Making Colors Pop in Photoshop

Intro | Multi-RAW Processing | Creating HDR Images by Hand [Part I] | Creating HDR Images by Hand [Part II] | Sharpening in LAB Color | Converting to Black and White | Using LAB Color Adjustments | Inverting Backgrounds with LAB | Intro to Compositing | HDR in Adobe Photoshop CS5 | Using Image Apply Image | Aging Photos Roundup | Making Colors Pop in Photoshop

Intro Image: These diminutive Sea Palms (a kind of kelp) were very attractive, but to get a great image from this composite photo I needed to make the colors pop using some of the techniques described in this article.

Colors, how can I make thee pop? Let me count the ways. If there is one thing that Photoshop is great at, it is color enhancement. You can enhance colors to make them pop globally—for an entire image—or locally, for selective portions of an image. In either case, there are many great ways of going about color enhancement.

This article surveys some of my favorite techniques for making colors pop in Photoshop. Please bear in mind that the techniques described could be covered at greater length than is possible in a single column. I’ve tried to give you the gist of each way of going about enhancing color with enough information so that you can apply the technique to your own photos, and so that you can understand which techniques to use in particular situations—but I make no pretense to exhaustive coverage of all of the possible techniques for enhancing color in Photoshop. Enhancing color in Photoshop is a large topic that could well be the subject of a book—speaking of which, if color in Photoshop interests you, you might want to take a look at my books The Photoshop Darkroom: Creative Digital Post-Processing (Focal Press) and The Photoshop Darkroom 2: Creative Digital Transformations (Focal Press, due in early 2011).

In this article I’ll show you some ideas about using the RAW conversion process to make colors pop, how to get the best out of Curves and Levels adjustments, how to make selective color adjustments, and some of the eye-popping color enhancements possible in the LAB color space. Note that some important color adjustment tools—such as the Hue/Saturation, Vibrance, Channel Mixer and Photo Filters adjustments—are left for a future column.

If you are wondering about the organizing principle behind this colorful magical mystery tour, it is pretty simple. Roughly speaking, this article is ordered in terms of my digital post-processing workflow. In other words, you are likely to want to perform color enhancements and adjustments in the order they are explained in this column—not always, but often enough for this to make sense as an organizational scheme. The RAW conversion techniques obviously come first, but to some degree it is your choice what order you want to apply the other color enhancements in. Also, in some cases you do have to choose one technique or the other. For example, applying an overall Levels adjustment in RGB has much the same impact as a Curves adjustment to the Lightness channel in LAB (although the LAB adjustment is more powerful). You are unlikely to want to apply both adjustments to the same image.

Note my use of the word “enhancements.” It’s more typical to label color moves “corrections.” But my bias in this article (and in life) is not to be concerned about correcting to match some supposed norm—but rather to change my digital files so that they are the best they can be. I want my images to be larger and better than life!

But here a word of warning applies: Enhancement is only an enhancement if it is so in the eye of the creator and beholder. It’s up to you to use your good visual judgment and not go too far with the techniques I’ll show you—and it is easy to go too far with some of these powerful color techniques, make no mistake!

So fasten your seatbelt! This is going to be one wild, bumpy, and colorful ride!

Color Enhancement and RAW Conversion

In a previous column on Multi-RAW Processing, I showed you how to process the same RAW image several times to adjust different parts of the image with different exposure values. It’s just as possible to multi-process an image for several different color values—for example, if you want to bump the saturation in one area but not another, or if you want to make one area of a photo more blue while at the same time increasing the “yellow-ness” in another area.

Before I show you exactly how to do this, a couple of digressions. First, I’ll show you how to multi-RAW process for color using Adobe Camera RAW (ACR). As you may know, ACR and Adobe Lightroom use the same processing engine for RAW files. Exactly the same results can be achieved using Lightroom if you prefer—by exporting the Lightroom processed versions into Photoshop as layers.

Here’s the other digression. To make the colors in an image appear to pop—or to make certain selected color areas appear brighter—is to some degree an issue of understanding color and color theory as taught in some art school painting curricula. No color move exists in a vacuum, and colors will only appear bright in contrast to their surroundings. Furthermore, as the Impressionist painters knew well, complementary pairings of color make each color in the pair appear brighter—with blue contrasted to yellow and red contrasted with green being the two primary complementary color pairings.

I laid down on my back in a gutter in a narrow alley in downtown Havana, Cuba, positioning myself so I could create the image shown in final state in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Looking up from a narrow alley in Havana, Cuba, the sky and buildings form the pattern of a cross.

Back in my studio, looking at the Cuban capture in Adobe Bridge (Figure 3), I could see that along with exposure adjustments, I wanted to alter the colors so that the sky would appear more blue and the buildings more yellow. The contrast between the complementary colors blue and yellow would make the “cross” appear to pop out from the background buildings.

Figure 3: Along with exposure adjustments, I wanted to make the sky bluer and the buildings yellower for an eye-popping complementary color contrast.

As I’ve noted, I won’t discuss exposure adjustments—but obviously the RAW image shown in Figure 3 is too dark overall. This is because I shot the image on the dark side to avoid blow out in the sky, knowing I could rescue the dark regions in RAW conversion.

In any case, our concern here is to make the color pop. Opening the image in ACR, by default you’ll see the As Shot color settings (Figure 4).

Figure 4: The As Shot color settings in ACR.

It’s easy to make the overall image bluer—in the White Balance section of the default ACR tab, move the Temperature slider to the left as shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5: To make the sky bluer, move the Temperature sliders to the left.

By the way, if you know the Kelvin scale of color temperature, you may wonder why lowering the color temperature makes the photo more blue because Blue actually has a higher temperature in degrees Kelvin than yellow (or red). Adobe explains it this way: “Decrease Temperature to correct a photo taken with a lower color temperature of light; the Camera Raw plug-in makes the image colors bluer to compensate for the lower color temperature (yellowish) of the ambient light. Conversely, increase Temperature to correct a photo taken with a higher color temperature of light; the image colors become warmer (yellowish) to compensate for the higher color temperature (bluish) of the ambient light.”

In other words, you are supposedly applying the opposite of the color temperature that was present when you took the photo as a correction. However, as I’ve noted, I don’t regard this kind of adjustment as a correction. I think of it as artistic license to create the best possible image, and I rather wish Adobe hadn’t chosen to use the confusing terminology of absolute Kelvin to something that turns out to be a relative adjustment.

Going in the opposite direction from turning the sky blue, it’s just as easy to manipulate the image to make the buildings more yellow by moving the Temperature slider to the right (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Increasing the color temperature to make the buildings yellow.

The blue version of the image and the yellow version can each be opened as a copy in Photoshop. To do this, hold down the Alt key before clicking the Open button in ACR.

Once both versions have been opened in Photoshop, they are combined as layers. See my column on Multi-RAW Processing for the details of the process. A layer mask, such as the one shown in Figure 7, is used to show the blue version for the sky and the yellow version for the buildings. Logically enough, this layer mask itself is in the shape of the cross that underlies the composition. Incidentally, you’ll find information about how to work with layers and masking in my article Introduction to Compositing.

Figure 7: The layer mask used to combine the yellow and blue conversions, shown as an Alpha channel.

This example showed how to manipulate blues and yellows to create an eye-popping contrast in colors. You should also know that there is another color axis that you can easily manipulate in ACR, namely the spectrum from green to magenta. To control color along this axis, move the Tint slider (shown in Figure 8) in either direction.

Figure 8: The Temperature slider controls the color along the blue-yellow axis, and the Tint slider allows you to adjust color along the green-magenta axis.

Although I most often use the default tab color adjustments in my ACR conversion process, you should know that there are several other tabs in ACR that can be used for color effects.

The ACR HSL/Grayscale tab, shown in Figure 9, can be used to change Hue and/or Saturation of specific colors.

Figure 9: In ACR, the HSL/Grayscale tab allows you to boost Hue and Saturation of specific colors.

Split toning, an effect most often thought of in black and white, can be used to change overall Hue and Saturation in either Highlights or Shadows (or both) as shown in Figure 10. Note that this adjustment is overall, meaning that you cannot apply the effect on the Split Toning tab to individual colors, but only as an overall adjustment.

Figure 10: The ACR Split Toning tab allows you to apply Hue and Saturation adjustments separately to Highlights and Shadow areas in an image.


One of the most powerful adjustment tools available in Photoshop is the Curves adjustment. You can use Curves to tweak an image where the overall color just needs a bit of a boost. For example, the photo of Dahlias and Echinaceas is shown in Figure 11 opened in Photoshop using the default As Shot settings in ACR. This image is already pretty colorful, and the application of a simple Curves adjustment will fully bring out the beautiful color of these flowers.

Figure 11: Dahlias and Echinaceas opened in Photoshop with default As Shot settings.

To apply a Curves adjustment, open the Adjustments palette (shown in Figure 12). I like to duplicate my background layer before applying an adjustment layer, but this step is completely optional. Applying the adjustment to a duplicate layer gives me the flexibility later on to take down the opacity of the effect, or to only apply it to selective portions of the image—but, as I said, you don’t have to take this extra step.

Figure 12: The Adjustments Palette, with the Curves adjustment icon shown top row, third from left.

The Histogram shown on the Curves adjustment window, shown in Figure 13, represents a distribution of values in the photo. There are a number of approaches you can take when the Curves adjustment window is open. Clicking the Auto button often gives you a pretty good starting place. You can also try selecting a preset curve value from the drop-down list at the top of the window.

Moving points on the curve changes the light and dark values in the image with all the color channels (e.g., RGB) selected for the adjustment. As I always say, Photoshop is a visual program, so why not experiment and try some settings to see the impact?

Figure 13: Applying a Curve adjustment to the photo.

It’s important to understand that you can also apply a curves adjustment to a single color channel, such as R, G, or B in the RGB space to tweak color values with an image.

Figure 14 shows the final version of the image following the application of a couple of Curves adjustments.

Figure 14: The final Dahlias and Echinaceas image


If you have a photo that needs a quick boost of confidence—er, contrast—to make the colors in the image really seem to pop, a Levels adjustment is a great tool for quickly achieving the desired result.

For example, the color in my studio shot of two models wearing metallic paint—and nothing else—shown in Figure 15 isn’t bad—but could use a bit more pizzazz.

Figure 15: This photo of models with metallic body paint needs to be livened up a bit so the colors are more interesting.

The Levels adjustment can be found second from the left on the top row of the Adjustment palette. A typical Levels adjustment is to pull in the black point slider (the little black arrow on the left of the histogram) and the white point slider (the little white arrow on the right of the histogram) to increase the contrast of image as shown in Figure 16. With the blacks and whites pulled in, you can play with the slider in the middle, which adjusts midtones, to get things just right.

Note that the Auto button or Levels presets may give you a good starting place. Also, if you are uncomfortable pulling in black and white points by eye, you can use the eye dropper tools that are available in the Adjustments Palette to sample the darkest and lightest points in the image. Like the Curves adjustment, Levels can be applied to all channels or to a single channel within an image.

Figure 16: This is a pretty typical levels adjustment, almost guaranteed to increase contrast and improve color rendition.

Selective Color

Adjusting the levels of lights and darks in the photo of the Silver and Gold models went a long way to improving the image, but there was still some more work that it needed. For one thing, one of the models was wearing a Band-Aid under the paint on one of her fingers, and I needed to retouch it out. If you look closely, you can see this Band-Aid in the un-retouched version of the photo shown in Figure 15.

Also, I wanted to make the color in the fingernails more pronounced. This is the perfect context for a Selective Color adjustment.

My first step was to use a rough and ready selection tool (the Lasso) to select the particular finger nail I wanted to change, as you can see in Figure 17. By the way, if I had wanted to do all the finger nails at once for consistency of my color enhancement, it would have been easy to multi-select all the nails using any of a number of selection tools available in Photoshop.

Figure 17: The fingernail has been roughly selected using the Lasso tool.

Next, I chose Selective Color from the Image > Adjustments menu (note that this could have been applied as an adjustment layer rather than a straight adjustment if I had preferred).

The Selective Color window is shown in Figure 18.

Figure 18: A selective color adjustment can be used to amplify the color of specific areas in a photo.

Since the nail was selected, the Selective Color adjustment was only applied to the selected area, not to the image as a whole. Certainly, one can be careful about selections so the outline of colors that will change is precise. Alternatively, you can apply the Selective Color adjustment to a duplicate layer, and mask out anything you don’t want.

It’s not intuitive, but I find that Selective Color works best when you apply it to “Neutral” colors rather than the color you want to change such as “Reds”—probably because the red colors are already red and therefore cannot be made that much more red. If adjusting Neutral colors doesn’t give you the hit of color you are looking for you might also want to try applying the Selective Color adjustment to “Whites” and “Blacks.”

I also find it works better to use Absolute rather than Relative adjustments (the Relative method is the default; this setting is changed at the bottom of the Selective Color window).

In Figure 18, an absolute increase in Magenta and Yellow increases the red in the selected area.

Figure 19 shows the completed image following retouching, a Levels adjustment, and a Selective Color adjustment applied selectively to the fingernails.

Figure 19: The final image of the models with silver and gold body paint.

LAB Color

LAB color is an alternative color space to RGB and CMYK—and one that is very useful for manipulating colors, and for making the colors in images pop. I use some LAB color adjustments a great deal of the time to add punch when I post-process my photos. One of the best things about using LAB is that color “moves” can look very natural—although adjustments in LAB have a big impact. So, as with any Photoshop color shift, I find that I need to use some restraint.

To learn more about LAB color, see my previous columns Sharpening in LAB Color (covers the basic concepts of LAB) and Using LAB Color Adjustments (shows you some examples of creative use of color in LAB).

For example, when I reviewed the image of a poppy I shot showing primarily magenta flowers, green stems and flower core, as well as a green poppy pod (Figure 21), I liked the color, but I wanted to amplify the contrast betweens greens and magentas in the image. I knew that this would be easy to accomplish in LAB.

Figure 20: The color in this poppy isn’t bad, shown here using the As Shot defaults, but I wanted to accentuate the difference between the green and magenta in the flower.

To adjust the image to clarify the color range, and make the contrast between greens and magentas more distinct, I converted the image to LAB by choosing Image > Mode > LAB Color. Next, I chose Image > Adjustments > Curves to open the Curves dialog, shown in Figure 21.

Figure 21: Making the Channel A curve steeper increases the contrast between greens and magentas.

I knew that my primary concern was the LAB A channel, because this channel controls a color opponent range from green to magenta—exactly what I needed to adjust. To increase the contrast in greens and magentas I simply made the A-channel curve steeper, by moving the handles at the ends of the curve closer into the center, as shown in Figure 21.

The final image following adjustments is shown in Figure 22.

Figure 22: The finished poppy image.


Photoshop is a playground for people who love color. There are many ways you can use Photoshop to make your photos pop and sing, so I suggest experimenting and trying different approaches. Not only is Photoshop largely about color, it’s also a visual development environment—so the best way to find out if an approach works is to try it and see what happens.

In this article I’ve shown you some of my favorite ways of adjusting color in Photoshop. These techniques include:

  • Using Photoshop layers to combine ACR copies of an image with a variety of color (white balance and tint) settings
  • Applying the Curves adjustment in RGB to modify and enhance color
  • Working with Levels adjustments to improve the attractiveness of color in an image
  • Using Selective Color to radically change the color in selected regions
  • Making the LAB A-channel curve steeper to create greater contrast between greens and magentas in an image.

Other Photoshop Tutorials

Creativity in the Photoshop Darkroom by Harold Davis: Multi-RAW Processing | Creating HDR Images by Hand [Part I] | Creating HDR Images by Hand [Part II] | Sharpening in LAB Color | Converting to Black and White | Using LAB Color Adjustments | Inverting Backgrounds with LAB | Intro to Compositing | HDR in Adobe Photoshop CS5 | Using Image Apply Image | Aging Photos Roundup

Advanced Photoshop Tutorials by Jay Kinghorn: Layer Masks | Smart Objects | Advanced Masking | Image Sharpening | Burning and Dodging


Harold Davis is a photographer and author. His photographs have been widely published, exhibited, and collected. Many of his fine art photography posters are well known. Harold’s images have won a Silver Award in the International Aperture Awards 2008 competition, and inclusion in the 2009 North American Nature Photography Association Expressions Showcase.

Harold is the author of The Photoshop Darkroom: Creative Digital Post-Processing (Focal), Creative Composition: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Night: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Close-Ups: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Practical Artistry: Light & Exposure for Digital Photographers (O’Reilly Digital Media) and other books. Harold gives frequent digital photography workshops, many under the auspices of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association.

Text and photos ©2010 Harold Davis.

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    • Harold,

      Thanks for all the great info.

      I have Elements 6, with which I am still at the begining stages of learning (I tend to spend MUCH more time outside with my camera).

      Can these techniques apply to Elements 6 also ?

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    • A very good presentation. Thank you for taking the time

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    • Great job you've done here !!!

      Thanks ...

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    • Great... Thank allot

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    • Hi Folks,

      By any chance, do you know how to get Agfa Portrait 160 film "fake" effect digitally in Photoshop or Lightroom?

      Here are the effects that I am looking for:


      Any help to find the filter name or the action set would be very very appreciated,


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