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Basic Color Enhancements in Photoshop without Expensive Actions

April 1st, 2011  |  Published in Featured, Shoot  |  3 Comments


With all of the actions and presets that are commercially available, it would be easy to spend hundreds (if not thousands!) of dollars on a quest for the perfect post processing solution.  However, many photographers find that they tire of their actions after a short period of time or (even worse!) that their work starts to look less like THEIR work and more like someone else’s.  Don’t get me wrong- I’m not slamming commercial actions at all (and in fact I would even characterize myself as an action junkie of sorts), but I do use them sparingly and often at low opacities.  I want my work to look like my own, I want a consistent style (most of the time) and I want complete control over my output.

I like bright, colorful photographs.  I like my colors to pop, but not artificially so.  I want the colors to look like I remember them.  Because I see bright colors all over the world, that is generally how I remember things- bright and colorful.  As a result, I find myself really punching my colors to get the output to match the colors that I remember.  Here is a quick step-by-step detailing one of the ways that I work with colors.   For this example I am going to use a quick family/self-portrait that I took of my family the other day.

1) The original file. I download my RAW files to my computer and run them through Lightroom.  If I am going to work on the photograph in Photoshop, then I leave it quite flat.  I don’t really do a lot of color and contrast enhancements in Lightroom because I like to use layer masks, the opacity slider, and brushes to change the effect in different areas of the photograph.  Most of the time I use Lightroom for color and white balance corrections and leave the rest untouched.  So, here is the original as it was run through Lightroom:


2) Dodge and Burn. If you have any action sets at all, it is likely that you have a dodge and burn action in there somewhere.  I recommend using curves to dodge and burn rather than the official dodge and burn tool in Photoshop because the latter can shift your colors.  I’m not going to go into the step by step process to create your own Dodge/Burn action since most people do own actions to lighten and darken different areas of an image, but if you would like to hear about that in a future post just shoot us an email and we will make that happen.  As you can see in this next step, very little changes.  I have lightened the skin in a few areas, but otherwise I have left the image alone.


3) Vibrance/Saturation Layer. If you open the Layers palette in Photoshop CS5, you will see a circle that is half white/half black at the bottom of the palette.  Click on that, and then select Vibrance/Saturation.  Generally I will make the greater part of the adjustment with the Vibrance slider.  What is the difference?  The easy explanation is that Vibrance is a non-linear adjustment while Saturation is a linear adjustment.  What does this mean?  The Vibrance slider will enhance the colors that are duller in the picture to a greater degree while the Saturation slider enhances everything equally.  Therefore, my larger move will occur with the Vibrance slider while I change the Saturation slider sparingly.  The great things about this method is that it creates a layer mask for you, so if you have an area of the image that looks strange and seriously overprocessed (whatever your version of overprocessed is), you can simply paint the effect out of the image.


4) Brightness/Contrast Layer. Once again, I will venture to the Layers palette.  Make sure you are on the background layer and then click the Fill/Adjustment Layer (black/white circle) again and select Brightness/Contrast.  I generally give the image a bit of a contrast boost in this step, and then I paint the effect out of some of the shadow areas in my layer mask.


5) Curves Layer. I create a new Fill/Adjustment Layer and select Curves.  This time I create a bit of an S curve so that the lighter areas are brightened and the darker areas are darkened with another contrast boost.  Once again, I will paint the effect out of some of the shadow details as well as many of the skin tones.


6) Texture/Overlay.  Finally, I will determine whether the image could benefit from a texture/overlay.  In many cases, a subtle texture applied judiciously can boost the colors of your image.  In this case, I selected a texture I shot several years ago (it is a shot of a rusty sheet of metal that is red/orange) and pulled it onto the image.  I selected Soft Light as my layer blending mode, lowered the opacity of the layer, and then created a mask and painted it out of the skin.

Because I leave all of my layers open until the end, once I get to the “final” image I can go back and tweak the opacity of each layer if there is something about the image that bothers me.  In this final image I have painted the colors out of the skin to give a more natural skin tone.  This is only one technique for enhancing your colors in Photoshop without actions, but it is definitely one of my favorites!

Post by Maine Wedding Photographer Michelle Turner.




About Michelle Turner

Michelle Turner has written 19 post in this blog.

Michelle is a professional wedding photographer who splits time between Maine and Puerto Vallarta.



  1. monica says:

    April 6th, 2011 at 8:25 pm (#)

    Amazing as always!!

  2. Admin says:

    April 6th, 2011 at 8:28 pm (#)

    Thanks Monica!

  3. Carlita says:

    May 5th, 2011 at 10:43 pm (#)

    Thanks for putting this up! I get sick of all the “just use my actions” tutorials. I hate to buy someone else’s actions when I know I can do it myself!

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