When I think of Photoshop I think of precision and creativity. The RAW editors which many of you will be familiar with like Lightroom, Capture One, and so on, are wonderful tools but they lack the scope and precision of Photoshop; speaking generally, that is. Color grading is the process of altering the pre-existing colors within your image and through Photoshop we are able to gain very precise control of it.

This article will take you through three precise methods for color grading within Photoshop. I’ll be covering Hue & Saturation, Selective Color, and Apply Image.
using hue and saturation to color grade images in photoshop

Color Grading Using Hue And Saturation

Once you’ve created a Hue & Saturation layer, you’ll see a window similar to the one above. Compared to Selective Color, which I’ll demonstrate in a minute, there are two great features of Hue and Saturation; the Color Picker tool and the color range sliders. The Color Picker tool (the hand and arrows symbol) allows you to select a color to adjust simply by clicking on your image. While not ground-breaking it’s a useful feature, especially if you’re unsure which color to adjust. The color range sliders at the bottom of the panel allow you to refine your selection and precisely target one particular color, or even just a few shades of a particular color.

Side note – When making adjustments to the color range sliders, I often drag the saturation to 100 so I can see exactly what I’m selecting. Check out this article for a more detailed explanation.


explanation of the hue and saturation panel in terms of color grading

For demonstration purposes, I thought I’d color-grade the trees a little, making them more green, and more yellow. To do so, I grabbed the color picker tool and clicked on the trees. This showed me that, in fact, there was more yellow in the trees than green, and hence, the Yellow channel was selected. From here I made adjustments to the Hue and saturation sliders until I was happy with the result. I rarely touch the luminosity slider but don’t be afraid to do so should you like the effect.

two possible color grades using hue and saturation

Using Selective Color For Very Precise Color Grading

Selective Color dwarfs most other adjustment layers when it comes to color grading control. Not only can you independently adjust the reds, yellows, cyans, blues, and magenta’s, but you can make more global alterations to the highlights, mid-tones, and shadows. In addition, whereas Hue and Saturation give us the one slider to control the Hue, you’ll find three sliders in Selective Color which provide a far deeper level of control.


all the different possibilities for color grading using selective color

If you’re familiar with adjusting color in Curves, then Selective Color is quite similar but in slider form. The easiest way for you to learn is to open up Photoshop and have a play. You’ll notice that each slider has a name; Cyan, Magenta and Yellow. Moving the slider to the right will introduce that color, moving it to the left will introduce its opposite. Cyan > Red, Magenta > Green and Yellow > Blue. Finally, you’ll also notice a slider titled ‘Black’. This works in a similar way to Luminosity in Hue and Saturation but, in my experience, tends to work a little better.

the selective color panel in photoshop

So why use selective Color over Hue & Saturation? Both are quite similar but Selective Color is more precise in terms of your control over each color. As you’re given three sliders to control the given color of each channel, you have much more control, as well as the fact Selective Color brings the additional control to Highlights (Whites), Midtones (Neutrals), and Shadows (Blacks). It’s certainly not the quickest of Photoshop’s color grading tools,but it is one of the best for control freaks like me.

Apply Image, A Color Grading Curve Ball

Using Apply Image you can create extremely precise masks which you can use to apply your color grades to the highlights or shadows. Hang on Max, aren’t you just repeating yourself here? Didn’t you just say we can do that using Selective Color? Yes, I did, BUT you can have even more control by using Apply Image. Let me first show you how to do it and then I’ll say why it’s great for added control.

the masks created using apply image in photoshop

Create a new layer, I often use Curves here, and go to Image > Apply Image. You’ll be presented with a window similar to the one below. Your source will be the name of the image you have open. For our purposes today, leave Layer as ‘Merged’, Channel as ‘RGB’ and Blending as ‘Normal’. The only setting I want you to alter is Invert. With it ticked, you’ll create a mask for the Highlights, un-ticked and your mask will be for the Shadows. The two masks you can see above are what will result from this method.

how to find apply image in photoshop

using apply image to color grade in photoshop

The reason this is better than Selective Color is because you can make further refinements to the mask. Let’s take the shadows in the example image. Selective Color will allow you to adjust the Shadows but as a large portion of this image would be contained within the shadows, you’d be making a very global adjustment. Using the mask Apply Image has created for us, we can edit that mask using CTRL or CMD + M/L (for curves or Levels) and narrow down our selection even further.

Side note – Apply Image is a very powerful technique which can be applied to many things. For example, you could use the same masks to make precise adjustments to tones.

uisng blend if to color grade in photoshop

A Little Bonus For The Control Freaks Out there

On any of the adjustment layers you create, if you decide you’d like to quickly limit their effect to either the Highlights or Shadows, double click on them and use ‘Blend If’. By alt-clicking on the sliders, they split (see photo above), this allows you to taper the effect off, gradually removing it from either the Highlights or Shadows. This technique is one I use all the time; it’s quick and easy to get your head around.

3 Precise Methods For Color Grading In Photoshop

Color Grading Summary

You don’t always need this level of control when color grading. More often than not, I make more global changes to the Highlights, Midtones and Shadows from inside a RAW editor. However, if you have the time to spend on an image, or want to make very precise alterations for whatever reason, then the methods covered today will come in very handy.


Depending on the job, one of my favorite ways to color grade an image is by using the SLR Lounge Preset System. I’ve been using it for years and find it to be a versatile tool which allows me to quickly achieve very pleasing results, you can find it here. If you’re contemplating becoming a premium member, then bear in mind that the preset system is thrown in for free! Click here to check out our Premium Membership.