Color Theory and the Curves Adjustment Layer


Color Theory for Photographers


Lesson Info

Color Theory and the Curves Adjustment Layer

So, here's our Curve. How many people in here really understand curves? Okay, a couple, a couple on the iffy side, okay. People at home are probably like, "Uh, I really don't, please tell me." So, they idea behind curves is that, to me, the most powerful tool in any application, I don't care what application it is, whether you're using Photoshop, Adobe Camera Raw, Lightroom, On1, doesn't matter what you're using. The most powerful tool is the Curves adjustment layer because it gives you three adjustments in each curve. It gives you the highlights, it gives you the shadows, and it gives you the midtones. And it allows you to restrict your highlights, your midtones, and your shadows, and only modify one to make one lighter or darker, or more green or more red, or more blue or more yellow. So, if we look at this picture here, this area up here, this top, what I call a section, I guess, this top four area, this is gonna be your highlights. You bring it up, it's gonna make them lighter, bri...

ng it down it's gonna make them darker. This section right here is gonna be your midtones. You bring it up, it's gonna make those midtones brighter, bring it down, it's gonna make them darker. Now you're thinking, "Well, if I have a curve "and I just bring it up, it's also gonna "do something to my lights and my darks, right?" Well, if you do a three point curve, put a point here, put a point here, you can really isolate your midtones. You can isolate your highlights and you can isolate your shadows. So, where does this become really important? Well, this becomes really important when we start to look at the different channels that we have. So, the Red Channel, Photoshop doesn't show you this. I'm showing you this. So, if you're taking notes, go ahead because this is really important. This Red Channel, if you move it up, is gonna make things more red. If you move it down, it's gonna make them cyan. You see how this relationship is working now? How the complementary colors are working? And you're gonna guess it right now, if I go to green, it's gonna be your Green Channel is gonna have green. If you move it up, magenta. If you move it down, and then the same thing, likewise, with blue, the Blue Channel is gonna get more yellow, okay? So, if we look at our overall Curves adjustment layer, we have ultimate control with a Curves adjustment layer. Really awesome control because now we have our tonal values in the RGB Channel, which is all of those channels together, which is essentially the luminance. We have the Red Channel, the Green Channel, and the Blue Channel. And within those channels, we can make our highlights more red, or our highlights more cyan, or our midtones more red, or more cyan. You see how now, as a photographer/painter, you can go into those colors and start really pushing the mold on what these colors actually get represented when it comes to manipulation of the image. Now with curves, this is really one of those things where you can get into correction, you can get into actual color correction with curves. Or you can use curves for exaggeration, for things like cross processing. So with this image, if we looked at actually color correcting it and reverse engineering the color palette that I chose for this. Obviously, this image is a macro of a bee, and this bee is actually like, that big. This is like the most insanely lucky shot I've ever gotten with my macro, and it's with the first shot I ever took with it, and I've never gotten anything like it. It's one of those like, "Awe, wah wah wah." But it's a bee that is actually a green bee. It's not a yellow bee, but I wanted to get this complementary color scheme going with the flower in the background with the bee in the foreground. So, if you reverse engineer this and you wanted to get that color temperature back, you have many things that you could do. But one of the things is the curves because it's a really good example photo. You know, as instructors we like to set ourselves up with things that just work. This is one of those. So, if I go into the Red Channel, and I start moving this up, notice how, it didn't go to red, hold on one second. If I go into the Red Channel, and I move this up, the whole image is getting more red. If I move it down, it's getting more cyan. So, you see how now we're doing color correction to the image as a whole. Now, this is a global thing. It's happening to the entire image. When we get to the senior level, if I haven't lost you yet, we're gonna do this in a way that's gonna give you ultimate control over every color in your image that is just gonna (explosion sound effect) I hope. If not, then I fail. Then we'll go into the Green Channel. We boost this up we're gonna get more green. We bring it down, we're gonna get more magenta. So, look at the intensity and the conversation that's happening with this image now. Now, it becomes more about the flower. Now, it's more about the bee, alright? So, from a color correction standpoint, what is correct? Well, what is correct is actually subjective. If we go into the Blue Channel, bring this up, make it a little bit more blue. Bring it down, make it a little bit more yellow, which is actually probably a little bit more natural to where it was. So, you can actually reverse engineer things too. And this is a great way to look at, I don't wanna, I don't wanna be rude here, but you see someone who's got a really great color palette, and you kinda wanna, let's not say steal. You wanna appropriate. You can start playing with these curves and reverse engineering how they made that image look the way they made that image look with curves. Now, is curves the only way to do that? No, there's a bunch of other ways to do it, but curves is one of them. So, let's talk about cross processing. That was the technical way that we can use curves. But here's another great Adobe stock image that works out great, as an instructor, to set yourself up. So, if we go into cross processing, is anyone familiar with what actually cross processing is? So, what cross processing is, it was, if you had two different films, you have your analog film and then you have your slide film, they each had different chemicals that you had to process them in. So, I don't know if the first photographer that did this was being creative or it was an accident, but they processed the slide film in the regular analog chemicals, and then the analog film in the slide chemicals. And what happened was, because the colors have a certain chemistry for a reason, all of the images look completely different than what they would look like in... It was a high fashion type thing, and you see it a lot now. You see a lot of high fashion images where there is this really interesting kind of cross processed look on the image. And this is where curves get really fun to experiment with, and actually the way I started to begin to understand curves was through this process. So, I highly, highly recommend you do this. So, a lot of times we take curves for face value for what curves is, with the RGB. When we first make that adjustment layer, we add the RGB layer, and that's what we first start adjusting. And sometimes we just, we just leave. We go, "Okay, that looks good enough for me." But what happens if we go into the color red, we make those curves come down really far in that Red Channel to get a really nice cyan in the dark areas. But then say, "You know what, let's bring "that up in the highlights." So, our darks get more cyan. Complete control over what's happening to the tonal values in your image when it comes to color. Take it even further, we can go into the greens and say, let's make our highlights a little bit more on the, actually I'm on my blue right now. Let's make our highlights a little bit more blue or a little bit more yellow. You're completely changing the conversation that is happening between the viewer and the photograph at this point. With a conscious idea of how color manipulates that individual. Remember, we talked about color and mood and how color has a psychological effect on the individual? So, if we come down here, we drop this down, we're now making those dark areas more on the yellow side, or making those dark areas more on the blue side. But a really good cross process effect is gonna have a really interesting kind of color tone and color palette to it. So then if you go into those greens, and we look at the magentas, add some more magenta to those midtones, and then bring this up in here, and then maybe do something like this. Again, I'm just experimenting cause that's what I do, I like to play like a little kid in Photoshop. I turn that layer off, turn that layer on. The thing is here, there's no right way to cross process. You know, we don't really know what's gonna happen, especially in this digital world where we don't have to ruin our negatives or our film at all anymore. Play, experiment, it's not gonna hurt you. It's not gonna bite, and the Curves adjustment layer looks like it will, but it won't. It doesn't have teeth. The histogram does, but the curve doesn't. So, and you can even pinch these in, if you look at, you know, where that green is starting to clip in, you can bring that clip over here, start getting a nice interesting looking color in your image. And because it's on a Curves adjustment layer, you could've either made an action for this, or if you're in Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom adjusting these curves, you can make a preset for this so that's your go to cross process effect. It's your go to effect that you're making. Now notice that when we use that curve, we use that curve for both the manipulation of the image and the exaggeration of those colors, and also for correction of those colors. So, never forget, there's always two sides to this coin. The technical perfection side of things, or the artistic exaggeration side of things. And I would encourage you to have a nice balance of both of them, especially when you start getting in the artistic realm. It's a lot of fun to play in there, and it took me a long time to get myself to a point where I was really comfortable doing that.

Class Description

Color Theory is often referred to as "Painter's Knowledge." However, the truth is that having a strong foundation in Color Theory as a photographer can make a world of difference in your finishing effects and help you define your artistic style. Post processing expert Blake Rudis walks through Color Theory from the basics to the practical application so that you can improve your photography, post processing techniques, and style.


Cheryl Tarr

Blake shares some very interesting concepts and tricks which I hope to learn how to use. As a beginner who is still struggling with Photoshop, it went too fast but it is a short class where he covered a lot of ground. I will need some more basic understanding of Photoshop and then I want to watch this again to get a better grip on the tricks he showed. I can see where learning the material in this class will improve my processing workflow and help me bring to fruition the vision I have in my head for where I want an image to end up. Thank you!


Mind blown in this short class! MORE, MORE, MORE...I'm going to go find his other classes right now. He does go pretty quick but the tidbits of amazing tricks using curves and gradients are amazing!


I really enjoyed Blake’s class. He is very clear and concise and I found it very helpful to learn a bit more about colour interaction and how to play with it. I would also like to know how to add the zone chart.. many thanks!