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Take Control of Color Adjustments in Lightroom

With all the sliders, options, and numerical values to tweak in Lightroom, there is no end to the editing possibilities at your disposal. Sometimes, you just want an easy way to make your images stand out and shine without all the hassle of adjusting dozens of individual options.

Fortunately, you don’t need to go overboard with editing to do some really incredible color adjustments in Lightroom. Three basic parameters can work wonders for your images: the Hue filter adjustment, as well as the Saturation and Vibrance sliders.

Color Adjustments in Lightroom Purple Flower
Nikon D7100 | Nikon 50mm f/1.8G | 50mm | 1/750 sec | f/1.8 | ISO 100

Adjusting Hue with filters and brushes

Along with White Balance, Hue is one of the most basic color adjustments you can make to a photo. Strictly speaking, Hue refers to the actual color of an image or a part of the image. It’s one of the building blocks of a photo that, along with Saturation and Luminance, affects your pictures on a foundational level.

The HSL panel in the Develop module lets you adjust the Hue of various colors. Essentially, you can make the reds shift from purple-ish to orange-ish. Or change your greens to be more yellow or teal.

Hue allows you to precisely control the overall appearance of your image, but the HSL panel works on an all-or-nothing basis. Moving the sliders affects the hue of every red, orange, yellow, and so on across the entire photograph.

Color Adjustments in Lightroom Red Cardinal
Nikon D500 | Nikon 70-200 f/2.8G ED VR II | 200mm | 1/500 sec | f/4 | ISO 3600

Hue works well in a picture like the red cardinal above because the colors are clearly distinct and separate. Adjusting the Hue slider for the color red will affect the bird but nothing else because there are no other reds in the picture.

A recent update to Lightroom turbocharges the Hue editing tool by also allowing it to be used with filter adjustments. You can make precise Hue adjustments using the Radial and Graduated filters as well as the Adjustment Brush. These are incredibly powerful tools that help you get the precise color adjustments in Lightroom that you were never able to get before.

Color Adjustments in Lightroom Hue
Hue can now be edited using the Adjustment Brush, Radial Filter, and the Graduated Filter.

The usefulness of this new approach to Hue adjustment is amazing, and using it could hardly be simpler. Just create a new filter or Adjustment Brush, then click and drag the Hue slider to change the colors of the portion of your image affected by the filter or the brush.

The top of the color rainbow stays locked in place while the bottom shows you the degree to which your colors are being changed. For precise control, check the Use Fine Adjustment box or hold down the Alt key (or the Option key on a Mac), which reduces the effect of your left-to-right dragging to give you finely-tuned adjustments.

To illustrate how this works, here is a picture of two yellow flowers. Adjusting the Hue using the HSL panel would allow me to change the yellow of both flowers. Using a Hue Adjustment Brush lets me change the color of one single flower. This is a maneuver that used to require jumping over to Photoshop and using multiple layers and tools, but can now be accomplished in mere seconds in Lightroom.

Color Adjustments in Lightroom Yellow Flowers
Nikon D500 | Nikon 50mm f/1.8G | 50mm | 1/1000 sec | f/2.8 | ISO 100

To change the color of the flower in the foreground from yellow to red, all I have to do is click the Adjustment Brush and paint in a new adjustment over the yellow flower. Then click and drag the Hue slider to the left, and you have an instant red flower.

The Auto Mask option helps ensure that my edits stay within the yellow flower. I can also hold the Alt key (or the Option key on a Mac) to erase parts of the adjustment that I don’t want.

Color Adjustments in Lightroom Yellow and Red Flower
Transforming the flower from yellow to red took me less than 15 seconds in Lightroom. All I did was use an Adjustment Brush and change the Hue.

Using the Hue adjustment with a Radial Filter or Graduated Filter follows much of the same process as the Adjustment Brush. Apply a filter and adjust the Hue accordingly to change the colors of a portion of your image. These additions to Hue options in Lightroom are a bit like selective color editing, where most of a picture is black and white with one portion displayed with color.

Hue adjustments for the filters and Adjustment Brush go one step further by giving you total control over individual colors in specific parts of your pictures. If you haven’t yet tried it, I recommend checking it out and seeing how easy it really is! And if you want even more control over your color adjustments in Lightroom, there are the Saturation and Vibrance sliders to look at.

Saturation and Vibrance

These two sliders can go a long way towards giving your photos an extra degree of refinement. However, they are often misunderstood and misused. They both complete the same basic function, in that they make the colors of a photo punchier or more exaggerated. Where they differ is in the method used to adjust the images and the way the colors are adjusted.

Saturation is kind of a blunt instrument, like editing your image with a hammer. It allows you to adjust the intensity of all the colors in a photo equally, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it gets you the result you are aiming for. It’s easy to overdo it with saturation, though, so adjust carefully.

Vibrance takes a more intelligent and subtle approach. This slider analyzes the colors of an image that are already saturated and, therefore, don’t need much adjustment. When you move the slider to the right those colors are generally left alone, as are common skin tones. The result is an image that feels punchier without being overwhelmed with color.

Adjustments with portraits

The image series below shows the difference between these two sliders. The first is an unedited RAW straight out of camera.

Color Adjustments in Lightroom Family Forest
Nikon D750 | Nikon 70-200 f/2.8G ED VR II | 180mm | 1/500 sec | f/2.8 | ISO 1600.
Original unedited RAW photo, no color adjustments.

Adjusting Vibrance up to a value of +60 makes the background colors more noticeable and also punches up the blue clothing. Faces and hands are relatively untouched, as are some of the clothing colors like orange and green that don’t need much adjustment.

Color Adjustments in Lightroom
Same photo, but with Vibrance +60. The image feels more lively and dramatic without being overbearing.

In contrast, the Saturation color adjustment in Lightroom ramps up every color indiscriminately. The final image looks like it was run through a series of poorly-implemented social media filters and is a little jarring and unpleasant to look at.

Color Adjustments in Lightroom
This is the original image, but with the Saturation increased to +60. This picture feels overprocessed and unpleasant.

This example is a bit of an exaggeration, though! Saturation is a perfectly acceptable adjustment, as long as you use it carefully. Generally speaking, ramping up Saturation to such extreme values will not yield the best results. I like to keep it around the +5 to +15 range, which gives a more subtle effect and makes all the colors pop just enough to stand out while not being overbearing.

Another way to take control of color adjustments in Lightroom without getting too complicated is to lower Saturation and Vibrance.

Color Adjustments in Lightroom Siblings
Nikon D750 | 70-200 f/2.8G ED VR II | 200mm | 1/250 sec | f/2.8 | ISO 220.
Original unedited RAW, no color adjustments.

Lowering the value of Saturation and/or Vibrance can give your images a subdued look, almost like a sepia filter. I like this effect on portraits, and if you shoot for clients you might find this to be a useful adjustment to keep in your back pocket when editing. Many people like a desaturated look, because it can feel comforting and a bit nostalgic.

Color Adjustments in Lightroom
This is the same image, but with Saturation decreased to -45. Lots of clients like this type of appearance for portraits.

When working with portraits, I find that little Vibrance and Saturation adjustments in Lightroom go quite a long way. Generally, I do just a little bit of one or both and don’t exceed a value of +10. It might not seem like much, but those small edits can give your images that little extra push to really stand out.

Working with nature images

Vibrance and Saturation color adjustments in Lightroom really come in handy when working with landscapes, flowers, animals, or anything else in nature. Here’s where I like to put my foot on the throttle and really push the sliders a lot more than I would with portraits. Rather than jarring and unpleasant, the results are often dramatic and even captivating.

I shot the photo below in Minnesota just south of the Canadian border, just as the sun was coming up. The image looks fine, but it’s a little bland and doesn’t quite convey the emotion I want the viewer to experience. Thankfully, a little Saturation and Vibrance can fix it.

Color Adjustments in Lightroom Forest
Fuji X100F | 23mm | 1/125 sec | f/8 | ISO 5000.
Original unedited RAW, no color adjustments.

Bumping Saturation up to +55 yields a much-improved image, albeit with a few tweaks that still need to be implemented. Colors are richer, contrast is greater, and the scene is much more similar to how it was when I was standing among the trees listening to the birds chirp overhead.

Color Adjustments in Lightroom
+55 Saturation has improved the photo quite a lot.

Even though the picture is better with increased overall Saturation, adding some Vibrance gives it just the final touch it needs. I would never add this much Vibrance and Saturation to a portrait or street photograph. When working with shots of nature, these adjustments can make a huge difference without feeling ostentatious or overbearing.

Color Adjustments in Lightroom
Adding +30 Saturation brings out the colors in the background trees while keeping the foreground intact.

The best of both worlds

If you really want to get creative with Vibrance and Saturation, you can use a combination of both adjustments, but not in the way you might thing. Color adjustments in Lightroom are all a matter of personal preference, but one trick I like to use, especially with people in everyday life and not necessarily formal portraits, is to raise the vibrance while lowering the saturation.

Color Adjustments in Lightroom Woman Riding a Horse
Nikon D750 | Sigma 40mm f/1.4 Art | 40mm | 1/180 sec | f/1.4 | ISO 360.
Original RAW with no color adjustments.

Some of the best editing can be almost invisible. I lowered Saturation while raising Vibrance, which shifted everything just enough to give the picture a low-key-but-slightly-enhanced look. It’s a small but noticeable edit when compared to the original, and shows how using both adjustments together can yield impressive results.

color adjustments in Lightroom
+57 Vibrance combined with -22 Saturation gave me just the look I was aiming for.

This technique combines Saturation and Vibrance for a result that is more than the sum of its parts. The entire image feels a little more subdued and welcoming, while important colors are emphasized just a little more. The end result is, like a lot of good adjustments, subtle but effective.

Image editing doesn’t have to be complicated. While there are many tools and options for color adjustments in Lightroom, often just these simple basic features will get the job done just fine. I particularly like the new Hue tools and the unparalleled freedom they offer photographers.

If you have not yet tried this, or if it has been a while since you played around with simple Saturation and Vibrance, you might be surprised at how much these can do to make your images go from just okay to absolutely astonishing.

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Simon Ringsmuth
Simon Ringsmuth

is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

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