Toning with Selective Color

Photoshop’s Selective Color tool is an incredibly powerful tool that makes an appearance in my workflow for every image, no matter how minor my corrections are. Many photographers shy away from it because it seems intimidating, but it’s quite simple and fun to use when you understand it.

Imagine you take a photo, and all of the colors present in that image are the only colors you have to work with. A painter wouldn’t work like this, would he? A painter would take all of the available colors and mix them until he gets a color that he likes. Selective Color is Photoshop’s version of a painter’s palette, allowing the photographer to mix colors in a subtle way that will make a big difference in the final photo.

When you go to Layer -> New Adjustment Layer and pick Selective Color, you’ll be presented with a dropdown menu and some sliders.

Colors lets you pick which color in your image you want to adjust. You can choose between Red, Yellow, Green, Cyan, Blue, and Magenta hues. You can also choose Whites, Neutrals, and Blacks – these are your highlights, midtones, and shadows, respectively.

Next you’ll see four sliders measured in a percentage – Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black. Moving these sliders adds or subtracts that color for the slider you are adjusting, within the overall color you have selected in the dropdown. This is where a little familiarity with the color wheel will help. A positive adjustment in Cyan will add Cyan and a negative adjustment will subtract Cyan – but don’t think of it as subtracting Cyan, rather, think of it as adding Red. So, if you have the Red channel selected and you move the Cyan slider to the left, all of the reds in your image will be adjusted towards a more pure red.


The Selective Color tool and how the sliders correspond to color corrections.

Decreasing the Cyan slider adds Red.
Decreasing the Magenta slider adds Green.
Decreasing the Yellow slider adds Blue.
Black adjusts the luminosity, which is to say you’re adding or subtracting black to the selected color.

There is one more option at the bottom, a toggle between Relative or Absolute. Just as it sounds, you can choose between making these adjustments relative to the colors present in the photo, or make these adjustments in absolute values regardless of which colors are present. If there is more blue in a photo than red, Relative adjustments to the blue channel will be stronger than those in the red channel whereas the adjustments will be equal with Absolute selected. In simpler terms, Relative adjustments will be much more subtle and this is what I almost always work with.

So let’s look at Selective Color in use. The following image is a RAW file imported into Photoshop and I’ve already adjusted the color balance in Lightroom. Looking at the photo I can see that the reds of the skin have too much magenta in them, and the cyans of the water have too much green in them.


Unprocessed photo before Selective Color correction – too much magentas in the skin and too much green in the water.

Skin tones usually fall in the reds and yellows, so I’ll start with Red and remove some magenta.  I’ll set magenta to -25% (adding green). Doing so made the skin a little too yellow, so I set yellow to -10% (adding blue). Now to fix the water. We’ll do this in the Cyan channel and add 30% magenta (removing the green cast) and remove 15% yellow (adding some blue). Now that I have my colors closer to the way that I want them, I can proceed with the rest of my workflow to process this file.



After adding green to the Red channel to fix the skin, and removing green from the Cyan channel to fix the water.

Other than fixing skin tones, Selective Color is very useful in landscapes to remove color cast from clouds that you may want pure white (use the white channel) and adding some blue to the sky (go to the blue channel and subtract yellow while adding black).

Now go make the colors in your images stand out!

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This entry was posted by John Peltier.

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