Creative Color Temperature and Raw Processing

Excerpted by permission from the forthcoming book, "The Creative Digital Darkroom" by Katrin Eismann and Sean Duggan (O'Reilly Media), available Dec. 15.

Color is the musical score of the image, and just as the musical score changes how you feel about a movie scene, the image’s color treatment will influence or, more fittingly said, will “tint” the viewer’s emotional response. The ability to experiment with image adjustment layers and creative color interpretations is a source of inspiration for me, and it is often surprising how the subtlest color adjustment can shift the emotional impact of an image.

We’ve all made the effort to wake before sunrise to take pictures in dawn’s golden hour or skipped dinner to shoot during dusk when the light is raking across the landscape. Although Photoshop can’t change the time of day in which you shot the image, it can influence the image’s color rendition to infer moods and emotions.

Neutral is highly overrated

In most cases the goal of processing digital files is to create color-neutral and well-exposed images, but in many cases neutral is simply not the best choice for an image. Take a look at the comparison in Figure 8-33, which shows how Katrin saw, and the camera recorded, the pre-sunrise shot of the Brooklyn Bridge, and then how a raw converter set to automatic sucked all the passion out of the scene. Adding creative color interpretations during raw processing is a very subjective and emotional progression that can be a welcome break from the dogma of neutral, picture-perfect image production.


Figure 8-33. Raw conversion, set to automatic, can suck the passion from a scene.

Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop Lightroom are tremendous tools to enhance the emotional aspect of images by letting you bend the rules of reality-bound image processing to create subtle and moody images. The advantage of doing creative work in Adobe Camera Raw or Photoshop Lightroom is you can rework and reinterpret the same image many times without ever degrading the original file. Additionally, the benefit of experimenting in the raw processor is that all the controls to influence color, contrast, and exposure are close at hand, enabling you to work very fluidly as you tweak one setting and then refine another.

Working Smart with Smart Objects

Before we dive into the world of creative color, always put on your water wings or life preserver to keep your head above the raw waters. In this case, we highly recommend working with Smart Objects, which in Photoshop CS3 with Adobe Camera Raw 4 (or later) is both an easy and convenient feature that gives you access to Adobe Camera Raw controls even after the image has been brought into Photoshop.

To create a Smart Object in Photoshop CS3 from any file format that Adobe Camera Raw supports (Raw, DNG, JPEG, and TIFF), in the Camera Raw dialogue shift-click on the Open Image button to change it to the Open Object button. For the greatest flexibility and highest image quality it is best to start with either a Raw or DNG file created from a camera raw files, as they are always true high-bit files.

To create a Smart Object in Photoshop CS2, start with a new empty file and use File→Place to navigate to the desired raw file. Upon clicking the raw file, Adobe Camera Raw will open, and clicking Open will place the raw file into the Photoshop document. Tap the Enter or Return key to accept the placement, and continue as described in the following section.

At present, Photoshop Lightroom 1.2 does not support the creation of Smart Objects, which is a shame. On the other hand, all of the creative camera raw processing approaches and effects shown in this section can be created in Photoshop Lightroom.


Creative raw processing

The primary methods to approach creative color raw processing include:

• Applying technically incorrect but aesthetically appropriate false color temperature settings.
• Starting with a neutral image and adjusting the color temperature sliders.
• Using the White Balance tool on an area that is not naturally neutral.
• Exploring color interpretations with the color adjustments, split toning, and calibration sliders.
• Combining raw file interpretations to create the ideal image

Note: When experimenting with extreme creative raw processing work it is best to work with graphical images rather than images with very subtle transitions and fine detail.

Now you may be wondering, “Why would I want to interpret the image in Adobe Camera Raw or Photoshop Lightroom when I can achieve similar effects in Photoshop or Photoshop Lightroom?” For us, the advantage of doing creative work in Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom is that we have all the tone, contrast, and color controls in one palette or module, which enables us to bounce back and forth and react to the image rather than digging through endless palettes. Of course this fluidity comes with the caveat that all changes are made to the entire file, as neither Adobe Camera Raw nor Photoshop Lightroom supports selections, layer, and layer masks.

False color temperature

A straightforward method of experimenting with false color temperature is to create a large variety of image interpretations, as seen in Figure 8-34, which you can study and be inspired by.

Figure 8-34. Experimenting with “incorrect” or false white balance settings reveals unexpected and creative color interpretations. ©Katrin Eismann

1.    Open a raw file in Adobe Camera Raw, and use the White Balance pull-down menu, as circled in Figure 8-35, to select a new color temperature.


Figure 8-35. Use the White Balance pull-down menu to see a variety of color interpretations and inspirations.

2.    After the color best reflects the mood, adjust the exposure, shadow, and brightness of the image to render your vision.

3.    Shift-click the Open Image button to bring the raw file into Photoshop as a Smart Object.

4.    To experiment with multiple iterations select Layer→Smart Object→New Smart Object via Copy. Although this seems like the long way to duplicate a layer, simply dragging a Smart Object to the new layer icon creates a duplicate that references the original Smart Object camera raw settings. Making a change to this dragged copy in Camera Raw will also apply the change to the original. Please note: You can also use the Layers palette context-sensitive menu by Cmd/right-clicking the name of the Smart Object, and selecting New Smart Object via Copy.

5.    Double-clicking the layer icon will open Adobe Camera Raw, allowing you to adjust or change the white balance of the duplicated file.

6.    As the layer palette in Figure 8-36 shows, Katrin experimented with each white balance and named the layers after the White Balance setting she used. Interestingly enough, while creating the different Smart Objects, she thought that the tungsten setting was the best, but after some consideration, the fluorescent setting adds the appropriate lonely mood to the image of the tombstone. This goes to show that you have to see the modified image before jumping to conclusions.


Figure 8-36. Experimenting with the White Balance variations reveals new interpretations of the same image.

Adjusting White Balance

As Figure 8-37 proves, what the camera recorded and what Katrin perceived are very different. For greater control over the color rendition of your images try this method that starts with a neutral image and then interprets it by shifting the white balance in Adobe Camera Raw or Photoshop Lightroom.


Figure 8-37. Photographed in a November afternoon and reorchestrated with creative color to better render the original perceptions.  ©Katrin Eismann

1.    Use the White Balance tool and click the part of the image that should be neutral, such as white or gray studio backdrops, white or light clothing, eye whites or teeth, concrete, gray rocks, or the second white square of a known reference such as a Macbeth Color Checker. In this example, clicking the white leg, as seen in Figure 8-38, neutralizes the image.

Figure 8-38. Neutralizing an image creates a fresh palette for color interpretation.

2.    Adjust the color temperature and tint sliders to create the color you desire. The Temperature slider controls the blue (left) to yellow (right) hues, and the Tint slider is responsible for the green (left) to red (right) tints, as shown in Figure 8-39. There is no right or wrong color shift, as this all depends on your goals and creative expectations.

Figure 8-39. Adjusting the Temperature and Tint sliders establishes the overall color palette.

3.    After the color best reflects the mood you want, adjust the exposure, shadow, and brightness of the image (Figure 8-40) to push the sunny afternoon walk into the darker evening hours.

4.    Increasing the Clarity slider to 30 adds a contrast boost just to the midtones, which helps to separate and define the figure very nicely.

Figure 8-40. Darkening the image enhances the moodiness of the scene.

5.    Click the Lens tab to darken the image edges by taking the Vignette slider all the way to the left and moving the Midpoint to the left to increase the vignette effect.

6.    Refine the image with the HSL/Grayscale controls, as you can see in Figure 8-41 and 8-42, to define the exact shade, saturation, and luminance of blue to best portray the dusky evening mood.

Figure 8-41. Adjusting the Lens Vignetting to darken the edges of the image creates an intriguing tunnel effect.


Figure 8-42. Adjusting the hue, saturation, and luminance of the blues and purples allows the wooded background to recede and the figure to become more prominent.


The not-neutral white balance

The following technique works especially well in Photoshop Lightroom as it takes advantage of the White Balance tool and the Navigator window to explore and preview white balance interpretations to create the image seen in Figure 8-43. You can create similar results in Adobe Camera Raw but it requires a few more mouse clicks.


Figure 8-43. Photographed on a drab gray day, creative raw processing produces a completely different scene.  ©Katrin Eismann

1.    Use the White Balance tool and place it on a part of the image that should not be neutral such as green leaves, red rocks, colorful clothing, or any of the colored squares of the Macbeth Color Checker. In Figure 8-44, Katrin discovered that white balancing a darker area under the figure’s arm created a very nice blue wash, as seen in the Lightroom Navigator window.

Figure 8-44. Moving the White Balance tool across the image without clicking updates the Navigator window.

2.    When you see a color rendition that you like in the Navigator window, click the mouse, and that white balance will be applied to your image (Figure 8-45).


Figure 8-45. Clicking with the White Balance tool on areas that are not neutral skews the color rendition beautifully.

3.    In both Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop Lightroom clicking different image areas will apply a new white balance to your image.

4.    Adjust the exposure and vignetting controls to create the image in your mind’s eye. In this example, Katrin refined the exposure, vignetting, and color rendition by adjusting the blues and desaturating the orange leaves to place more emphasis on the stone figure, as seen in Lightroom’s split before/after view shown in Figure 8-46.

Figure 8-46. Viewing the image in the before/after split enables you to compare your progress with the original.

Variations on one image

When evaluating prints in the traditional darkroom it was easier to compare the present print with the previous print to judge the progress of changes in exposure or color filtration. In Photoshop you can compare versions by using Cmd/Ctrl-Z or by making a history snapshot of the newest version to compare progress with previous snapshots. Take advantage of Photoshop Lightroom’s Virtual Copies and Survey View to view and review processing variations in Lightroom.

1.    In the Library module, click an image and select Photo→Create Virtual Copy or Ctrl/right mouse click and choose Create Virtual Copy, as seen in Figure 8-47. The Virtual Copy references the original image and does not create an actual copy, which could quickly fill your hard drive with redundant files.


Figure 8-47. Creating a virtual copy.

2.    A bent lower-left corner and a number in the upper-left corner that shows which copy it is (as seen in Figure 8-48) signifies the virtual copy. Many times, Katrin will create two to three virtual copies to process one realistically, one creatively, and one as a black-and-white image.

Figure 8-48. The virtual copy behaves exactly like the original file and is signified with the bent corner and a number.

3.    Working with a virtual copy is identical to working with the original file. All the Photoshop Lightroom tools, filters, and commands work the same way, except that in Lightroom 1.0 you cannot add a Virtual Copy to a collection.

4.    After adjusting the individual virtual copies, return to the Library module to compare the processing variations by selecting them and pressing the N key, or by clicking the Survey View button to compare them, as seen in Figure 8-49.

Figure 8-49. Comparing the original with a blue version with a split toned version shows creative progression and encourages additional experimentation.  ©Katrin Eismann

Our visual system is very good at comparing images and less good at evaluating a single image. Using the Lightroom virtual copies feature is a fantastic tool to experiment and learn without creating endless duplicates of high-resolution files.


It’s a Colorful World

No magic recipe, secret sauce, “make good” command, or perfect picture setting exists that would work on every image. Enhancing color is a very subjective endeavor that involves some trial and error to learn what works best for your images. Start with the basic warming and cooling techniques, and then move on to working with blend modes and layer masks to make your images sing out in full color revelry. Paul Gauguin said it best, “It is the eye of ignorance that assigns a fixed and unchangeable color to every object—beware of this stumbling block.”

Katrin Eismann, is the author of "Photoshop Restoration & Retouching" and "Photoshop Masking & Compositing" and co-author of "Real World Digital Photography" and "The Creative Digital Darkroom." Eismann is the co-founder and is presently the Chair of the MPS in Digital Photography department at the School of Visual Arts in NYC.


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Comments (3)

joe korona:

Great INFO !! Love it!! Keep it coming. Thanks for the creative inspiration.

Regards, Joe


WOW. Can't believe only 1 comment. This is great. The only thing I don't understand is that this sort of flies in the face of the previous article by Sara Frances who says you really have to get the WB right at the beginning. I guess this is more an interpretive kind of thing described here. The expodisc gives me a neutral balance and at least I know I'm in the ballpark. This way in post I know I don't have too far to go. But for nature type images and some theater with colored gels, I've really gotten into doing some wild things with temperature.

Paul, I think you've got the gist of it. There are shoots when you want to get the WB just right, right in the camera. Then there are times when you can get creative with it. Enjoy the inspiration.


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