How to Take Control of Color in Lightroom


Back when everybody used film cameras, photographers had to match the film type to their subject. For example, landscape photographers liked Fuji Velvia 50 because it produced deeply saturated slides. But portrait photographers liked films like Fuji Reala which rendered good skin tones. Today, as long as you use the Raw format, you can take the same approach in Lightroom.

It doesn’t matter what camera you have, Lightroom gives you a great deal of power when it comes to adjusting the colors of your photos. To give you an idea of Lightroom’s potential, take a look at the different versions of the photo below. The first is more or less straight out of the camera. I developed the others with customized Lightroom Develop Presets.

Color in Lightroom

Now let’s look at some of the tools Lightroom has for altering color.

Vibrance and Saturation

The Vibrance and Saturation sliders are located at the bottom of the Basic panel. They alter the intensity of the colors in the photo in different ways.

  • The Saturation slider changes the intensity level of all colors in the photo equally.
  • The Vibrance slider affects the most deeply saturated colors in the photo the most. It evens out the saturation levels and is a more subtle adjustment than Saturation.

I prefer to reduce Saturation and Vibrance rather than increase them as desaturated colors are more subtle and atmospheric than saturated ones. These photos illustrate the difference between Vibrance and Saturation.

Color in Lightroom

Camera profiles

Most digital cameras come with a set of color profiles. Every manufacturer gives their color profiles a different name. For instance, Canon uses Picture Style and Fujifilm uses Film Simulation. Check your camera’s user manual if you’re unsure. Regardless of your camera maker’s terminology, the color profiles all appear in the Camera Calibration panel in Lightroom.

Color profiles are the digital equivalent of the idea of using different films for different subjects. Most cameras have profile names like Landscape, Portrait, and Monochrome. The exception to this is Fujifilm, which names its profiles after real Fuji films, such as Velvia, Provia, and Astia. You’ll find most of these in Lightroom as well, ready for you to use.

The color profile setting is important as it sets both the color and contrast. You need to select the best profile before adjusting other Develop module sliders. For example, if you apply a preset intended for landscapes to a portrait then it’s unlikely you will get good skin tones.

This photo shows three different color profiles. I made the photo with a Fujifilm camera and the color profiles are specific to that model.

Color in Lightroom

HSL / Color / B&W panel

The HSL / Color / B&W panel contains a set of powerful tools for adjusting colors in Lightroom. The HSL and Color tabs both contain the same sliders, just arranged in a different order.

I prefer to use the HSL tab, so let’s look at that. It lets you adjust Hue, Saturation, and Luminance individually.

Color in Lightroom


The Hue sliders let you change the colors in your photos. The colors on the sliders (see above) tell you how they work. For example, if you move the Red slider to the left you will turn anything that is colored red in your photo to magenta. If you move the slider right then red colored objects become orange.

In the example below, you can see that I moved the Red, Aqua, and Blue sliders to change some of the hues (colors) in the photo.

Color in Lightroom


The Saturation sliders let you change the intensity levels of the colors in your photo individually. This is different from the Saturation and Vibrance sliders, which change the color saturation levels across the entire frame.

The photo below shows how it works.

Color in Lightroom


The Luminance sliders let you adjust the brightness levels of individual colors in your photos. In turn, this affects the apparent saturation. If you make a color darker (by moving the corresponding slider left) the color appears to be more deeply saturated. If you make it lighter (by moving the slider right) the color appears to be less saturated.

The example below shows it in action.

Color in Lightroom

Putting it all together

Now it’s time to look at how you can put these techniques into action. We’ll do that by looking at the portrait I showed you at the beginning of the article.

Here is the before version and one of the after versions.

Color in Lightroom

These are some of the settings I adjusted that affected the colors.

Camera profile

I set the Camera Profile to Adobe Standard. This is a standardized setting created by Adobe specifically for your camera. The idea is that if you take a photo of the same scene with two different cameras, then apply the Adobe Standard Profile to each one, the colors will look the same in each.

The benefit of using Adobe Standard is that it lets you create a Develop Preset that you can apply to photos made with any camera with consistent results. If you don’t want to do this, then you can use one of Lightroom’s camera specific profiles instead.

Color in Lightroom


Next, I reduced the overall Saturation using the Vibrance slider.

Color in Lightroom

I reduced the Saturation of specific colors using the sliders in the HSL tab.

Color in Lightroom


Then, I increased the brightness of some of the colors using the Luminance sliders.

Color in Lightroom

Tone Curve

Next, this isn’t related to the color, I made a Tone Curve adjustment to create the faded effect. The result of this Tone Curve Adjustment is that there are no true blacks in the photo.

Color in Lightroom

The techniques in this article don’t cover all the color adjustment tools in Lightroom as there are too many for one article. But these are the main ones and they will get you started. Let us know in the comments if you have any questions about any of them.

Faded Glory Presets for Lightroom

Want to get a head start with creative colors in Lightroom? Take a look at my Faded Glory Presets for Lightroom, created to help photographers like you apply powerful creative color fade effects to your photos.

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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!

  • MickMJM

    Very helpful article thank you. Helped clear up some of the confusion over what each adjustment actually affects. Regards. Mick

  • Thanks, glad it was helpful.

  • Jmalcodray

    Easy read and great explanation, thank you @andrewsgibson:disqus . Any chance these tips are in an easy-to-print cheat sheet?

  • David A. Neff

    Good article on the abundance of color options in Lightroom, but it absolutely baffles me that there are no simple RGB color sliders in this program????

  • No, they’re not, sorry. You could always try printing the article and saving it as a PDF.

  • Hi David, you can leave feedback for Adobe about features you’d like to see included in Lightroom here:

  • Ian Browne

    Some great information in there
    Don’t be afraid of bending the sliders — you can’t break anything in lightroom — so to see what each slider does go over-board and then back off to suit.
    I often reduce saturation a little and increase vibrance a bit more
    To check white balance: taking the vibrance up to 100% will often show the over cooked WB — once the WB is set, back off the vibrance slider to suit.

    There is also a ‘magic’ slider in the camera calibration group. Down at the bottom is “blue primary”. By increasing the saturation can add a little WOW factor to your photo. I have 4 presets ; 25%, 50%, 100%, and 00. Sometimes it does not do a lot of good and other times it makes all the difference; and it works on most photos. In the past I had a few other presets for the other colours also.
    To save going to camera calibration for every photo; make presets for the ones you might use the most. But don’t include B+W as there are FAR better ways of making a great B+W photo in Lr and that’s another complete article; or book!! (Andrew may have already mentioned the presets)
    A favourite slider of mine is the ‘Lights’ slider in tone curves — gets used on most photos.

  • Useful reminder, absolutely features that I work with a lot! Good article!

  • @davidaneff:disqus What do you mean? There is under HSL

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