Digital Outback Photo
- Photography using Digital SLRs


Workflow Techniques #086

"Tonality and Colors in Photoshop and Raw Converters"

essay by Uwe Steinmueller


Quite a few of our top photos are done in low contrast light. These images can get lost during our work as they don't look that good without any major tonal corrections (see this example).

This time we want to talk about color issues for these low contrast shots. Here is a photograph of beautiful dunes in strong overcast right in ACR 3.3 and without any corrections (means "auto" was off) :

flat image in ACR



The histogram sends a clear message: The black (darkest) point needs to be adjusted.

Our main focus will be on the dune sand. That is why we will have the levels restricted to the sand and corrected the sky before:

Corrected sky

Now on to fix the sand. This is simple with levels, right?

Levels dialog for a new adjustment layer

Image after using above levels in "normal" blending mode

Besides a clear contrast boost we also experience quite a bit of change in saturation and most likely hue. That is why we change the blending mode from "normal" to "luminosity":

Blending mode to "luminosity"

Best you stop here for a moment and compare these two pictures. Both enhance the contrast but the colors look very(!) different. For us the color changes through Levels in RGB (Curves do the same) are kind of arbitrary to us. Most of the times we neither want the pure contrast change shown in "luminosity" mode nor the over the top changes shown in "normal". For us the "truth" (means our intention) is somewhere in between.

Fortunately Photoshop layers offer a solution to get exactly this. We duplicate the adjustment layer (the one which is now in "luminosity" blending mode) and set it to "color" blending mode. Now we can adjust with the opacity of this layer how much color shift we want to apply.

Our layer set

Here is what these layers do:

  • Sky: Levels control the brightness of the sky
  • Luminosity: Controls the contrast without changing hues
  • Color: Here at opacity 41% controls the accepted hue/saturation change

Note: Blending mode Color changes Hue and Saturation. Best you also try to use the Hue and Saturation blending modes.

Here is a final version:

Final version

As I wrote in this article the outcome of this picture will be very subjective. You are the judge to get the image the way you like it. This whole article is about the possible control to set the image exactly how you like it. With just Levels/Curves (RGB and not in different channels) in "normal" mode you won't be able to have enough control.

What about RAW Converters?

Normally we would do all the tonality control in the RAW converter. Unfortunately most of the RAW Converters act more like Photoshop levels in "normal" mode. We know two exceptions:

  • RAW Developer: RAW Developer allows Curves in LAB mode and this way only to control the luminosity. Actually comparing images from RAW Developer with other converters made us write this article. We do all tonality control in RAW Developer with LAB luminosity curves.
  • LightZone: Tonality changes mostly only change the luminosity

We recommend in cases like this ( low contrast images) not to perform any tonality control inside the RAW converter. Save the file as 16 bit TIFF and finally tune the image in Photoshop. Of course if you like what you see in your RAW converter all is fine.

Colors in the RAW converter are also influenced by:

  • White balance settings
  • Camera color calibrations in the RAW converter

Final Note

Images like this dune photo are of course especially tricky because many different variations would work fine and it is even a matter of your mood how you like the outcome. Having a series of these images makes things even worse (and we have quite a few). Check out our latest dune portfolio.



There is also a commercial tool called "Lobster" which works in Photoshop to accurately separate images into tonality and color. We recommend to look at the Lobster tutorials and manuals. Lobster is more precise than our approach but also introduces some more layers for your images.




This is one of the many techniques we will teach during the 2006 Summit. We will also work with you 1 on 1 and help you with your own images and with how to use this technique, and many others, in your own work. Click here to read a detailed description of the 2006 Digital Fine Art Summit.



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