Color Correction with the Curves Eyedropper in Photoshop

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A Guest post by Phil Steele from SteeleTraining.com

The Curves Eyedropper technique provides a fast way to simultaneously correct color and fix exposure problems in your photo all at once. That’s a lot of benefit for just a few clicks.

Here’s how it works.

1. Open a photo that you think needs correcting. Our example photo suffers from a blue-green color cast, and it is also a bit “washed out” i.e., lacking contrast.

correction_1.jpg

2. Create a Curves Adjustment Layer by clicking on the Adjustment Layer icon in the Layers Palette, and then choosing Curves from the drop-down menu.

correction_2.jpg

3. Near the bottom of the Curves Dialog, you will see a row of three eyedroppers. From left to right they are used to set the Black Point, the Gray Point, and the White Point.

correction_3.jpg

4. Ideally you should set specific color values for each of these droppers (although you can skip this step and try it with the default values if you like). Double-click on the Black dropper to open its settings, and in the R,G,B values enter 20, 20, 20. For the Gray dropper: 128, 128, 128. For the white dropper: 240, 240, 240.

correction_4.jpg

Now we will simply click once in the image with each of the three droppers to correct color and contrast all at once!

5. Click on the black dropper to select it. Your cursor now looks like the dropper. Click the dropper once in the darkest part of your image. You are telling Photoshop “This spot should be black.” In our example image, this is the hair beside the model’s head.

correction_5.jpg

6. Now click on the White Point dropper to select it. Click with the White dropper in the lightest part of your image. You are telling Photoshop, “This spot should be white.”

correction_6.jpg

7. Now comes the tricky part. You need to use the Gray dropper to select a spot in your image that should be Neutral Gray. This does NOT mean a gray that is exactly halfway between white and black. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that the gray be neutral in color (i.e., its RGB values should be equal). It could be a very dark gray, or a very light gray, so long as it is neutral. Perhaps it does not not look neutral in your photo due to a color cast, but you know it should be neutral in reality.

This can be challenging, unless you have an object in your photo that you know should be gray. For example, in our photo, there is concrete near the model that I know is gray in reality.

correction_7.jpg

Click and I’m done. The shadow on a white object can also make a good neutral gray. But what if you don’t have a gray object or a white object in your photo?

There are various tricks for trying to find neutral gray numerically (such as using the Info Palette and looking for pixels with near-equal RGB values) but these suffer from the flaw that a neutral gray in your image may be already skewed by a color cast. Picking such a point will simply introduce a different color cast.

In the end, sometimes the best you can do is pick points by trial and error that seem like good candidates for Neutral Gray, and just see what happens to the image. If it gets worse, Undo it. When you hit one that satisfies you, you are done.

TIP: There is one trick for finding Neutral Gray in portraits that comes in handy when you don’t have any gray objects in the surroundings. You can sometimes pick on the whites of the eyes to find your Neutral Gray point. This doesn’t always work (some people’s eyes are whiter than others), but when it does, it can be a life-saver!

correction_8.jpg

In our example photo, one click on the white of the model’s eye perfectly corrects the color in the entire image! Her skin is warmed up and the blue-green color cast is gone.

After you correct the color, you may want to tug up on the RGB line in the Curves graph to brighten the overall image.

correction_9.jpg

Compare the before and after photos, and it’s remarkable what Photoshop can do with three little clicks!

color-correction-before-after.jpg

You can watch a video version of this tutorial at www.SteeleTraining.com.

About the Author: Phil Steele is the founder of SteeleTraining.com where you’ll find free tutorials on photography, Photoshop, Lightroom and more. This article is based on an excerpt from his video training course
“Photoshop Basics for Photographers”.

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  • Good stuff. And for those of us using GIMP, these same steps apply. Just go to Colors–>Curves and you’ll find a very similar dialog box.

  • Or you can use Picasa and just increase the shadows. Simple. Or in Lightroom increase contrast. Done. Photoshop is too complicated for this kind of fix.

  • WOW! This is awesome! Thanks so much for the tutorial, what a great piece of info! 🙂 Off to play…….

  • Shams Naved

    Nice article…!!
    @Rick… thanks for the hint.. I too use GiMP. !!

  • dan willmott

    Superb tip, thanks a lot 🙂

  • Eli

    Good tutorial. I would add to this a trick to pick up where is your whitest white and darkest black:

    – Create a Level layer mask
    – Play around with your black while holding the ALT touch to see the first place it goes all black. This is actually a way to view when your blacks (or whites) will lose details.
    – Put a color sampler at that point and then use that point to neutralize your blacks.
    – Repeat same steps for neutralizing your whites.

    As a rule, I always put my sample size for my color sampler at 5×5. I create a Curves layer for neutralizing the whites, one for the blacks and one for the grays. And I personally put my layer mode at Color, so it does not interfere with my luminosity.

    Then again, I’ve spent many exciting hours learning about color correcting, so maybe this is a bit too much for most people.

  • Peter

    This is old old old

    You can do it so much better in amera Raw

  • Great info – much appreciated!

  • This is very similar to what you posted, however, I found this guide to be better. Watch it and decide for yourself.
    http://www.vimeo.com/14396098

  • guiie

    In order to nail the gray point, one technique is to copy the photo to a new layer, and add noise “median” and then use that color for the color picker to “transform” in gray and then remove the layer so the correction applies to the photo

  • Bill

    I prefer using the threshold method of finding the darkest, the lightest pixels, and shades of gray for Gray color cast images.

    http://www.vimeo.com/3140155

  • I do something similar. I just want to point out for Elements users that you can do the white, black, and gray point thing in Levels as well.

  • Lin

    Interesting article but I would like to know (maybe a forum reader could help with this one) when your using the picker to find a part of your photo that is black and there is nothing that should be black in your image do you just not work with that picker or should I be doing something else?

    Also should I then set these values as ‘default’?

    I have tried the above with a few newborn photos and when i use the picker to find black I find the darkest spot on my photos but it darkens the whole photo (not a good look with a baby). I have used levels just to bring the blacks up to where I want but would love if someone could explain how I am meant to be using this.

    Photoshop drives me MAD somedays and makes my eyes and brain very sore!!! Any help would be greatly appreciated!

  • Remy

    WOW, this easy fix indeed gives spectacular results.
    This little tutorial will go into my favorites immediately!

  • Thanks for the tip – will do some experimenting over the weekend 🙂

  • Chinmoy

    Phil, you said…
    “Ideally you should set specific color values for each of these droppers (although you can skip this step and try it with the default values if you like). Double-click on the Black dropper to open its settings, and in the R,G,B values enter 20, 20, 20. For the Gray dropper: 128, 128, 128. For the white dropper: 240, 240, 240.”

    What is the reason for these specific values and why should I set them to specific values ?

    Other than that question, thank you for the crisp, clear tutorial !

  • Great tip!

  • graham

    just out of curiosity !!!
    Why set the black dropper to 20 (when true black is ZERO)
    Why set the white dropper to 240 (when true white is 255)
    and by default the midtones (which is what the grey is rerpesented as) is 110

  • Gaby

    That’s one of my favourite articles by far – it’s so useful! I particularly found it useful in correcting some old images I had that were taken with a friend’s camera indoors and all of the photos had a washed out appearance. They came out beautifully after editing them in this way. I mainly just played with the black colour picker in this case and it gave fantastic results.

  • Mark

    I prefer using the “levels” adjustment to do these as you have the histogram to guide you. In GIMP it is simple to see the flat area on the left as a guide to raise the black point and the flat area to the right to drop the white point. Then I just use the mid-tones slider to adjust the overall brightness of the image. Someone mention that changing the black point of an image with a baby darkened the image too much, just raise the mid-tones to compensate for the black change. You end up with the contrast and you kill any color cast in the image, but the overall brightness stays the same! I find that very often the camera can get the white point very well, but the black point almost always needs some adjustment and that this often results in a need to raise the mid-tones to offset any darkening. One thing to watch out for is raising the black point too high because you might need to recover the shadow detail in that case, so really watch the shadow detail when working with the black point setting. Just enough to add some contrast and offset any color cast, but this is a case where more is not better.

  • Great Tutorial. Thank you so much for the time you put in to help us out!

  • Been doing a lot of restoration work recently. This is a great tip, thanks.

  • good tips i use levels myself but thats the beauty of photoshop..

  • @chinmoy and @graham – It’s my understanding that using 20 (instead of zero) for black and 240 (rather than 255) for white help preserve shadow and highlight detail if the image is printed. I’m not sure if it makes a difference if you only intend to use the image digitally, but I keep these as my default values so that I never have to think about it.

    @others – Thanks for all the nice comments and great feedback!

  • i enjoyed this very much. I only wish i would have read it before i edited my last shoot. i was having trouble b/c my BG was black as was the cardigan my model wore. i ended up making a black texture and using the history brush. this way would have saved me hours of work. Thanks!

  • k

    In GIMP (I’m using version 2.7.2), you go to Levels to find the color pickers, then if you want to tweak the curve, click “Edit these settings as curves.

  • sagar

    thanx 4 sharing…..

  • Silvina Zitto

    Thank you…

Some Older Comments

  • k May 27, 2011 05:02 pm

    In GIMP (I'm using version 2.7.2), you go to Levels to find the color pickers, then if you want to tweak the curve, click "Edit these settings as curves.

  • Victoria Suzanne Smith April 16, 2011 04:29 am

    i enjoyed this very much. I only wish i would have read it before i edited my last shoot. i was having trouble b/c my BG was black as was the cardigan my model wore. i ended up making a black texture and using the history brush. this way would have saved me hours of work. Thanks!

  • Phil Steele April 15, 2011 02:36 am

    @chinmoy and @graham - It's my understanding that using 20 (instead of zero) for black and 240 (rather than 255) for white help preserve shadow and highlight detail if the image is printed. I'm not sure if it makes a difference if you only intend to use the image digitally, but I keep these as my default values so that I never have to think about it.

    @others - Thanks for all the nice comments and great feedback!

  • bryan April 12, 2011 12:01 pm

    good tips i use levels myself but thats the beauty of photoshop..

  • Niki Jones April 8, 2011 08:41 pm

    Been doing a lot of restoration work recently. This is a great tip, thanks.

  • Tammy April 8, 2011 06:19 am

    Great Tutorial. Thank you so much for the time you put in to help us out!

  • Mark April 8, 2011 05:40 am

    I prefer using the "levels" adjustment to do these as you have the histogram to guide you. In GIMP it is simple to see the flat area on the left as a guide to raise the black point and the flat area to the right to drop the white point. Then I just use the mid-tones slider to adjust the overall brightness of the image. Someone mention that changing the black point of an image with a baby darkened the image too much, just raise the mid-tones to compensate for the black change. You end up with the contrast and you kill any color cast in the image, but the overall brightness stays the same! I find that very often the camera can get the white point very well, but the black point almost always needs some adjustment and that this often results in a need to raise the mid-tones to offset any darkening. One thing to watch out for is raising the black point too high because you might need to recover the shadow detail in that case, so really watch the shadow detail when working with the black point setting. Just enough to add some contrast and offset any color cast, but this is a case where more is not better.

  • Gaby April 6, 2011 11:47 am

    That's one of my favourite articles by far - it's so useful! I particularly found it useful in correcting some old images I had that were taken with a friend's camera indoors and all of the photos had a washed out appearance. They came out beautifully after editing them in this way. I mainly just played with the black colour picker in this case and it gave fantastic results.

  • graham April 5, 2011 11:27 am

    just out of curiosity !!!
    Why set the black dropper to 20 (when true black is ZERO)
    Why set the white dropper to 240 (when true white is 255)
    and by default the midtones (which is what the grey is rerpesented as) is 110

  • Fancy April 1, 2011 11:56 pm

    Great tip!

  • Chinmoy April 1, 2011 08:40 pm

    Phil, you said...
    "Ideally you should set specific color values for each of these droppers (although you can skip this step and try it with the default values if you like). Double-click on the Black dropper to open its settings, and in the R,G,B values enter 20, 20, 20. For the Gray dropper: 128, 128, 128. For the white dropper: 240, 240, 240."

    What is the reason for these specific values and why should I set them to specific values ?

    Other than that question, thank you for the crisp, clear tutorial !

  • Anne April 1, 2011 03:02 pm

    Thanks for the tip - will do some experimenting over the weekend :-)

  • Remy April 1, 2011 09:08 am

    WOW, this easy fix indeed gives spectacular results.
    This little tutorial will go into my favorites immediately!

  • Lin April 1, 2011 06:50 am

    Interesting article but I would like to know (maybe a forum reader could help with this one) when your using the picker to find a part of your photo that is black and there is nothing that should be black in your image do you just not work with that picker or should I be doing something else?

    Also should I then set these values as 'default'?

    I have tried the above with a few newborn photos and when i use the picker to find black I find the darkest spot on my photos but it darkens the whole photo (not a good look with a baby). I have used levels just to bring the blacks up to where I want but would love if someone could explain how I am meant to be using this.

    Photoshop drives me MAD somedays and makes my eyes and brain very sore!!! Any help would be greatly appreciated!

  • Deirdre April 1, 2011 06:26 am

    I do something similar. I just want to point out for Elements users that you can do the white, black, and gray point thing in Levels as well.

  • Bill March 31, 2011 02:34 pm

    I prefer using the threshold method of finding the darkest, the lightest pixels, and shades of gray for Gray color cast images.

    http://www.vimeo.com/3140155

  • guiie March 31, 2011 11:40 am

    In order to nail the gray point, one technique is to copy the photo to a new layer, and add noise "median" and then use that color for the color picker to "transform" in gray and then remove the layer so the correction applies to the photo

  • Kevin March 31, 2011 11:11 am

    This is very similar to what you posted, however, I found this guide to be better. Watch it and decide for yourself.
    http://www.vimeo.com/14396098

  • Rachel March 31, 2011 06:16 am

    Great info - much appreciated!

  • Peter March 31, 2011 05:13 am

    This is old old old

    You can do it so much better in amera Raw

  • Eli March 31, 2011 04:33 am

    Good tutorial. I would add to this a trick to pick up where is your whitest white and darkest black:

    - Create a Level layer mask
    - Play around with your black while holding the ALT touch to see the first place it goes all black. This is actually a way to view when your blacks (or whites) will lose details.
    - Put a color sampler at that point and then use that point to neutralize your blacks.
    - Repeat same steps for neutralizing your whites.

    As a rule, I always put my sample size for my color sampler at 5x5. I create a Curves layer for neutralizing the whites, one for the blacks and one for the grays. And I personally put my layer mode at Color, so it does not interfere with my luminosity.

    Then again, I've spent many exciting hours learning about color correcting, so maybe this is a bit too much for most people.

  • dan willmott March 31, 2011 02:34 am

    Superb tip, thanks a lot :-)

  • Shams Naved March 31, 2011 02:12 am

    Nice article...!!
    @Rick... thanks for the hint.. I too use GiMP. !!

  • Cheryle March 31, 2011 01:53 am

    WOW! This is awesome! Thanks so much for the tutorial, what a great piece of info! :) Off to play.......

  • Patrick Larson March 31, 2011 01:41 am

    Or you can use Picasa and just increase the shadows. Simple. Or in Lightroom increase contrast. Done. Photoshop is too complicated for this kind of fix.

  • Rick March 31, 2011 01:20 am

    Good stuff. And for those of us using GIMP, these same steps apply. Just go to Colors-->Curves and you'll find a very similar dialog box.

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