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  • Photoshop Tutorial: Selective Color (i.e. THE BOMB)

    2011 - 01.29

    Photoshop tutorial number three dishes the dirt about my personal favorite adjustment in Photoshop: selective color! This is a completely radical function that often gets overlooked.

    When you have a photo that just seems kinda blah, the first instinct is, “beef up the color!” And yes, it’s not a bad idea. But there are a hundred different ways of going about it, some of them certainly better than others. Let’s start with the worst: saturation. Cranking up the saturation indiscriminately makes every pixel in your image more of a pure color. A boring red becomes bright red. What separates secret sauce from lame sauce here though, is that saturation will leave you with blown-out colors. There’s no subtlety and you start losing detail.  As an example, I’ve got a lousy photo here, with some dude doing a dirtbike jump.  At least this lousy photo does feature motocross, I guess that’s cool.  Have a look at the oversaturated image: the tree at left is RED, the grass still really isn’t green, and the sky looks a little fake.

    A bit more refined than the saturation is the vibrance control in Photoshop. I think they basically put this in because they couldn’t stand people cranking on the saturation any longer. Adobe said, okay, if you really can’t be bothered to figure out how to properly adjust your colors, and you want to juice things up using only one slider–use this one. It’s basically a saturation control that only affects dull colors. So now, instead of blowing out your already blue sky into something totally unrealistic, you boost up your boring colors into something more interesting, and leave the ones that were already cool alone. Ahh, that’s better already.

    But vibrance is still a blunt instrument. We need something with a delicate touch to really make our colors look great but not fake. Enter selective color.

    Selective color, as the name implies, lets you individually edit colors. Is the grass in your photos just not bright enough? Edit the green! Is your sky sort of pale? Edit just the blues! Not only can you tweak the colors of your photo one at a time, you can change their hues as well. Selective color is like a hue/saturation/brightness control for each individual color. And it’s the secret sauce when it comes to beefing up ALL your colors in a controllable way that won’t leave you with some colors blown out and others still muted.

    I originally started using selective color as a means to correct skin colors. To my eye, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a digital camera that correctly renders human skin tones. Which is kind of surprising, considering the popularity of people as a subject for photographs! It seems to me that skin is *always* too reddish, often pale looking with too much magenta in it. Not flattering. So what I like to do is select “Red” for my color, and then adjust the three sliders for Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow. You’ll get decent results if you drop down the cyan just a skoch, reduce the magenta about a quarter, and boost the yellow very slightly. Just about anyone’s skin color will now look better after that one step. As I did this to photo after photo, I started to realize how powerful and subtle of a tool selective color can be!  Allow me to demonstrate on John Medeski.  In the middle of a melodica solo:

    What you’re doing is adjusting the hue of the reds, making them more yellow.  As you probably noticed, changing the “Red” color composition affects anything red anywhere in the image, not just a person’s skin. (Like the Nord Electro keyboard in the image above. If there are certain areas that need a lot of correction and others that should be left alone, use feathered selections around your critical areas.) You may recognize the fact that Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow (Black is just all three put together), are the three primary colors for printing or painting. In other words if you have these three colors of ink, you can make any color imaginable. For example, yellow and cyan make green. Cyan and magenta make blue. Etcetera.

    See where this is going? You can use selective color for way more than just correcting facial tones. And you can use it to make each color more of a “pure” color, with very fine control. To make a nice deep blue with ink, we’d combine cyan and magenta. No yellow. So to intensify your sky, turn the yellow slider way down, and start boosting the cyan, and to a lesser extent, the magenta. Viola! Deep blue skies, with every other color in your image unaffected! It’s science.

    The same idea applies to every other color. To make green with inks, we’d combine about equal parts cyan and yellow, with no magenta. So select “Green” in selective color, and drop the Magenta slider way down. BAM. Your greens just got a lot greener, without oversaturating them or messing up the delicate balance you just achieved with the blues.  To illustrate what I mean, I went overboard in the screenshot below to show how much you can change a single color.  The green grass is ridiculously green, while the sky–perfectly boring blue.  (full disclosure: the “yellows” have similar settings here to the greens, otherwise everything is neutral.  Yellow and green tend to be inter-related)

    Maybe at this point I will interject the nuance that you can either be additive with this process or subtractive. I prefer to be mostly subtractive, because I think it avoids oversaturating the picture. That is to say, most of my sliders are below 0, and only a few go above it. If you go crazy on the positive end of the sliders, you can make just as obnoxious of a result with selective color as you would get by cranking the saturation like a rookie would. This is what we’re trying to avoid.

    And I’ll add the usual caveats: don’t overdo it. Make sure your image still looks “real”. Check and uncheck the preview box now and then to keep yourself under control. It’s easy to get carried away. When I first discovered how to use “compression” doing audio mixing, I went nuts and compressed the daylights out of everything. At the time I thought it sounded awesome and “thick”. Now, looking back at some of the mastering I did shortly after discovering this powerful new tool, it seems way overdone and amateurish.

    Subtlety. Is key.

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