Turn Ho-Hum Color into WOW! with Photoshop

Turn Ho-Hum Color into WOW! with Photoshop


Guest blogger Helen Bradley (from www.projectwoman.com) shows how to use the LAB color mode in Photoshop to give a punch to your photos.

I like to see lovely saturated color in my photos but sometimes the color I capture just doesn’t do justice to the subject and it isn’t what I remember the scene looked like. Boosting the color can turn a lackluster image into one that totally rocks. So, if you find that the color in your photos is lacking, here’s what I do to make it better. The process is ridiculously simple, it requires no selections to be made, and it can be recorded as a simple action. It’s my kind of fix … quick, easy and very powerful.


A word about LAB

The fix uses the LAB color space. This is not an often used color space and it isn’t available in most other programs so you won’t be able to mimic this effect in, for example, Photoshop Elements. However, LAB has been around in Photoshop for years.

In the RGB color space you work with the red, green and blue channels and in CMYK you work with cyan, magenta, yellow and black channels. In LAB you have three channels; L, a and b. The L channel is the lightness channel and, if you adjust it you adjust only the lightness in the image and you don’t change any of the color in the image. This sets Lab apart from RGB and CMYK as color and lightness are separate in LAB where they aren’t in the other modes.

In Lab the two color channels are a and b. The a channel contains color information for the green and magenta in the image. The b channel manages the blue and yellow colors in the image. If you were to look at these channels they would look very light because they contain only color information and no lightness data.

By separating lightness from color as LAB does you can make adjustments that would be difficult or time consuming to do in any other color space. However, that said, I think this fix works best on animals, landscapes and streetscapes … but not on close ups of people. On people it tends to destroy the natural skin tones.

How to fix in Lab

To see this LAB fix at work pick an image that has color in it but which you think could use a color boost.

Step 1

With the flattened image open in Photoshop, choose Image > Mode > LAB Color. If you’re working on a flattened image you won’t see anything except LAB/8 appearing in the title bar of the image.

Step 2


Duplicate the background layer of the image by right clicking it and choose Duplicate Layer. You’ll make your adjustments on this duplicate of the background layer so that you can blend them into the background layer later on.

Step 3


Choose Image > Adjustments > Curves to apply the curves adjustment to the duplicate background layer. Don’t use an adjustment layer as you’ll only have to flatten it on returning to RGB anyway.

In the curves dialog, the L channel is visible on the screen. This channel that contains only lightness and darkness values so that you can drag on the curve to adjust this if desired.

Step 4


Select the a channel … this is the magenta/green channel. In a standard Photoshop setup green is on the left and magenta is on the right. Drag the bottom edge of the curve inwards 2-3 squares. Then drag the top edge of the curve inwards the same number of squares. It doesn’t matter how many squares you drag but you must drag the same number on either end so the curve line crosses the middle of the grid … this stops you from inadvertently inducing a color cast into the image.

Step 5


When you’ve adjusted the a curve, repeat the process with the b curve. At this point the image is probably looking very scary indeed. However, you need to make the adjustment strong enough that you get too much color rather than too little at this stage. Click Ok to apply the curve to the top image layer.

Step 6


To return to RGB mode choose Image > Mode > RGB Color. When prompted, select the Don’t Flatten option. This is critical because you want both layers intact back in RGB mode.

Step 7


Now drag the Opacity slider for the top layer back to 0 so you see the original image and slowly walk the slider back up until you get the amount of color you want in your image. When you’re done, save the result.

Once you’ve done this a couple of times, you’ll appreciate how much of a boost in color you can get and how fast you can do it. Record the fix as an action and you can do it in one click and then just adjust the opacity to suit.

In some cases altering the blend mode of the top layer can yield pleasing results. The blend modes in the Overlay, Soft Light, Hard Light, Vivid Light, Linear Light and Pin Light grouping in the Blend Mode list give the best results. You can also duplicate the top layer and apply different blend modes to each copy to bring out different areas of the image.

So, if you want to produce eye-wateringly beautiful color in your photos, chances are that a Lab color fix like this is just what you need.

The images below show the original image on the left and the LAB color fix applied to it in the image on the right. No adjustments other than working LAB and blending the resulting layers have been used on the right hand versions.

before-after4.jpg before-after2.jpg before-after3.jpg before-after5.jpg before-after1.jpg

Post Script: To learn more about LAB color mode and the fixes that you can perform using it, look no further than Dan Margulis’ book— Photoshop LAB Color: The Canyon Conundrum and Other Adventures in the Most Powerful Colorspace … it’s practically the definitive book on Lab by the master of Lab himself.

Helen Bradley blogs at www.projectwoman.com/phototips.html and you can visit her website at www.projectwoman.com.

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Diva Jain March 9, 2013 03:54 am

    Extremely useful! Complete beginner, and easy to follow. Only thing I didn't get is how to "record something as a fix" so that it could be repeated.

  • Shitij Bagga August 16, 2012 01:45 am

    I really loved your blog. It was extremely helpful for me and I would like to thank you for the effort.

    I have even written a blog on how tutorials such as yours have helped me with processing pictures in photoshop. Also, mentioned your blog link in my post so that others can also read your blog and learn this technique.


    Thanks again,

  • Helen Bradley October 11, 2011 03:41 am


    There are two possibilities here. One is that you are slightly off in your alignment on the b channel when adjusting the curve. If the line doesn't go exactly through the middle of the chart - ie if the curve goes slightly off centre you will build in a colour cast.

    Alternately look at the images you are using - my guess is that they are slightly cool to begin with - try fixing the blue colour cast before you go to Lab - this process accentuates the colours in the image so if you start with a colour cast you'll end up with a worse one.

    If you like everything else but the effect in the whites - use blendif slider on the whites in the image on this top layer to effectively mask out the whites and remove them from the fix.


  • Karen October 10, 2011 04:15 pm

    Worked fine but found that white turned a bluish cast and required remonal each time I used this technique

  • Anna June 18, 2011 02:10 pm

    How do you record this action to reuse it?

  • Diana Mikaels October 2, 2010 11:17 am

    Thanks a lot Helen! You are doing a great job. I've read many of your tutorials, and they are just excellent :) You may be proud of yourself!
    I found it particularly useful to know what Lab Mode actually means, and that you can use an 'action' to spare time. I want my color shots to look like color shots, that is, vivid. If I wanted monocrome or grayscale, then I also know what to do!
    I became curious about Lab Mode on a different tutorial. It connected Lab Mode with USM Unsharp Mask, in order to avoid halos and artifacts.
    Very good!! I'm glad I read this :)

  • Shane April 18, 2010 05:59 am

    This tip is wonderful. My pictures look like they did to me when I decided to take them. Awesome advice.

  • okanagaon photographer March 17, 2010 02:50 am

    LAB Color can be so amazing when used properly. Thanks for some more good tips.

  • Helen Bradley December 29, 2009 07:16 am

    @Marius - settle for the out of gamut areas. I get great big areas in my images too. However, when you return to RGB you will find most, if not all, of them disappear on the trip back.

    @beginner4ever check the curves dialog for a small grid icon and click that to get more 'boxes'. If you are using CS4 then you need to click the flyout menu and choose Curves Dialog Options to see the grid icon.


  • Beginner4ever December 28, 2009 03:19 pm

    why dont i have as many boxes in my curves adjustment screen?

  • Amanda December 5, 2009 06:04 am

    Thank you for this! I've never used Lab before. I tried it out on a random shot while reading over this and WOW. Just wow. I can already tell your tip will be a godsend for this budding photographer.

  • Nurul November 22, 2009 02:10 am

    I find this very helpful..thank u so much for sharing! ^_^

  • SWP November 4, 2009 10:30 pm

    nice tutorial I will have to try this out.

  • Marius Necula August 31, 2009 07:03 am

    Hi there!
    Nice tutorial, I really enjoyed it.
    One problem that I find is that when I'm adjusting the curves in Lab mode and View->Gamut Warning is checked it shows entire areas of images that are out of gamut (not sure what that mean). It's practically impossible to get the sliders to the exact same position from the edge, in the curves window, without getting rid of the out of gamut areas. This means either I have an image with a slight color cast, or out of gamut areas...

    Do you have any explanation for this, or how to avoid it?

  • Bob June 19, 2009 02:21 pm

    Too much effort for such simple effect. The reason you try to get a correct color out of an image is because its exposure isn't correct. Just play with the levels to get the same result in. It is faster, if you're editing lot of images.

  • Rusty Sterling June 17, 2009 04:15 am

    Wish I could just edit my previous post. After working with this process for a few days I realized that what it imparts is the look of Kodachrome to the images. What a great thing to learn from you. Since Kodachrome is no longer available, at least we can get the look of Kodachrome in our shots. I've even done some presets in my curves to quickly add the effect from mild to extreme (depending upon what the photo needs). Again, thanks for this wonderful tutorial.

  • Rusty Sterling June 12, 2009 03:39 am

    Great tutorial. It helped me salvage several nice but ho-hum photos into stunning captures. I practiced this with several photos and will make it part of my workflow when necessary. Thanks.

  • Alex June 1, 2009 01:47 am

    Just what i was looking for this week.

  • Isabelle May 31, 2009 07:48 am

    Thank you so much. I have several photos that were taken that could be used for my art, but they were all very bleak. Such a simple thing to do that won't destroy you work.

  • Matthias April 10, 2009 01:56 am

    i did some experimenting with this method and got nice results, but i found it sometimes gives a greenish color cast to the whole image.

  • Rob April 7, 2009 11:03 am

    Anyone know where I can find an action already made to do this??

  • Darek March 31, 2009 06:22 am

    For the effects shown I believe it would be easier to play with image/adjustments/hue & saturation as well as curves without having to switch to LAB mode. But anyway, it leads to the same effects so one can chose it's own technique.

  • Kwame Busia March 30, 2009 09:34 pm

    Also of note is the fact that LAB is *extremely sensitive in Photoshop so don't overdo it and test how it looks when printed to ensure your images are not over saturated!

  • Kwame Busia March 30, 2009 09:33 pm

    In Reply to Ted Erler and others who work primarily in CYMK, you can load your image up in LAB but switch to Multichannel colour mode BEFORE you switch back to CYMK. This will preserve the colours through the transition back to CYMK.

  • Geof Finch March 11, 2009 06:31 pm

    Great idea BUT for a professional photographer who wants the image professionally printed there can be a hurdle at the printers who generally requirie CMYK. My whole work flow from onboard camera to monitor to printer is based on CMYK .
    Thanks for article - another useful PS tool

  • Sarita February 21, 2009 05:52 am

    Wow, this is great! I'm just getting into editing with photoshop and learning about post-processing of digital photos. This tutorial has really done wonders for my landscapes!

  • Ted Erler February 4, 2009 05:54 am

    this question may apply to simple RGB as well, but what does Lab mean for printng in CMYK... I'm a designer at a newsper and I often get some beaufiful work in rgb or Lab, and the first thing I have to do is change it to cmyk. I've gotten pretty good over the years at preserving a lot of the intent of the original photo, but often times, it's a shame because all the photographer's or designers hard work is lost (this would be the case even if I were correcting for a high resolution magazine as well).
    I don't think photographers know enough about the printing process these days and often ends up making their hard work look not so great. RGB is light... CMYK is ink on paper and they are very differnet... maybe a good tutorial on this would be helpful...
    Thanks for this site... it's awesome and I always learn a lot.

  • Madison January 26, 2009 11:14 am

    i tried this in PS7 and i can't switch back to RGBmode after editing curves without flattening the image. is there another way i can go about it, or do i just not have a new enough version?

  • Marius January 23, 2009 06:05 am

    One of the best tips i've read latelly. Thanks and keep up the got work.

  • Derek January 21, 2009 04:09 am

    I set this up as an actions set (according to the settings in the tutorial)(I know, I know, it's meant to be a guide and not settings specific) and applied it to several photos. From duplicates of the same images, I applied only additive saturation to the image and voila... identical photographs. This workaround might be helpful in small areas that need extra color, but if you can get the same results from a masked layer adjustment of hue/saturation, why go through all the trouble?

  • Annie7 January 20, 2009 12:28 am

    Hi, I tried this out, and the difference was wonderful! Thank you! But my picture increased tremendously in file size . Did I do something wrong, or how would I reduce it in photoshop?

  • Austin_HXC January 16, 2009 04:32 am

    I you find this too time-consuming, then you could just make a PhotoShop action and then just adjust the opacity of the 2nd Layer, and you're set!

  • Kevin January 13, 2009 03:22 pm

    Excellent post, I was wondering how one would go about editing post-photos within Photoshop. Will try this out tonight.

  • Richard Heath January 13, 2009 03:10 pm

    This was a wonderful tutorial! I must admit that i have not as much as bothered with lab mode since my very first days as a Photoshop user....that must be Photoshop 6. Thank you s much!

  • Paddy January 7, 2009 11:23 pm

    This method is simply amazing. I had never really played around in different color modes but this really does give amazing results. Thanks for opening my eyes to the world of LAB.

  • Helen Bradley January 7, 2009 05:14 pm

    I'm sorry Frans - I omitted explaining this step. To do this, display the Layers palette by choosing Window > Layer if it isn't already visible. Click the top layer so it is selected in the Layer palette. Now look at the top of the palette, there is a box on the left hand side which shows the word Normal. Click the arrow to its right and a list of Blend Modes appears. From this, choose a different blend mode to use such as Overlay. These blend modes affect how this layer is 'blended' with the layers below. You can get some very cool effects using them.

  • Frans December 29, 2008 10:56 pm

    Great post, will play with yhis. Somewhere at the end you write "In some cases altering the blend mode of the top layer can yield pleasing results. The blend modes in the Overlay, Soft Light, Hard Light, Vivid Light, Linear Light and Pin Light grouping in the Blend Mode list give the best results. You can also duplicate the top layer and apply different blend modes to each copy to bring out different areas of the image."
    Sorry, don't know how to alter the 'blend mode of the top layer'. Some help is welcome

  • Alan Nielsen December 13, 2008 04:10 am

    I learned this technique from Scott Kelby. Great to use for certain scenarios.

  • Jordan Oroshiba December 9, 2008 10:56 am

    This is working really well for me. Much simpler than changing all three RGB channels...

    by the way picasa does something similar with its "I'm feeling lucky" button, it enhances color, and cuts haze. PICASA AND PHOTOSHOP ROCK!

  • Robin Ryan December 8, 2008 05:06 am

    I tried it and was pleased... but I think it would be easy to go overboard. Anyways, here's my result: http://flickr.com/photos/robinryan/3088479058/

  • Zach December 7, 2008 08:45 pm

    Would it be possible for someone to walk through this tutorial using GIMP? Actually, it would be great if all posts like this one could be walked through in GIMP as well. I realize that not everyone uses GIMP, but it's a heck of a program considering it's free.

  • theron December 7, 2008 08:12 am

    Great effect - I've been looking for something like this, thanks! I use GIMP (not a snob, just an amateur who can't justify the cost of PS). The video link in Nabil's comment is a good one, but in GIMP 2.6 the Decompose selection has been moved to Colors > Components > Decompose, then Select Lab colorspace. The rest of the process works just like this tutorial. Use Colors > Components > Compose and be sure to select Lab to put the layers back together. Thanks!

  • amore December 6, 2008 03:39 pm

    aha! very nice tutorial.. I've been wondering how to pop colors like this! thanks!

  • themisfit December 6, 2008 12:42 pm

    Amazing tip thanks for sharing.

  • jef cris December 5, 2008 07:22 pm

    very good info. cheers!

  • Rook December 5, 2008 06:18 pm

    Great tip..thanks for sharing

  • Ross December 5, 2008 06:14 am

    I also want to know what advantage this offers over simply using the Hue/Saturdation sliders...

  • Albert December 5, 2008 04:57 am

    I like the tutorial a lot. However, I was wondering if switching between modes (rgb to lab and back to rgb) degrades the image. For instance if you switch from RGB to CMYK this is a degradation of the image because colors are originally RGB in the computer and camera and colors have to be immolated and extrapolated to closest values. Does switching between LAB and RGB do the same?

  • Wolfgang December 5, 2008 04:17 am

    Gentlemen...shoot RAW and you won't need to switch back and forth, just adjust directly in the CAmera RAw dialog..

    Cool tut btw ;)

  • Ann December 5, 2008 02:35 am

    Didn't know about this option to adjust color saturation in Photoshop. I DUGG IT. Thank you - ann

  • Kyle December 5, 2008 02:32 am

    How do I make this an action so I don't have to do it all every time?

  • Brian December 5, 2008 01:53 am

    Thank you so much I tried it out last night.


  • Fred December 5, 2008 12:56 am

    Great tip. I tried it out and wow! Thanks

  • Jim December 5, 2008 12:51 am

    Really great technique. Will be one of my most used actions.
    Love simplicity.

  • pao December 4, 2008 11:49 pm

    thank you very much for sharing. it will definitely make a lot of difference in my future photos.

  • Angie December 4, 2008 11:45 pm

    THANK YOU SO MUCH! It is amazing the things you can do with Photoshop (yes, I'm a newby to the photography world). And when instructions are given in easy to understand terms - all the better!!

  • Diego December 4, 2008 11:06 pm

    With GIMP:
    1) Follow the steps detailed in the post on duplicating a layer.
    2) Work with the dup. layer and from the image's menu choose:
    3) Drag the "Saturation" slide to the top most right.
    4) Do the "opacity" thing explained in the post.

    That's the way I do it.

  • redjade December 4, 2008 11:05 pm

    Recently I got a new mac and my old version of Photoshop didn't make the transition too well. So now I am using Gimp. First I started using it out of necessity. I had some photo projects to finish and I needed a simple photo editing program, but still with some sophistication - so I tried The Gimp. http://gimp.org

    Now I like it - i even love it! I have even become something of a Gimp Snob. It is not too much different from Photoshop, although I am sure people will tell me it is - I'd like to hear the details of why PS is ultimately better.

    As you may know already, Gimp is opensource and FREE.

    But, back to this great tutorial!....

    Does anyone have a Gimp version of this tutorial?

    I have not watched all of them yet - but there are some great video tutorials for Gimp at


  • Joakim December 3, 2008 10:15 am

    What a difference it makes! All my photos look almost BW after applying this adjustment:) Thank you for the tip.

  • Lilia December 3, 2008 07:03 am

    I wonder if changing the colors in Camera RAW can achieve the same effect, I find it alot simpler having the sliders available for each color saturation.
    Great post though, I'll be trying this out with my next batch of photos!

  • Dustin Diaz December 3, 2008 03:46 am

    This is a good tutorial on lab. You can do pretty much the same things using Lightroom, which in the end is like different UI for Adobe RAW.
    The colors palette does wonders, being able to change saturation and luminosity on any particular color. For example, the first example in this article looks too orange around the frame, so I'd pull down the saturation on the oranges and yellows, but keep the colorful purple there.
    Someone else had a good suggestion in the comments to simply use the vibrancy control, as well as clarity to boost local contrast.

  • Mor December 3, 2008 03:15 am

    Very informative tutorial, gonna try this out.

  • Flo December 2, 2008 11:23 pm

    Wow, that's what I call a great and interesting post ;) I usually played with the Hue/Saturation mode to adjust the colors in my pictures, but this seems like a more effective way of creating creative and colorful pics :)
    Thanks for sharing, I learned something new again!

  • Nabil December 2, 2008 05:36 pm

    You can also work with LAB in Gimp. Here is a nice and simple tutorial video I came across.


    Thanks for this interesting aspect to image processing.

  • werner December 2, 2008 05:04 pm

    Cool - the results are just cool and with a homemade Photoshop action it's just a 2-stepthing (starting the action and then adjusting the transparency/blending mode)

  • Simon December 2, 2008 04:18 pm

    Great tutorial. The results are great. Thanks!

  • scott December 2, 2008 12:01 pm

    LAB is really shines when you work with things that are close to the same color, like a forest of pines, or clouds in a sky. When you have a ton of different colors, it offers no real advantage over curves in RGB. Play with it when messing with clouds and you will see what I mean.

  • Jannis December 2, 2008 11:44 am

    Great technique. I use a slight variation in tricky situations however:

    Once back in RGB mode (after the LAB process) duplicate the altered layer once (so you got 3 layers total) then change the top layer to 'Color' blending mode and the second layer to 'Luminosity' blending mode, now adjust only the opacity on the Luminosity layer, this will give you full colour while allowing accurate contrast/brightness adjustment.

    Great post.

  • Arnar Olafsson December 2, 2008 10:19 am

    I agree with Jim Fitzsimmons.

    I tried both ways - the LAB way with curves and just RGB with curves.. can't really tell the difference in the final photo.

  • Reznor December 2, 2008 10:17 am

    As always in Photoshop, all roads lead to Rome.
    Personally I find this solution here too laborious but to each his own.
    By the way, EVERY technique is non-destructive if you keep a copy of the original in the background. So this is not really special.

  • CreativeWisdom December 2, 2008 09:28 am

    Nice article! Great information - thanks for sharing!

  • Grant Northsby December 2, 2008 08:56 am

    thanks for this tutorial - it really works. I've also been checking out your site Helen - you write great tutorials. I do hope we see more of them here at this site.

  • 5cheherazad3 December 2, 2008 08:05 am

    When I discovered this technique a few months ago, I couldn't believe how much it improved a dull photo. It's now a permanent part of my processing for most of my shots. Excellent article.

  • Jeff December 2, 2008 06:48 am

    Would the Vibrance control in Lightroom produce the same results?

    There's the color picker in LR to control particular colors. Which would be the best control to use to enhance color in LR?

  • Image-Y December 2, 2008 06:41 am

    Another way I use to add some POP to my images is by using the soft light layer blending mode. I actually did a tutorial on this technique here:

  • Michael Redig December 2, 2008 06:21 am

    How is this any different than simply adjusting saturation on a duplicate layer and then changing its opacity?

  • m4rc December 2, 2008 06:04 am

    This looks great... but I cannot find something similar in GIMP. Can anyone help me?



  • Julie McLeod December 2, 2008 03:47 am

    Great information in this tutorial as well as in the subsequent comments.

    Please note that Photoshop Elements users can access LAB processing by using a free plug-in called SmartCurve found here:


  • Nathan December 2, 2008 02:47 am

    From my experience, Jim's assumption is pretty accurate. I've used LAB for color correction like this for awhile, but I've found that in many cases, simply adjusting the curves in RGB produces comparable results.

    I know it's a relatively simple process to switch to LAB mode, but having to use the menu system makes it a little tedious and time consuming - switching back and forth. Maybe I'll set up a hot key for this.

    Last thought: this is much more effective with RAW files, as they preserve luminosity information; with jpgs, there's almost no difference between adjusting curves in LAB or in RGB, in my opinion.

  • TechNomad December 2, 2008 02:21 am

    I really wish there was a "Print" stylesheet associated with this site. I like to be able to print material off for archival and reference purposes. Other that that: lovin' the site.

  • Ross Scrivener December 2, 2008 01:44 am


    Brilliant post, I feel I've actually learnt something!

  • Jim Fitzsimmons December 2, 2008 01:15 am

    I wonder: could you get the same results with levels and curves, and not have to fart around with the LAB color space? I bet 2 mins with levels and or curves would fix the before photos just as much.

  • My Camera World December 2, 2008 01:02 am

    LAB is one of my key tools for enhancing colour or most importantly removing local colour casts such as different lightning filaments or that dreaded blue haze in landscapes.

    I have LAB presets that I load when doing standard curves to se how the colour is reacting. Several just to boost colour and some just for blue haze removal.

    I perform this, as with most changes, on a separate layer so as to not destroy original and if needed mask in only some changes.

    It you establish measure set points with the Eye-dropper then with the curves you can hand tunes changes, like different lighting colour casts, in several tonal ranges by building a strange shaped curve and if needed local masking.

    Niels Henriksen

  • Fernando December 2, 2008 01:01 am

    Wow.. Very nice. I am going to have to try this. I usually just play with the Hue/Saturation feature in Photoshop to get my desired colour. I'll have to compare this to doing it that way and see which I like better.
    Great post!

  • Julie McLeod December 2, 2008 12:48 am

    Great information. Thank you.

    For those using Photoshop Elements, LAB mode can be invoked using a free plug-in called SmartCurve which can be downloaded here:


  • James December 2, 2008 12:43 am

    great non destructive technique...first good post in a LONG time...