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Getting a grip on color

If there is one aspect of photography that I find particularly challenging, then it is color. Color is familiar and confusing at the same time. It is familiar because it is omnipresent in daily life and it is confusing because it is hard to describe in plain language. Yet, it has only three rather straightforward dimensions: hue, saturation, and lightness, often abbreviated as “HSL”. Combinations of these three are endless, however, not to mention the plethora of other settings they can be combined with. The result is an explosion of possible “looks” to your photos. Interestingly, even professional photographers struggle with the many degrees of freedom that come with color editing. See, for example, this blog post by Patrick La Roque, one of my favorite photographers on the web.

For a long time, I have been fascinated by the, mostly unrevealed, color settings of the numerous great portfolio’s out there on the internet, ranging from serious portrait, landscape, street, wedding, and lifestyle photography to all kinds of hipster, vintage, and cinematic photo streams on Instagram. In a lot of these photos, the hue of particular colors is shifted towards neighboring colors and saturation is decreased substantially. The result is often reminiscent of vintage Kodak Portra or Kodachrome film. Not that I know much about these film stocks, but what I observe is that their colors are rather subdued: They are not as saturated, or rather over-saturated, as images from modern digital cameras tend to be. Reds, for example, tend to get completely blown out in digital photographs, especially if you increase contrast. The result is rather unpleasing, especially in skin tones. This may be one of the reasons why simulations of classic film stocks, often available as presets in photo editing software, are so popular.

Because photographers are not inclined to share their secret color recipes and film simulation presets are not particularly insightful due to the multitude of unexplained settings they entail, I decided to experiment a bit with color settings myself. I use Capture One for almost two years now and what I have especially come to appreciate is its color editor, which gives you great control over HSL settings across the full color spectrum. HSL settings can also be adjusted with levels and curves, which are very powerful tools, but the thing is that these adjustments often affect hue, saturation, lightness, and contrast simultaneously, which makes them extremely hard to master. The color editor, on the other hand, allows you to adjust one color dimension without affecting the other ones, which is great to get a feel of the impact of a single adjustment.

Capture One’s advanced color editor.

I have especially experimented with the advanced color editor (see figure). The advanced color editor allows you to pick any color from an image by clicking on that image with the color picker (the little pipette or eyedropper tool). This is unlike the basic color editor, which only allows adjustments to a basic and fixed set of six colors. Picking any color from an image makes it a bit of a challenge to choose a representative set. However, there is a representative set of preselected colors available on the Capture One website that is, ironically, based on Adobe Lightroom’s HSL editing tool. This is a set of eight color ranges, which is very useful for general editing purposes. It can be downloaded here (scroll down to “5. Color Editor (HSL)” and click the download link). I will not go into the intricacies of Capture One’s color editor in this post (see this link to the online manual to learn more about that). Rather, I will focus on the sliders that change the H and S dimensions of the eight preselected colors and try to describe how I shift them to get a result that I sort of like at the moment for portraits (I have left the L sliders completely untouched). Most essential and delicate are the shifts in hue (H), which are either negative or positive. Rather unintuitively, a negative value indicates a shift to the right (clockwise along the color wheel), whereas a positive value indicates a shift to the left (counterclockwise along the color wheel).

Thus, reds (+20) are slightly shifted towards orange, oranges (-20) are shifted towards red, yellows towards green (-15), greens towards blue (+20), and so on. Note that the saturation sliders are all set to a negative value, which means less saturation. I have played with these settings for quite a bit and the result more or less resembles Kodak Portra film, which I like a lot. Especially the green shift towards blue, resulting in a sort of teal, is quite typical, although this is more apparent in landscapes than in portraits. For portraits, the red, orange, yellow, and blue shifts are more important. The images below show the before and after versions of a portrait of my oldest daughter to which I have applied these settings.

Before (first) and after (second) version of a portrait edited with Capture One’s advanced color editor.

The before version (first) contains saturated reds (lips and skin), oranges (skin), magentas (lips), and yellows (skin and hair). The edited version (second) shows a more neutral image. Reds have been toned down by not only lowering their saturation, but also shifting them towards orange, a color that is just a bit less intense than red. As a result, the skin, including the freckles, looks more natural. In the screen shot of the color editor above, red is the selected color and the color patches at the bottom show how it is changed by the H and S adjustments (left patch shows the original, right patch the adapted color). In the edited version of the image, it is also apparent that yellows in both the skin and the hair are less saturated and somewhat cooler. Although the end result looks more neutral, the image has kept enough warmth to not look dull.

Now, the result may be rather subtle and not to everyone’s taste, but I definitely like it. At the same time, I’m sure I will keep on playing with the sliders to fine-tune things. Editing colors just seems to be a never-ending story.

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