How to Pop Color Selectively Using Channel Mixers and Layer Masks in Photoshop

How to Pop Color Selectively Using Channel Mixers and Layer Masks in Photoshop

By Jodi Friedman of MCP Actions: Photoshop Actions and Training

There are literally dozens of ways to saturate your colors in Photoshop. For this post I am going to focus on one way to pop colors using “Channel Mixer” adjustment layers.

To start with, locate an image that could benefit from more vibrant color, overall or in selected spots. Of course, you likely will want to correct exposure and white balance prior to working on color. At this point, we will pull up a “Channel Mixer” adjustment. In CS4, you can use the adjustment panel – in CS3 and below, use the layers palette and go to “Channel Mixers.”


Once you pull up the adjustment layer, you will adjust settings in the dialog box. You will adjust all three output channels: Red, Green, and Blue. Use the same relationship for each. You want all numbers to total 100%. The higher your number for the output channel you are working on, the more saturated the colors will be.


For example, if you start with red, and put red at 150%, then you would split the difference to = 100%. So green would be at -25% and blue at -25%. Then you would drop down to green for the output. For this channel, you would do 150% for green, -25% for red, and -25% for blue. Lastly, you would drop down to the blue channel and do the same. Blue would be 150%, green -25% and red -25%.

Remember, all three outputs need to be treated the same. The output gets the high number in all three channels. The other two equally subtract the same amount so that the total is 100%. Using 150% is rather high, but if you will be painting your color on, as I am here, or if you want a lot of pop, this number may work well. You will want to experiment on your image to find the best settings. I recommend 116-120% for the main output channel light pop, 122-140% for medium pop, and 142-160% for intense pop.

When you saturate color, make sure you are not losing details and that your colors are printable. The printer I use handles intense color really well, so I mainly check to make sure I am not losing details or getting any color noise. Also, if photographing people, unless you are using low numbers, your skin tones WILL BE impacted. That is where “painting” comes in.

With masking, you have 2 choices. Either you can show the effect everywhere, white mask. And hide it on parts where you do not want it, such as skin. Or you can hide the effect everywhere, black mask. And you can paint it on specific areas, just where desired.

For this tutorial, I am going explain, hiding the effect and painting it on where desired. Either way would work.

So after getting your channel numbers set, you will invert your mask. The shortcut keys are PC: “CTRL” + “I” or Mac: “CMD” + “I” – which turns your white mask from black. You will not longer see the popped colors.


If you have never used layer masks before, this video tutorial and tips on layer masking will help you.


With the mask black, then select white as your foreground color, and pick a soft round brush. You will vary the hardness of the brush as needed. I usually set my opacity at 30%-35% and paint over the desired items where I want the color more vibrant. You can do this at 100%, but with a low opacity brush, you will have more control as you can build the effect by painting multiple times.

For the before and after image below, I painted on the image with the mask selected, using a 30% brush at 19% hardness. I painted over the entire image once. Then I painted on the truck until 100% of the effect was reached.


The only change in these two images was the channel mixer layer. I hope you learned a lot from this tutorial about using channels to enhance your color and about using layer masks.

About the Author: This post was written by Jodi of MCP Actions, the popular creator of Photoshop actions, training and of the MCP Blog. MCP Actions provides great products and resources for both hobbyist and professional photographers who want to improve their post processing and take their photography to the next level. If you are serious about the quality of your images or your photography business, visit MCP Actions.

You can also find Jodi on Facebook, Twitter, and through her RSS Feed.

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Some Older Comments

  • TwitterBackgrounds July 21, 2010 11:18 pm

    Great article :) Helped me understand a lot and it is even better for beginners. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Val March 27, 2010 02:22 am

    Thanks for this tutorial. What would be the advantage of using the channel mixer and layer masks over Selective Color with a layer mask for instance, or just saturation with a layer mask to paint in only what you want?

  • kistabill March 22, 2010 11:19 pm

    I've used this technique with Paint Shop Pro occasionally and it really does give images that "pop". Just be careful not to overdo it though or your shots will all get that garish fare-ground look.

  • joe March 22, 2010 05:01 am

    This method works well, but I'm wondering why it's any better than simply boosting saturation in an adjustment layer and masking as needed? Since this method involves boosting all three channels in equal amounts, isn't that exactly the same as just boosting the overall saturation? If it is exactly the same, why go through the extra steps of playing with channels?

    Also, I've seen many tutorials that suggest converting to lab mode first for boosts in color of this kind. Anybody have an opinion on the advantages or disadvantages of each method?


  • Marcus Wattz March 18, 2010 04:13 am

    Hi, I found this post really interesting! I prefer to use Capture NX 2 when utilizing this method for "Popping Colors". The great thing about NX 2 is once you select the "Color Balance" channel in NX2, the opacity and mask blending is all right there within that adjustment rather than creating layers.

  • lisa March 17, 2010 06:05 am

    love this! very helpful! Thanks Jodi

  • Wendy Mayo March 17, 2010 05:36 am

    I use both Lightroom and Photoshop for my post processing. I do my selections, exposure, and white balance in Lightroom, then I use Photoshop for my color pop, eyes, teeth, skin, etc. I have ALL of Jodi's actions. Even though I know how to do the editing without them, the actions make my workflow so much easier and faster.

    Thanks Jodi, for this great post. You rock!

  • Milosh Kosanovich March 12, 2010 06:35 am

    Thanks for the great tip! I have some carnival pictures that didn't quite make it. I tried all kind of adjustments, and never really got them as I envisioned. Using your technique I popped up the colors like orange, red and blue on the ride canopies and signs and they look great.

    It's great for affecting the color and not the brightness of the individual pieces.

  • Silverzz March 12, 2010 04:43 am

    Nice tutorial, just tried it myself then and it works great.

  • John H March 12, 2010 04:25 am

    Interesting article

    I'm swapping from Aperture to Lightroom at the moment....its trickier than I thought to answer a prev note higher up this thread.
    Hope you like my blog :-)

  • Michael Padnos March 11, 2010 12:20 pm

    Interesting and informative article, but the writer does not tell us why we should use this procedure over many others, What are its specific advantages? I usually pop color with a black mask and then painting out everything except the parts I want to change. (That's a pretty inarticulate sentence, but hopefully people will know whatr I mean.)

    In other words, why should I use this procedure?

  • Jocelyn K. March 11, 2010 09:01 am

    Great tutorial, Jodi! Thanks for sharing. I enjoyed this. :)

  • Beth March 11, 2010 06:41 am

    What a great article Jodi!
    LOVE LOVE LOVE your blog and everything :)

  • Jodi Friedman March 11, 2010 12:10 am


    The funny thing is I liked the tire and floor looking a bit colorful, dirty. I tried both ways and opted for this. The great part is, these changes are non-destructive, unless you flatten. So you can try a few things and see which, as the artist, suits you best.

    I come around here when I can - but usually it is every few months to once a quarter, due to time and running my own blog. But it is fun to do guest appearances.


    MCP Actions

  • Jim Poor March 10, 2010 10:29 pm

    Very well done! DPS should have you more often.

    The results you show are great, but I wonder what you would think of taking it one step further by masking the effect off of the tire and floor. I'm being extremely nit-picky, but the tire looks a little dirty with all that red boosted and the floor has a bit much red spill for my tastes.

    That said, still one of the best articles on DPS in quite a while.

  • go15 March 10, 2010 06:07 pm

    waw...I learned something today...I don't usually use photoshop...but it made me do it today...THANKS!![eimg url='' title='The-Red-Pops-156785073']

  • hfng March 10, 2010 05:53 pm

    Excellent tutorial. I hope you'll be a regular contributor here in DSP.

  • Jodi Friedman March 10, 2010 01:24 pm

    Thanks everyone - I post here every few months, as time permits. I also have a blog at with many great photography and photoshop tutorials and tips, including many video tutorials.

    Hope that helps. And have fun punching up your color!

    MCP Actions

  • Derek Scott March 10, 2010 12:30 pm

    Great tut, I really learned a lot from it. Looking forward to more, hopefully!?

  • Yolanda March 10, 2010 10:14 am

    Thank you for this thorough and straightforward tutorial. Using channels, levels, and adjustment panels are part of a big learning curve for me and I appreciate the way the concept is explained here. Will be testing it out on some photos I took, today.

  • Jodi Friedman March 10, 2010 10:11 am

    I prefer use Photoshop because of layer masks and working on non-destructive layers that stack. The adjustment brush can be helpful but lacks the control I prefer. There are dozens of ways to pop colors in both LR and PS. Which method you use depends on what look you are going for as well as personal preference.

    MCP Actions

  • Greg Taylor March 10, 2010 07:33 am

    I am interested in other photographers post processing. Do you use Aperture or Lightroom and then do other tweaks in Photoshop? Or is photoshop your main post processing medium?

    I am a photographer with very little photoshop skills and I like it that way but I do see the intrinsic value in knowing the application and all of the tools that are available to me.


    Recent blog post: Tips for Self Portraits -

  • mike March 10, 2010 07:22 am

    I'd love to see a comparison between this method in Photoshop and selectively tweaking color saturation and luminance in Lightroom. Can you approximate identical results? Does one come out better than the other? Be interesting to see.