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How To Separate colors In Photoshop

How To Separate colors In Photoshop

I couple of months ago I posted a blog entry about color theory. I had recently read and been amazed by an article on the BBC website entitled the science of optical illusions. Essentially it argued that we perceive and recognize our surroundings primarily through color, i.e. I can tell the difference between a tiger and a forest because the lion is orange and the forest is green. Or to put it another way we recognize that there is a big distinction in color between the lion and the background. 

The article went on to argue that we evolved this way as a defense mechanism, as a way of identifying threats and surviving. All very interesting, but what does this mean for photography? All too often I have tried to edit an image, usually a landscape, and tried to draw out as much color as possible. The simplest way is to use the vibrancy or saturation controls. But foolishly this is one of the most destructive things we can do to an image; it can result in out of gamut colors, garish tones and banding. 

What is more it isn’t necessary. The BBC article demonstrates that color is subjective and that our perception of color is often affected by other colors that are in close proximity – note the Rubik’s cube example beneath. The Rubik’s cube demonstrates that one color can look completely different when surrounded by other colors. This being the case, if we want to create a more colorful image it is important to separate colors, or in other words to create distinction between them. This will have the effect of creating a more colorful image rather than an over saturated one.

Note that the square in the top middle looks different to the square in the middle of the front – they are actually the same color

Saturation and/or Vibrance

The problem with the vibrancy and saturation sliders in Lightroom and Photoshop Mac is that they do just that, they push the existing colors harder but they do nothing to separate them. They are a good place to start though and are important tools for identifying the colors that already exist in an image. Remember this blog post is all about tweaking the colors that are already present in the image in order to create separation and not so much about saturating them. You may find it useful to crank these sliders way up in order to identify what colors are hiding in the file and then to take them back down again before continuing.

Change the Camera Calibration profile

The very next thing I do in my editing workflow is to change the camera calibration inside of Lightroom or ACR (Adobe Camera Raw). When you shoot in Raw (you do shoot in Raw right?) the camera records the different picture styles that you could have shot in, for example Landscape or portrait. These used to be important when we shot jpeg because they defined how the camera interpreted color and contrast. When you shoot jpeg that interpretation is ‘baked’ into the file, but when you shoot in Raw you have the choice of applying them in Lightroom or ACR instead. The Camera Calibration panel inside of Lightroom and ACR is loaded with the different picture styles that your camera has and it also includes a few Adobe ones. Experiment with the different calibrations until you find one that’s close to how you want the final image. Also note that the Nikon shooters usually get a few more than the Canon shooters.

This is a real quick and easy way to create difference between the colors. But be careful as this method also changes contrast and saturation with it. You can also tweak the colors yourself with the RGB (Red, Green & Blue) sliders, offering various hues and saturations.

HSL or Hue, Saturation and Luminance

After getting the Camera Calibration where I would like it I also make changes to the Hue, Saturation and Luminance of my image. In Lightroom and ACR this panel is called HSL. The focus here is to change the Hue values for the different colors in order to create color separation. Starting from the top and working your way down is a good workflow otherwise your new changes tend to effect the old changes too much. This is a real quick and easy way of differentiating colors since both Lightroom and ACR already separate the hues for you, all you have to do is exploit it by changing them.

The beauty of all this is once you have found a combination of colors that you like you can save it as a preset for future use. Recently the kind folks at OnOne Software shared a set of free Lightroom presets that do just that. Note that these presets often do more than just alter the HSL of your image, but if you stick to the WOW-HSL presets they will get you started. These presets are a good starting point for your images and you can always tweak the sliders if they aren’t quite right for your image. Or if you find yourself going back to the same one again and again you should make a note of the exact changes that the preset is doing for future reference, and then you can apply those changes yourself.

Hue changes inside of Photoshop

Once you have moved your photo over to Photoshop there are many different ways to separate colors. One of the quickest ways to do this is with the Hue and saturation adjustment layer. Most people use this tool to simply saturate their photos, not many people know that you can do this on a color by color basis. Notice in the adjustment layer that there is a second drop down menu that allows you to select which color you want to change, and also note that there is a threshold at the bottom of the dialogue box which allows you to control how Photoshop divides the colors. An example where this may become handy is when adjusting greens I often find that Photoshop recognizes them as a yellow (maybe I’m a bit color blind), by simply adjusting the threshold I can get Photoshop to change only the greens in the image. Cool huh!

Another way I like to add color to an image is with a curves adjustment layer. In an earlier blog post I showed a cool method of masking called luminosity masking. When you combine this method with a curves adjustment layer you can increase mid tone contrast, which also increases saturation across the image. Or you can simply create a simple S curve in order to increase contrast and this will automatically increase color saturation in your image. If you don’t like what the contrast is doing to the image switch the blend mode to color and it will keep the color but not the contrast. If you like what the contrast is doing but don’t like the way it has affected the colors, switch the blend mode to luminosity.


These are the easiest and quickest ways that I know of to create color separation in your images. Remember that this is all about creating a difference between colors and not about saturating them and that just by creating difference you are actually creating a more colorful and therefore a more impactful image. In the near future, I will create a more advanced blog post about LAB mode. Using LAB mode is the ultimate method for creating differences in colors however it is too time-consuming and in-depth for this blog post. Until then.


Mark Campus

Mark Campus is a content marketer who owns Keenan’s room. A writer by day and a reader by night, he is loath to discuss himself in third person.