Lightroom Brings Movie-Style Color Tools To Your Photos

Add mood to your photos like a Hollywood pro

Key Takeaways

  • Lightroom’s new color-grading tool replaces the old split-toning tool.
  • Now you can also control the color and brightness of mid-tones. 
  • A blending slider makes it easy to go from subtle to crazy.
Color grading features in Adobe Lightroom.

Did you ever notice how a movie has a particular look you can’t quite pin down? That’s 'color grading,' and it is now available for anyone to use on their pictures in Adobe’s professional photo-editing app, Lightroom.

Color grading lets you apply subtle (or not-so-subtle) tints to the highlights, mid-tones, and shadows in your photos. This lets you shift the mood of a photo, but also lets you go crazy with some colors, while preserving others. 

"A great example would be a portrait of a person," photographer and Lightroom teacher Matt Kloskowski told Lifewire via email. "Not only can we tint the shadows and highlights, but we can also tint the mid tones which are such an important part of a portrait (or any) photo."

History of Tinting

Ever since we’ve been able to take photos, we have tinted them. You’ll be familiar with sepia-toned images, where black and white images are given a brownish tint that looks—to our eyes—old. Or selenium toning, which ranges from red-brown to purple-brown.

But these processes weren’t all designed to change a photograph’s colors. In fact, the color shifts were a side effect. Most toning was done to improve the longevity of a print, by chemically stabilizing volatile ingredients. 

In the digital world, we have a tool called split-toning to mimic these effects. You can, say, a cold tone to the shadows and a warm tone to the highlights of your photos. But movie makers have long enjoyed a more powerful tool, called color-grading. Here’s Adobe’s lead Adobe engineer on color grading, Max Wendt, on the difference.

"If you’ve never used Split Toning or Color Grading, here’s the idea: you can apply a color tint to your image based on the brightness of the pixels: Lighter pixels can be tinted differently from darker ones. With Color Grading, you can also control your mid tones."

Light And Color

Lightroom’s color-grading panel is pretty intuitive, and it’s available in both the desktop and mobile versions of the app. I like it on the iPad because a) the iPad’s screen is great, and really shows off the colors, and b) using a finger or Apple Pencil to control the wheels feels much more interactive.

The panel has three color wheels, one each for shadows, mid-tones, and highlights. To use the tool, just pick a color on the wheel, and then adjust the other sliders to fine-tune your edits. Adobe has a detailed blog-post for how this all works, and how to use each slider.

From Split Toning to Color Grading.

"We also have new Luminance and blending adjustments," says Kloskowski, "which let us adjust even more than just the actual color saturation, but how bright/dark each area is as well as how strongly they blend together."

The results are fantastic. Or they can be, if you don’t go too crazy. With B&W images, shifting the hue of the whole image can look great, making the picture look almost like an illustration.

"A great example would be a portrait of a person," says Kloskowski. "Not only can we tint the shadows and highlights, but we can also tint the mid-tones which are such an important part of a portrait."

This lets you introduce subtle tints into the shadows and highlights of a portrait, while keeping the mid-tones (where skin is, unless the subject is very dark or very pale). You can also seamlessly blend between the three for extremely subtle gradations. 

This may seem like an esoteric tool to add to a photo editor, but in practice it makes working with color a lot easier. You can do all your corrections in the other sections of Lightroom, and then come to the grading section to get creative. From small, almost imperceptible changes of mood to crazy, multi-hued experiments, you can do it all in one spot. That means it will soon become second-nature to give your photos a touch of movie magic.

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