Photo Tinting and Saturation

An article by David Brooks on April 12, 2010


There are a lot of trends these days with how photos are processed. And though I’m a fan of standard “real life” colors, I’ll admit that I do have my camera tweaked a little bit on the saturated side. But when it comes to reviewing the photos I shoot it’s sometimes helpful to know how to mix in a little bit of color casting or partial saturation, just to make a photo a little bit more “complicated”.

Though this tutorial is written about Photoshop, the same principles would work in any photo editing program that supports layers and color adjustments.

The Starting Point

Open a photo, any photo, and process it the way you normally would. I’m nearly a purist when it comes to photo editing, preferring to adjust only brightness and contrast. In the photo here, I’ve only adjusted for a little bit of contrast, it’s basically directly from my camera. I should also say a quick “thank you” to my wife for modeling for me over the weekend. She’s the greatest!

My wife Kerry, the original photo

This photo is the starting point for anything else I want to do. It should stand on its own at a base level.

The next step in the process is to duplicate the layer, giving you two identical, plain-color layers.

Duplicating the background layer

Desaturation With the Channel Mixer

We’re not going to edit on the original layer for now, instead, click on the layer we just created. If we were to start adjusting things on the original there isn’t really a place to go, except to rely on the “undo” option. Also, it’s worth noting that a fully-saturated photo takes on a color tint much faster than a partially saturated one, so we’re going to start with desaturation.

You could click the “desaturate” button, but sometimes you want a little more control over how that desaturation happens. Click “Image” → “Adjustments” → “Channel Mixer” to bring up the panel.

The options for the channel mixer

You’re presented with sliders, covering the red, green and blue options, plus one for “constant”. But the first step is to tell it we want to adjust monochromatically.

With the photo presented as a grayscale image, you can adjust the red, green and blue sliders until your image looks exactly the way you want it to look.

The color mix in the desaturated version of the photo

Partial Saturation

The next step is very subjective and the numbers depend on the colors of the photo you chose. Adjust the opacity of the desaturated layer until you get a softer looking photo. The typical range of mine are somewhere between 50% – 70% opacity, but I shoot rather saturated photos to begin with. Whatever the number, you’ll end up with something like this, a “half saturated photo.”

The partially saturated version of the photo

Color Tinting

Sometimes all you want is a half-saturated photo, but occasionally there’s a photo that screams for color tinting. Color tinting is simply the process of skewing the natural colors of a photo. And you can do any number of effects with the final results.

Click back onto the background version. If you want to be extra careful, you can duplicate the background again and put it under the desaturated layer. Either way, click on the layer you’re going to adjust and go to “image” → “adjustments” → “color balance”.

You’ll see the three color sliders for each of the tonal ranges, shadows, midtowns and hi-lights. For me, the key is usually in subtlety, but you may find the extremes of the ranges achieve the look you’re wanting. In the first case I went for more of a green-blue tint, bringing out a bit of those darker, deeper tones. It looks a little on the cool side, but not so much that it edges into “horror movie” range.

The first color tint, a darker, green-blue mix

The second version goes a bit warmer with a red and magenta shift, giving the photo bit of a dated look. I’ve seen this type of color tinting in quite a few recent fashion ads.

The second color tint, wam reds and magentas

Practicality Versus Trendiness

Would I use these options very often? No. Would I shoot my next family portrait and then shift the colors? Probably not, unless I was shooting a very particular family. For the most part I see this as one-off kind of effect. To me, it’s likely the thing that I’ll look back on in twenty years and think, “I really like that photo, but I wish I would have stayed with the original colors.” On the other hand this could be the exact middle-ground a particular photo demands, somewhere between color and black and white.

Get articles from me, right in your inbox.

(I promise, no spam.)

Categorised in: ,

When My Daughter Met The Queen

A Photo of David Brooks
About David Brooks

David Brooks is the owner of the small creative studio, Northward Compass, based out of Orlando, Florida. He writes electronic and ambient music as Light The Deep, and fantasy stories about a place called Elerien.

© Copyright 2005 - 2018 David N Brooks. All rights reserved.