photographer is spotting when something isn’t quite right. Color correction in photography is the art of fixing these little errors to bring out your photo’s best side.

Have you ever taken a portrait photo that washed out the skintones into pasty mush? That’s nothing a little color correction can’t fix. This essential tool allows you to tweak around contrast, color, and exposure to make up for what your camera couldn’t quite catch. 

How do you get started doing color correction in photography, anyway? This tool is vital for any photographer, beginner or experienced — understanding how to use this skill in post-editing (and sometimes while shooting) will create visually balanced and pleasing results.

Source Image: Pixabay

Table Of Contents:

  1. Introduction
  2. What is Color Correction in Photography?
  3. Three Accessible Tools for Color Correction 
  4. Top 10 Tips for Starting Color Correction in Photography
  5. Conclusion: Color Correction is a Simple and Effective Technique for Enhancing Your Work

a mother doe and her faun walking through a green park in the morning

Source Image: Pixabay

What is Color Correction in Photography?

Color correction is the act of, well, correcting color! More specifically, fixing essential details so your photo is visually pleasing and easy to understand.

While what qualifies as a photography error changes from person to person, there are common issues many artists don’t want to see (such as the despised red eye in portraits). 

Improving Contrast Between Light and Dark

A photo with far too many shadows risks looking murky to the viewer. On the other hand, a photo that’s too bright will seem washed out and indistinctive.

Improving the contrast between light and dark is one of the most approachable aspects of color correction. It’s incredible how simply brightening up an area or deepening a shadow will make a photo more readable. 

Enhancing or Reducing Color Saturation

Color saturation refers to how intense a color is: think the vibrant shade of a ripe cherry or a yellow stop sign. A desaturated color moves in the opposite direction, more washed out like a plank of old wood.

Neither is better or worse: both extremes work in tandem to create visual balance. Color correction can involve enhancing or reducing color intensity to achieve this result.

Adjusting Warm and Cool Colors

While color saturation involves shifting intensity, you can also try to enhance the warmth or coolness of colors. Sometimes your camera will veer too hard in one direction, making your photo appear artificial and ‘off’. 

Adjusting the warmth or coolness of colors will instantly make your photos appear more natural. When you’re not sure how to do this, try to observe the subject or object in real life to take the guesswork out of the editing session. Compare and contrast between real life and what seems to be missing in your photo. 

What’s the Difference Between Color Correction and Color Grading in Photography? 

The main difference between color correction and color grading is technical over stylistic. Due to their heavy overlap, they’re frequently confused for each other. 

Color correction is simpler, focusing mainly on tweaking contrast and color to create a more natural photo. Color grading is more symbolic, focusing less on technical details and more on the emotions of the scene. It can also be used to create visual signatures for a larger body of work to make them instantly recognizable, such as the color palette in a movie. 

Now, color grading often needs color correction to ensure visual balance is maintained. Basically, you can’t really color grade without color correction, but you can easily do color correction without color grading. 

an example of a color correction session with a photographer editing a photo of a car in a field in Photoshop

Source Image: Pixabay

Three Accessible Tools for Color Correction 

There are several ways to do color correction, all depending on your personal preferences and budget. Once you practice, you’ll likely use more than one method when finalizing photos.

Filters and Edits on Your Phone

If you’ve ever spent hours fiddling with phone filters to get the perfect selfie, you’ve already done color correction. Smartphones make it easy to improve white balance or add a more natural tint with the press of a button.

Photo Editing Programs

It’s easier than ever to get a photo editing program that fits your budget and skillset these days. The Adobe Suite may be the industry standard – I’ve been using it for over a decade myself – but there are other options you can try.

Consider freeware programs like GIMP or Canva to get started without financially committing (though they’re perfectly valid programs in of themselves). If you prefer a flat fee purchase over a paid subscription model, Da Vinci Resolve is another popular choice with beginner photographers. It has an incredibly user-friendly interface and comes with regular updates to its toolset to ensure you’re always ahead of the curve technologically, such as masking or face refining tools.

Lens Filters

Color correction in photography doesn’t have to be applied after the fact. Camera lens filters give you the ability to choose the color schemes or tints you want before you start snapping shots.

Popular beginner lens filters are neutral density filters and the aptly named color correction filters. These allow you to do everything from deepen shadows to reduce annoying glare.

a photographer with dark hair and a dark tank top holding up a camera under the cover of a tree

Source Image: Pixabay

Top 10 Tips for Starting Color Correction in Photography

Getting started in color correction is one of the easiest steps a photographer can take. You’ve likely already practiced this when using your phone or playing around in Canva.

The following tips will help you branch out your skills while avoiding common beginner pitfalls.

Become Familiar With Color Theory Basics

Color correction is much easier to execute when you understand how colors work on a scientific level. Color theory is the discipline of using and applying color to create natural results in photography (or any other visual art). 

Studying up on color theory terminology – such as warm vs cool – will help you categorize colors and, thus, apply them accurately during color correction sessions.

Actively Study the World Around You

When you start learning color theory, the next natural step is to apply that knowledge to the world around you. Your camera can only do so much – you need to study subjects and settings on a critical level.

What makes a sunset look radiant or subdued? How does a person’s skintone change depending on indoor or outdoor lighting? Asking critical questions will get you thinking hard about how color works so you can adjust them more accurately.

Aim For the Best Possible Photo Before Color Correction

The right mindset goes a long way in guiding your artistic hand. Color correction is meant to touch up an already strong photo – it’s not a silver bullet for beginner shortcomings. 

Always remember to apply photography fundamentals of a strong composition, well-lit subject, and appropriate focal length.

Get a Neutral Density Filter For Your DSLR Camera

There are a plethora of camera lens filters to choose from, so start out simple with a neutral density filter. This all-purpose filter improves contrast and enhances color in one fell swoop.

Start Off With Auto Correct Tools in Photo Editing

Once you open up your photo editing program of choice, you may be overwhelmed by all the buttons and filters available. Try starting with the auto correct tools in Photoshop – these single-click fixes are so useful, even experienced photographers use them.

(Keep in mind other photo editing programs will have similar versions of these tools with similar names.)

The Auto Color tool automatically balances out warm and cool colors for a more natural result. The Auto Contrast will deepen shadows and lighten brighter areas. Last but not least, the Auto Tone will add a very subtle shift to midtones for gentler transitions between colors.

Use the Curves Tool and White Balance Tool to Improve Contrast

Once you play around with the auto correct tools, you’ll no doubt get the itch for more in-depth sessions. The Curves and White Balance tool are extremely subtle tools for your toolkit.

The Curves tool is the more elaborate version of Auto Tone, allowing you to independently adjust highlights, midtones, and shadows. Meanwhile, the White Balance tool will allow you to create true white areas in your photo – this is especially useful when your highlights have become muddied or faded.

Fiddle With the Hue/Saturation to Enhance Color

After you’ve used Auto Color a few times, you’ve got a good idea on how to start enhancing color on a finer level. The Hue/Saturation adjustment bar will let you change the color as well as its intensity.

This tool also allows you to switch between CMYK and RGB, a useful feature if you’re thinking of printing your work. To reiterate: RGB is ideal for posting on the web, while CMYK translates better to printing.

Use Layers to Experiment With Different Effects

Each layer gives you the ability to stack on different effects for infinite results. You can create hazy overlays, darken the atmosphere, or bleach out your light source – the sky’s the limit!

If you ever find you’re not crazy about the end result, just hide or delete the layer to keep the photo intact. 

Try Masks to Separate Certain Parts of the Photo

You can narrow down your color correction abilities even further using masks. The masking tool in Photoshop (or any other editing program) lets you choose specific parts to adjust.

For example, let’s say you took a photo of a dog in the park. The dog turned out a little desaturated, but the surrounding environment looks just fine. You can use the quick mask tool to select the dog, then apply a color correction. This fine level of control lets you adjust only what you feel is necessary for the photo.

Save Multiple Versions of Your Photo to Compare the Differences

Since you’re still in the beginning stages of color correction, tracking your progress is essential to keeping you motivated. An easy way to do this is by saving multiple versions of a photo to visually compare the differences.

Save one version without touch-ups, then another version with touch-ups. You can even save a third or fourth version for specific goals, such as improving white balance. You’ll learn much faster this way because you’re not flying by the seat of your pants – you’re studying every step in your journey.

photographer standing on a bridge taking a photo of a heron

Source Image: Pixabay

Conclusion: Color Correction is a Simple and Effective Technique for Enhancing Your Work 

Unlike the elaborate stylings of color grading or the finer details of adjusting aperture, color correction seems simple by comparison. As the saying goes – less is more.

This simple technique is incredibly effective for enhancing your work, creating richer colors or reducing white balance issues with a few adjustments. The end result of color correction is to create a natural result that’s true to life. You can practice color correction on your phone or try a photo editing program such as Adobe Photoshop, Da Vinci Resolve, or GIMP. As you practice, this color correction will become second nature and you’ll be able to spot issues instantly.

While color correction is usually applied after the fact, camera lens filters can do color enhancements while you’re snapping photos. The neutral density filter is a versatile and beginner-friendly choice for providing several benefits in one go.

A murky or washed out photo doesn’t have to be the end. When you learn color correction, you learn how to be a confident and adaptable photographer.


Want to continue building your beginner editing toolkit? Check out the following posts: