#1225. Calibration and Color Grading: Two tools to up your colour game in Lightroom

By pascaljappy | How-To

Aug 28

The usual sliders in Lightroom don’t give you enough control over colour to define a consistent style or get the most impact out of your files. Here are two alternative techniques.

Fire at night

6 months from now, I’ll probably turn back to this post and see only all that I didn’t understand about colour grading 😉 But there’s still enough to play with using those two tools to create a worthwhile post and get others started on their own path of exploration.

Open any Ernst Haas book, and you’ll be stunned by the vividness of the colours in his photographs. Something like this storm cloud at sunset is the norm rather than the exception. And think about any other great colourist, Steve McCurry, Saul Leiter, Henry Lartigues (yup), among others, and you can’t fail to be impressed by the sheer impact of the colours in their compositions. On top of contrast, light and size, those giants of photography introduced another element into the power-distribution games that define composition in a frame.

In fact, my default setting has long been b&w because I have been unable to produce such incredibly powerful colours in my own photographs. Note the emphasis on powerful, not oversaturated, not necessarily neutral, but still realistic. This is where the Calibration and Colour Grading tools come into play.

Work rest

The limits of Saturation

When we return from a shoot, most of us edit our colour photographs using the white balance, saturation and luminosity/contrast sliders. If we’re feeling lazy, we can just click ‘Auto’, which sometimes lands on a very acceptable finish, as below, but sometimes looks terrible.

Auto everything. Perfectly good, and boring.

And, if something more exotic is required, a preset can be slapped on in a click. Something like this.

Astia Expired preset. Kill me now 😉

I think we all more or less understand how exposure, contrast, highlight, shadows (…) work. All of those work on luminance levels at various places along the histogram, and relative levels between more or less distant pixels in the frame.

Saturation is a lot less easy to comprehend.

In fact, I’m not sure many people outside Adobe really know exactly what the saturation slider does. But one thing is certain: overdo it, and the photograph looks terrible.


The problem with saturation is the same as any single-metric solution to a complex problem (CO2 & global warming, eg). It doesn’t work in most situations. In the photo above, the leaves are roughly OK, the walls are a bit over the top, and the sky is shocking.

Lightroom has a solution to this, the HSL panel.

Here, you can correct the hue, the saturation and the luminance levels of 8 colours individually. The good thing is that this gives you control over a specific set of pixels in the frame (only the red, only the orange …) rather than all of them, as with saturation.

But, in some situations, that’s also their limitation. Cue the other two tools.


Lightroom’s right panel is meant to have been designed to follow a logical process of post-processing. In spite of this, I’d like to present Calibration, which sits right at the bottom of the frame, first.

Feel like you’re in a movie?

This is because I’d apply this before using the Color Grading panel.

Calibration is essentially what we all call “colour science”. When a sensor receives photons through its Bayer filter, those are transformed into a number of electrons. Reading a sensor is simply filling in a bix matrix with numbers. What colour we assign to a certain number is often quite subjective. And no two manufacturers make the exact same choices, so Nikon red isn’t the same as Canon red, Sony red, Pentax red, RED red (sorry), Pixii red, …

Calibration will help you change that colour science to your own taste. If you knew the recipe, adjusting the proper sliders on a Sony image would make it look like a Nikon image, a Leica image … It can also let you move away from neutral-looking images in a way that can remain natural looking. The most famous example of this is the Teal & Orange look found in many films after Michael Bay popularized it (and others overused it), which gives a golden hour vibe to shots.

Balanced push

The principle in this look is to push blues towards teal and reds towards orange. Since those are complementary, you can make the contrast between blues and reds stronger without adding saturation to any other colours in the frame.

This can be used to good effect, as above. This was very pale and grey. Pushing saturation just looked unnatural. But pushing reds towards orange and blue towards teal, with a bit more saturation each, without touching any of the other colours, gave it just enough pop to be visually interesting. And it remains balanced looking, though comparing it to the original would show how un-neutral it is.

And, as with any technique, you can go overboard. Sometimes in ways that are pleasing. Sometimes in ways that aren’t 😉

Old postcards? (Jersey)

This is the calibration panel. For the purposes of this post, the images presented do not make any use of the first “Shadows” slider.

To recreate the Teal & Orange look, simply slide the “Blue Primary” Hue slider to the left (towards Teal) and add or remove saturation to suit your tastes. And slide the “Red Primary” Hue slider to the righ (towards Orange) and add or remove saturation to suit your tastes. Green doesn’t have to change, though you can alter this as well, to suit your tastes.

Since most pixels combine some R, G, B information, you’ll notice that all of those actions affect the whole frame, as if a glass filter was used on the camera. This is very different to what happens in the HSL section, where only red(ish) colours are affected by a touch of the Red slider. This means a sky can go magenta or purple when you try to alter a tree, for instance. Calibration is a global tool. And, as far as I know, there are no rules to follow. Just like chefs, experienced colourists have perfected some recipes, and you can just experiment in various lighting conditions, for various types of subjects, to gain the same experience. You can’t break anything 🙂


Color Grading

The Calibration tool is amazing to work on the global look of an image. In two of mine (the men in orange pano at top, and the semi-circular window), I tried to reproduce the sort of look you would see in a movie. And you could simply “copy/paste” the edit to a whole bunch made in the same conditions to create a very homogeneous set.

The Color Grading tool, in comparison, feels more like a final seasoning step, which you can sprinkle after fundamental edits to fine-tune the aesthetics of each image to your taste.

Basically, it lets you edit luminance and saturation separately, and in different ways for shadows, midtones and highlights. The most basic adjustment is a boost to midtones luminance, which adds a bit of sparkle to an otherwise dull image, as below (although this still needs work). It won’t save a dud, but can make difficult lighting somewhat easier to tame.


The Color Grading tool offers the option of editing Midtones, Highlights and Shadows separately, or the whole picture. To access each option, click on one of the circles at the top of the section.

Each of these lets you adjust Hue, Saturation and Luminance separately, for the chosen wheel. Note that the saturation is applied to the hue you select, not to all the hues in the midtones/shadows/highlights. So you can work on, say, shadows, apply a purple hue on them and saturate this hue more or less.

You can also adjust the luminance of the selected range (shadows, midtones and highlights). So, on top of that saturated purple filter, you can also make shadows (e.g.) darker or lighter.

At the bottom, the Blending slider lets you specify how much you want to separate or blend the modifications made to shadows, midtones and highlights. So, you could just lift the midtones, and choose a low blending value to leave shadows and highlights more untouched than with a high blending value.

And the Balance slider lets you decide which of the modifications applied to each zone (shadows, midtones or highlights) is more important than others. You could decide that the dark purple midtones are not very important and shouldn’t be the dominant theme in the image. Pushing balance up will give precedence to highlight edits over shadow edits.

I hope all of this makes sense. But it’s best to just experiment and see for yourself. I’m just saying this tool lets you isolate luminance zones, edit their hue, saturation and luminance and blend the results or favour one over the other. Other tools with different names in other post-processing software should let you perform the same sort of task.

Calibration and color grading applied

All together, now

Of course, you get the most of those techniques when you use them together. I’m in no way qualified enough to recommend a process at this stage. But my approach would be to adjust basic settings (underexposure and convergence, for me, usually) then consider calibration, then color grading, then fine tune with local retouching if necessary.

As fun as those sliders can be when you go wild, I find their best use to be in small deliberate touches, to avoid slamming the saturation slider.

Below, this French post office was in the shade and dull. Correcting exposure was OK, but saturation was never really right. So, using a tiny bit of each technique made the image pop more while remaining more natural.

Saturation increases the blue of the shadow, and makes the yellow pop too much.

To my eyes, Color Grading helps adjust the dynamism of the image, how flashy it is, while Calibration is devoted to the mood.

Teal body, orange basket
Apologies for the odd crop, French law forbids taking pictures of number plates (#WhatElseIsNew)
Small doses

What’s interesting to me is how this helps you introduce colour into the considerations of composition. (see the “Work rest” pano up top, with orange workers on the left and teal t-shirts and deck chairs on the right).

When a colour photograph is colour-neutral, colour-perfect, it looks documentary, however spectacular the subject. When you introduce your own twists, you start prioritising one element over the others. This is what has always fascinated me in the work of someone like Saul Leiter.

The beauty of those techniques is that you can go pretty far out while remaining balanced.


The scene above was cool but rather dull. Pushing saturation made the walls go wild. This is typically the sort of image that would have gone straight to b&w for me.

But using calibration and color grading allowed me to make the brooms and sprays pop a lot more. It pushed the contrast between red and green. This increased the saturation of the hues on the walls, but the photograph remains balanced and credible. The light was warm, the edit just made this more visible.

And, in smaller doses, these tools made the image below look far more interesting than the out of camera version above, and far less garish than the saturated version.


In this final image, I pushed colour contrast further, to create the sort of popping colour that amazes me in the work of someone like Steve McCurry. But white balance is preserved, all is pure natural hue 😉
Some of the pics on this page are overcooked (deliberately, as in the “postcard” series, or not). I’ll get better at this with experience. But it’s opening a whole other way of seeing scenes, not just focusing on light for composition, but including hues.

In stead of using colour because that’s what the camera gives me, or feeling to monochrome when colours are weak, I now have the means to push and tug hues around to replicate what my eyes ‘felt’ on the spot. ‘m starting to see in colour 🙂


How about you? 😉


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  • Ian Varkevisser says:

    Hi Pascal, being technically proficient with the tools of your trade is an important skill and experimenting with them is far too often overlooked. I often find this amusing as many photographers I have met are often technically skilled people. I have to say the artistically inclined photographers I have met are often quite technophobic and often are ignorant things such as manuals exist 🙂 . Whilst your blog here probably falls more in the artistic arena of photography – it nevertheless forms part of ones skill set to understand colour science and how to use it. I am not sure why you pooh pooh the Astia expired preset – as I see it there are no rights and wrongs – not all things appeal to all people as they say. I personally get enjoyment out of creating recipes/picture styles that develop jpg in camera and using them for every day photography. Similar to the challenge say of using a prime lens to take photos – committing oneself to an in camera ‘film development’ can also be a valuable learning experience when it comes to composing images. Its all part of the enjoyment and developing a colour film style that it associated with yourself and fits your image style, just like the greats you mention in your blog above. What about a #colourfilmrecipesept challenge then 🙂

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Ian,

      I largely agree with you, and suppose that if artistic-minded people see the creative benefits of a specific technique, they’ll be happier to adopt it. After all, there’s a lot of technique in painting, even if it’s just about paint tubes and brushes.

      I’ve nothing against that preset. It’s one that I occasionally use, and tried on that photo. Here, it just looks absolutely awful. Presets are insteresting starting points. Just select a few and that gives you ideas for PP. But, they are often too “strong” for me, except in B&W, and there’s pleasure in doing stuff your own way.

      The challenge seems like a great idea!!! What exactly would you want readers to do? Pre-define a PP look and shoot exclusively with it for a while? I don’t have in-camera presets, for example, but can try to stick to a given preset from Lightroom. Would that work?


      • Ian Varkevisser says:

        Hi Pascal, Preferably an in camera preset and shooting in jpeg. Whilst a LR preset would work if the only adjustment made to it was say exposure – as one would do with in camera exposure compensation Perhaps though for a month users could experiment with a single recipe/LR or camera preset and submit some images for a blog along with details of the recipe which readers who may be interested in trying could get access to. Either by means of the say LR preset, the in camera settings used or the preset download file – as in the case of canon. Not really a challenge so much as a shared results colour science experiment. I suppose these preset files/details could be saved into something like a google docs folder with the link to it in the blog ??

  • Georg Kremer says:

    Hi Pascal. It’s difficult to compare the processes that let to images published in books by Ernst Haas and Steve McCurry. They both used Kodachrome and the images were printed using color separation techniques. What we do digitally to acheive similar looks is essentially emulation. Nothing wrong with that, nor in the workflow you outline here. Color calibration is an important tool, both for color and for monochrome conversion. Add to this workflow the optional layer of Selective Color (which has an additional black plate) and you can tweak the colors even more. A good possibility you may be able to achieve the richness of Haas or McCurry by adding Selective Color’s blacks.
    For more intensify color with better control, the tool with the most power is LAB Color. LAB separates luminosity from an A channel (tint or green-magenta) and a B channel (temperature or blue-yellow). This allows you to work with color in a different way than the color grading tool or HSL in Photoshop. You may wish to reserve time later on to give this some study as it is a more complicated topic. Dan Margulis has published an excellent book on LAB Color and its uses.
    Good luck with this project. I think you’re off to a good start.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Georg, thank you for this informative comment!

      I used to work in LAB, in Photoshop, but lost that option when switching to Lightroom. It’s nice to have the ability to alter the luminance without touching the colour, again, in the Color Grading tool. But it doesn’t offer the same level of colour contrast control, sadly.


  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    C’est compliqué!

    Well for a start, I’ve long since ceased to be blindsided by Adobe. Their products – while unquestionably very good – are far from being the only ones in the market. And back along the trail, Pascal, a hint, a word, from you has sent me off in pursuit of the Holy Graal – which, of course, I have yet to find – but the chase has been . . . let’s say . . . “interesting”.

    I’ve already flagged the fact my focus is on prints, not “projected” images like those we see on computer screens, cellphones, tablets, TVs etc.

    So immediately – for me at least – there is “tonal compression” to deal with. And it throws up challenges.

    Your experiences with Hassy will have given you access to detail in shadows and highlights that elude the poor benighted souls who are limited to FF (equivalent 35mm) or smaller digi images. Not having a technical college education in photography, most of what I know is purely based on experience. In this context, my experience has led me – for the time being at least – to the conclusion that my printer** was chewing up too much black ink, and that the prints were too dark. Nothing like the stuff you get back from commercial printing labs . . . although it hasn’t been all bad, because I rather like the colours better on my printer than from commercial labs.
    **my printer is currently an Epson P600 – I’m choosing NOT to upgrade to the more recent P706 – and I’ve no knowledge or experience of Canon printers
    **I also use Mirage, to send my photos to the printer – and connect the printer by cable, not WiFi. Getting images into LR is fiddly, so I don’t ALWAYS do it – which kind of kills the idea of using it to send images off to the printer. And the quality of the images using Mirage bangs PS over the fence! I do have technical probs using Mirage, but they’re all controllable and I’m quite used to them now anyway – besides my prime concern is image quality so these are minor issues.

    So – what to do? Well I’ve back-pedalled. Whacked around with the sliders that control light/dark, and contrast. Backed off on contrast, and increased “light” (= LESS dark). The adjustments have been quite substantial. And yet – the prints are much better. This is still a work in progress – so I’m short of “drawing conclusions” yet – but I’m impressed for the moment.

    The Impressionists told the Academy to “shove” pure blacks, and to see shadows in terms of paler or darker shades of blue, anyway, 150 years ago!

    Going forward, it will be interesting to see how this affects ink consumptions in the printer.

    Another issue that I would flag – and I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before – is “WHAT colours”?

    Snapshots will yield any old colour. They’re unplanned, casually created, and rather hit or miss. They CAN be very good. But it’s a bit like the nursery rhyme “There was a little girl, who had a little curl, hanging right down her forehead. When she was good, she was very very good, and when she was bad, she was horrid!” No sweat – we’ve all been there.

    If you are taking a “photograph”, you study your subject, you assess it from all directions – light, shade, the colour of the [available] light or the special lighting you need to introduce, the colours in the image, the focal length, the shutter speed, the aperture, the ISO rating. You might even taken exploratory shots to assist you in further planning. Come the big day, you might choose to set up on a tripod, or instead choose hand held.

    But you’re now WAY past a “snapshot”.

    And yet . . . I keep seeing colour images that – to me – are “flat” – “dull” – “uninteresting”. The composition is OK – TICK. The exposure and focus are fine – TICK, TICK. So what’s wrong? What happened to “contrast”? Well over and over and over again, I am seeing photos with NO significant amount of “contrast”. Instead, the ‘tog has relied on the colour wheel – red contrasts with green, OK? – yellow contrasts with blue, right? Well no, not necessarily. Not if they’re both equally dark (or light). You’re playing with it in digi – shove the image in your computer, turn on any half decent software program, and try looking at what your image will look like if it’s NOT in colour. “Transform” it to B&W – then stand back and examine the contrast, and the composition it throws up.

    Pascal you yourself recently drew our attention to the 9-3-1 (or was it 1-3-9?) rule they use in cine photography. And the article you referred to included images making the point. But it’s MORE so in still photography – especially in prints – because there’s no “movement” to lift the image.

    And then all of this is driving me further and further from ever giving consideration to the use of a cellphone instead of a camera. Instead I have a couple of what I think of as “point & shoot” jobs, which I employ on exploratory expeditions. And three workhorse cameras, that I use to take “photographs”. (That’s the formula anyway – bit harder, when travelling – or doing “street” or similar – but we have to start somewhere, and this “start” instills a certain “discipline” in my approach).

    That should do for openers. Let’s see what you and I stimulate in the way of responses from the rest of the group. LOL

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Pete,

      Tonal compression a major problem. Even with soft proofing, it is difficult to get around and I think that only experience gets us where we need to be. No surprise here.

      Printers. From memory, mid range Epsons were better than midrange Canons for colour but the opposite was true in b&w. At least, that was my understanding years ago, when I bought my last printer, a big Canon Pro something, dedicated to b&w. If I was to do it again, now, I’d like two smaller printers. One with Piezography inks exclusively, and another with good colour inks. But, sadly, there are no small and high quality printers in either lineups. You must always buy huge to get the best quality. I’m not falling for that again 😉

      Colour in composition is a great topic. But not one I understand as well as composition in b&w. For example, is there a colour that grabs our attention more than others? If so, it would be stronger in compositions, even in smaller splashes. I intend to read up on this and report if there is anything to report 🙂


      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        The experts tell us that the “attention grabber” colour is red. Always make sure you chuck in a splash of red. I guess it’s true, but scarcely a “rule”!

        What I find, is that – a bit like the cine 1-3-9 rule! – “less is more”. I think a lot of people jump joyfully into colour photography, without thinking much about the colours. The more the merrier! To my eye, that ends up as “clutter”.

        Printers: well my Epson P600 is more than large enough for my requirements. It has one less colour than its successor, but that doesn’t make a striking difference – certainly not enough to justify changing up. (The shop’s opinion, not mine! – despite the impact that view would have on their sales figures!).

        Next size up would have given me access to a larger size of ink tank, which is MILES less expensive than the smaller tanks on the P600. But why would I actually want or need a larger printer? Apart from ink costs, no, I don’t.

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Thanks Pascal,
    for this clear description and analysis!
    And you do show how subtle colour shifts can be very effective.
    I think I’ll archive it.

    [ Up to now I’ve mostly found the original (Fuji XF1 & Canon) colours good enough for me on my (just) “standard” screens.
    With my early DXO Photolab I experimented a little with hues but didn’t get a hang on them. Colour Calibration – as you describe it – is probably what I missed…]

    But such an article perhaps might need local versions?
    The first time (in the 70s) I travelled far south in Europe it struck me how very differently blue the sky became (and I don’t mean the occasional almost white skies in Germany), especially in the south of France.
    And I guess that a trained eye can see corresponding colour shifts on the ground?

    reminds me of some ‘net discussions on colour I’ve seen…


    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Kristian, it’s possible to exploit that “deep blue” of the sky. It depends a lot on the time of day, and choosing a different hour can give you that pale nordic blue much closer to the equator.

      Can the expert eye see that blue on the ground? Well yes – that’s the centre piece of the assault by the impressionists, on the colour code of the French Academy – blue shadows, instead of black ones. Shadows not being “an absence of [all] light” – but rather (normally anyway) “an absence of all but the blue spectrum of light”. Anywhere from a cyan tint to a purple-ish tint of blue. But of course only while the sky is in charge.

      Strong cloud cover can remove the blue. And artificial light typically replaces it with yellow.

  • Adam Bonn says:

    Hi Pascal,

    The calibration tool in LR/ACR is designed to override the native XYZ_D50 transformation that’s central to adobe’s pipeline.

    I don’t want to get too technical here (it’s mind numbingly boring) but in short (ahahaha)

    The default ‘from chip’ colours of all the cameras have no real colour space (un white balanced raw data)

    So adobe first maps from a known set of illuminants (typically StdA = tungsten and D65 = cloudy) to the camera colours

    (This mapping basically provides the WB value, eg 4000k and tint)

    These illuminants then map to D50 (midday light, flash).

    Here’s where things get a little ‘off road’…

    So in the DNG spec adobe recommend a particular way of making this transformation (Bradford), but they don’t really follow it, increasingly adobe chose to ‘water down’ the D50 transformation from a directly linear transformation (to avoid over saturation and colour clipping), then to bring the colours back up using the HSD tables and their LUTs.

    The calibration tool functions to tweak these transformations that are contained in the DCP file (eg adobe standard)

    In essence they exist to push a range of colours more blue or more yellow as part of the D50 chromatic adaptation. (A bit like the WB slider does)

    The colours are all connected, push the green slider towards green and things get less yellow, but also red gets less orangey and also brighter.

    I’m not sure that adds a lot to the article!

    The calibration tool is sometimes cited in articles with titles like ‘the four most powerful LR tools you never use’ but adobe effectively giving us the keys to the chromatic adaptation ‘car’ really helps with the ride!

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