Color grading is the process of adding color to an image beyond the normal or natural color balance that existed when the photograph was taken. It has traditionally been used in films to impart a specific mood, like the color green that signaled the characters were inside the matrix in the “The Matrix” movie franchise. Photographs, however, can also benefit from color grading, and have actually been doing so for a long time. Things like warming up the colors for images taken around sunset and adding extra blue to images of ice and snow are common examples.
Lightroom and Camera Raw added color-wheel-based color grading in 2020. Color grading an image could now be accomplished by simply dragging and dropping an icon on the color wheel to add that color to either the shadows, midtones, or highlights.
Photoshop, however, still lacks a similar feature. Curves, Levels, or Color Balance adjustments layers can be used for color grading, but doing so requires using multiple points on the Curves adjustment layer or adjusting multiple sliders on Levels and Color Balance. There is no native, drag-and-drop color grading tool inside Photoshop.
The TK8 plugin now adds color-wheel-based color grading to Photoshop. Shadows, midtones, and highlights can all be adjusted by simply dragging and dropping a matching icon (black, gray, or white square) on the color wheel. The further the square is placed from the center of the color wheel, the more intense the color. In addition to changing colors, the brightness of the different tonal ranges can also be adjusted with the slider at the bottom of the interface.
Using a color wheel greatly simplifies the color-grading process. Multiple colors and intensities can quickly be tested to find the right one. And while it’s certainly possible to color grade the entire image using the TK8 color grading interface, the real power of this feature lies in combining it with the different masks that the TK8 Multi-Mask module generates. Color grading has traditionally been associated with more global color adjustments to the image, but the TK8 masks allows it to be more specific and localized, while still providing the easy control that comes with the color-wheel interface. There’s even a specific color grading button in the module’s output section to a) automatically create the necessary color grading layer with the mask preview as the layer mask, and b) open the color grading interface to allow quick access to this functionality.
Color grading through masks also simplifies the entire color grading process. When color grading the entire image, it might be necessary to color grade all three tonal ranges—highlights, midtones, and shadows—to get the desired look. However, when color grading through a mask, it’s often NOT necessary to use all three tonal ranges. Simply color grading the midtones, for example, might be all that’s necessary to achieve the effect you’re looking for.
In the video below, Dave Kelly demonstrates how to combine color grading with different pixel-based masks generated with the TK8 Multi-Mask plugin. He first demonstrates color grading the entire image, but then starts narrowing it down, color grading the background separately. He then goes even further to work with luminosity masks, zone masks, and color masks as ways to constrain color grading to specific parts of the image. He even throws in using the mask calculator in the Multi-Mask module as a way to focus color grading right where it’s needed.
Color-wheel-based color grading provides a new option for controlling color inside Photoshop. Combining it with masks can make color adjustments even easier.
Be sure to subscribe to Dave Kelly’s YouTube channel for more TK8 videos.