Mastering Color in Lightroom using the HSL Tab

Mastering Color in Lightroom using the HSL Tab


Mastering colour in Lightroom

Color in Camera

Mastering color in Lightroom occurs in two steps. The first is when you take the photo. Successful color photography requires an awareness of the colors in the scene and how they work together. If you read about the topic of color composition you will come across a lot of advice, including articles about the emotional values of color. It’s all good background knowledge, but if there’s one tip I can give that will help you compose better color images right away it is to simplify. Color is powerful, and if there are too many colors in the photo they will either clash or weaken each other. Simplify the use of color to make your images stronger. This works because the colors you choose to leave in have more impact when there are fewer other hues in the frame to distract from them.

Here’s an example below. In the photo on the left the use of color is not as good as it could be. There are too many conflicting hues. The red stripes on the flag compete with the orange flowers on the porch, and the blue and violet paintwork. It is more of a snapshot than a carefully composed image.

In comparison the photo on the right is dominated by red and yellow, and the colors are much stronger.

Mastering colour in Lightroom

An easy way to simplify color is to use a telephoto lens to simplify the composition. Another is to  use a wide aperture to blur the background. Click the links to read my articles on those topics.

You can go into the topic of color in more depth by reading Mitchell Kanashkevich’s ebook Captivating Color.

Color in Lightroom

The next step, after you have taken your photo, is to get the best out of it in Lightroom. Today I’m going to focus on the first two tabs in the HSL / Color / B&W panel, and show you how to use them. If you’re a Photoshop user, you will find the same sliders in Adobe Camera Raw.

The HSL and Color tabs are essentially the same, but with the sliders arranged in a different order. In the Color tab, the sliders are grouped in eight colors.

Mastering colour in Lightroom

Mastering colour in Lightroom

Click on one of the colored squares at the top to show the sliders from a single color group.

The HSL tab groups the same eight color sliders into three categories: Hue, Saturation and Luminance. It is the tab I prefer to use as I find it easier to adjust by property (ie. hue, saturation or luminance) rather than color. It also has a Targeted Adjustment Tool (I will show you how to use that further on in the article), which the Color tab doesn’t.

Mastering colour in Lightroom

H=Hue, S=Saturation, L=Luminance

Now it’s time to take a look at the sliders under the HSL and Color tabs to see what they do. You can carry out most of these adjustments within either tab, but the examples I show you will all use the HSL tab.

Hue adjustment sliders

Hue is another word for color. The Hue sliders let you replace colors in your photo with neighbouring hues from the color wheel. Let’s take a look at the earlier photo again to see how it works. The image is dominated by the color red. This diagram shows you approximately where those red hues occur on the color wheel.

Mastering colour in Lightroom

When you move the Red slider under the Hue setting to +100 Lightroom replaces red with orange tones, located nearby on the color wheel.

Mastering colour in Lightroom

When you move the Red slider to -100 Lightroom replaces red with purple tones, located in the other direction on the color wheel.

Mastering colour in Lightroom

It is possible to make dramatic differences to the colors in your images using just the Hue sliders. Here, the right hand version of the image was created by setting Red to +100 and Blue to -100. Lightroom replaced the red and blue tones in the photo with other colors.

Mastering colour in Lightroom

Before left – after Hues adjusted on the right.

The Targeted Adjustment Tool

The Targeted Adjustment Tool gives you an alternative way to do the same thing. It is more precise than the sliders because most of the hues within your photos will fall somewhere between the color sliders in the HSL tab. The Targeted Adjustment Tool lets you target those colors exactly.

Start by clicking on the Targeted Adjustment Tool icon. Use the mouse to lay the crosshair over the hue you want to adjust. Click and hold the left mouse button down while you move the mouse upwards to replace the hues underneath the crosshair with neighbouring colors from the color wheel in one direction, and down to replace them with colors from the other direction.

When you do this, Lightroom moves colored sliders in whatever combination is required to adjust the color you have targeted. In the following example I used the Targeted Adjustment Tool to target the red colors in the wall. Lightroom moved both the Red and Orange sliders, indicating that the targeted color was comprised almost equally of those colors.

Mastering colour in Lightroom

You can use the Targeted Adjustment Tool to target colors with precision exactly the same way when you adjust Saturation and Luminance.

Saturation adjustment sliders

The term saturation refers to the strength of a color. If you increase Saturation, the color becomes stronger. Decrease it and it becomes weaker. Note: My article Color Composition: Using Subtle Color goes into the topic of using subtle colors in more detail.

One way to emphasize color in Lightroom is to desaturate surrounding colors. Here’s an example. The starting point is an image of an old car I took in Alaska. The composition is simple –  the red paintwork on the car contrasts against the blue wooden shingles on the house behind it and the patches of greenery.

Mastering colour in Lightroom

First I used the Targeted Adjustment Tool to reduce the saturation of the green patches. Lightroom reduced Saturation in the Yellow and Green sliders accordingly.

Mastering colour in Lightroom

This simplifies the color composition even more, leaving red and blue as the dominant hues.

Mastering colour in Lightroom

Then I used the Targeted Adjustment Tool again to reduce the saturation of the blue paint. Lightroom reduced Saturation in the Aqua and Blue sliders.

Mastering colour in Lightroom

This is the result. I’ve placed the original and the final versions together so you can see the difference.

Mastering colour in Lightroom

Here’s another technique you can use. I set every Saturation slider except Red to zero. This desaturated most of the colors, turning the entire image black and white with the exception of the red paintwork on the car. I added a slight vignette using the Post-Crop Vignetting tool and increased Contrast and Clarity in the Basic panel to arrive at this black and white conversion.

Mastering colour in Lightroom

Luminance adjustment sliders

Luminance is the brightness of a color. You can make colors brighter to make them stand out more, or darker to subdue them. Depending on how bright the color was to start with, reducing luminance may also increase saturation, and increasing it may reduce saturation.

Here’s a example showing the difference when I used the Targeted Adjustment Tool to reduce the luminance of the blue paintwork.

Mastering colour in Lightroom

Lightroom reduced luminance in the Blue and Purple sliders when I made this adjustment.

Mastering colour in Lightroom

Note that with some images the colors may go a little weird when you adjust luminance too much. Watch out for this and ease back on the luminance sliders if this happens to you.

Your turn

Now it’s your turn. How do use you use the HSL and Color tabs when processing your photos in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw? Have you come up with any interesting techniques you can share with our readers? Let us know in the comments.

Mastering Lightroom: Books One, Two and Three

Mastering Lightroom ebook bundleMy Mastering Lightroom ebooks are a complete guide to using Lightroom’s Library and Develop modules. Written for Lightroom 4 & 5 books One and Two take you through every panel in both modules and show you how to import and organise your images, use Collections and creatively edit your photos. Book Three shows you how to create stunning black and white images in Lightroom.

Read more from our Post Production category

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

  • Michael

    It was very nice article Andrew. However, I prefer not to mess too much with colors of my photos. I always use PHOTOVISION One Shot 14″ Pocket Digital Calibration Target to set my Custom White balance. The only LR 5 HSL tab I use is Saturation combining with Target Adjustment Tool. This usually happens just after using Tone Curve adjustments as it shifts the colors making people faces too red and orangey. So I use the TAT on a person face by dragging it slightly down to bring back that natural skin tone and color. Sometimes I want to enhance and make some object colors to stand out so I again just use Saturation panel but as I found out a lot of people don’t like that calling it unnatural. Well, these people don’t understand that “Photography is exploration of infinite possibilities of light, color and shape.”
    Thank you for your educational tips and tutorials!

  • This is a very convenient way to work with different colors separately, and I use it often. However, one word of warning should be written for all of those who want to play with these tools: the adjustments will be made across the whole image, so be very careful about this, because while decreasing saturation of one color that stands out too much in the background, you might be reducing at the same time that color that is present right in the heart of your main subject.
    Keeping this in mind, definitely these are very useful tools!

  • mma173

    Since we are talking about colors here. I whish adobe will introduce HSL curves to ACR/Lightroom; or at least do something like this:

  • Great Article! I have always had trouble getting the hang of this in Lightroom and have gone directly to PS to fix my color issues. Thanks!

  • Thanks Liz. It’s always a good idea to do as much as you can in Lightroom, it saves you going to other programs unnecessarily.

  • Nice idea, maybe one day they will.

  • Good point Gonzalo. This happens a lot with portraits. If you reduce saturation or luminance with the red, yellow or orange sliders with the intention of altering something in the background, you may also alter the tones in the model’s face in a way that doesn’t look nice.

  • Hmmm, colour calibration and custom white balance seems like a good idea for another article. Good tip about using the Targeted Adjustment Tool for desaturating faces too, I like that technique.

  • Kunal Chopra

    Immensely useful article Andrew!! I used it to great effect at reducing noise and bringing out the purple tones in the night sky in a picture of the Royal Palace taken in Amsterdam 🙂 Regrettably, its over 2mb else I would’ve attached it here!

  • Hi Kunal, glad you found it useful. There’s a lot you can do with colour in Lightroom when you look closely at the Develop module, it’s all good fun.

  • Great article, Andrew. I use this all the time. I agree with Gonzalo here too. I wish that you could make brush adjustments using HSL changes. That way you could increase the saturation only in the reds only in this particular area. I’ve written Adobe before about this, but I imagine there are not enough people that would use it.

  • Thanks for another great article, Andrew. The Targeted Adjustment Tool was new to me, probably because I usually go by color – that will change now. The rest I mostly figured out by myself. I am very proud to say that I’ve been using similar technique on similar subjects :))

  • Nice photo Vladimir. Your car is almost the same as mine!

  • asim khattak
  • fateme
  • saurabh kumar

    This is Lovely article

  • FadyNagy
  • There are lots of articles out there that advise against going down the selective colour route and until now I haven’t. Often when i see them I don’t think they look as nice as hoped. I read this article the other day after it popped up on facebook and thought I would give it a little try, just for fun. I did this with a photo of the burial mask of Pakal the Great from the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico city using the HSL sliders in lightroom.

  • Julie Fox

    Andrew I subscribed some time ago for the 5 Mastering Lightroom ebooks and loved using them, but this week I had a new computer installed, and for some reason I have lost all of these from my desktop and files. Any ideas how I can get them sent back to me. If not then I wanted to purchase them again, but I see you are only offering three ebooks now – any reason?

  • Hi Julie, I sent you an email with a download link for the ebooks so you can download them again. All five ebooks are still available, you can see them here.

  • Nathaniel Gustafson

    Great stuff. Thank you!

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