Beginner Color Adjustment
The following is a guest post by Max Therry, an architect and photography enthusiast, who runs PhotoGeeky.

Color adjustment is one of the essential, yet potentially bewildering aspects of photo editing. To the inexperienced, it can be totally baffling. With some programs, there are a number of ways to do any single adjustment, while others are limited in what they’ll let you do. Yet from elements of color correction, to using color changes for special effects, learning how color works in digital images is one of the more important editing pieces of know-how you’ll ever learn.

Tools for Adjusting Photo Color

The photographer’s basic toolkit includes the ability to adjust the white balance, saturation, and overall tone. More advanced controls include curves and levels (both of which are tone adjustments), the Hue/Saturation/Luminance (HSL) panel, and split toning. All of these make up your editor’s palette.

  • White Balance: balances the color temperature in your image so that objects that appear white in person are truly white in your photo. Ideally this will be set properly in-camera, but if it isn’t, you’ll need to either adjust by using your program’s color temperature sliders or its white balance eye-dropper tool. (Place the eye-dropper over something that’s supposed to be white or neutral gray in your photo and your program will automatically adjust the color temperature.)
  • Tone: Basic tonal adjustments includes whites, blacks, highlights, and shadows, as well as exposure and contrast. Some editing programs provide an “auto tone” or “smart tone” option.
  • HSL: A panel full of sliders allowing you to adjust the hue, saturation, and luminance of each individual color. Quite powerful in creating special effects.
  • Curves: One of the most powerful tools for adjusting color and contrast. It takes some study and practice to learn to use it, but once you do, the world of color adjustments will open up dramatically before you.
  • Levels: Corrects the tone and color balance in an image. It functions similarly to curves, but is a little easier to learn. Most folks choose either one or the other. MacOS Photos has a levels adjustment, but no curves. Lightroom sticks to Curves. (Photoshop has both.)
  • Split Color Toning: Allows you to make the highlights of an image one color and the shadows a different color. Used often in color grading.

Which Photo Editor Should I Choose?

Beginner color adjustment appsEvery editor has its strengths and weaknesses, so which one you choose will largely depend on a) how deeply you want to get into the editing process and b) what kind of interface works best for you. For example, Photos is meant to be a quick, basic editor, where most adjustments are somewhat automated. So if you want a quick turn-around time and don’t want to spend too much time on your photos, it’s a great choice. (It’s also a great choice if you already have your photos stored there.)

Lightroom is the photography standard and interfaces seamlessly with Photoshop, but many modern editors have been making quick gains and intends to meet Lightroom head-on for both functionality and ease of use. These programs can be used effectively by beginners and yet have a lot of editing power for the deeper adjustments. They are intuitive (though very different from each other) and give you the option to stay on the surface or go deep-whichever works best for you. Some programs, like Luminar that have added benefit of functioning as a plugin for Lightroom, Photos, and Photoshop, if you have an established workflow with one of the latter programs.

Photoshop, the grand daddy of them all, often takes a lot know-how to do even the simplest of corrections (like white balance). It’s best for more advanced edits-there are still many corrections that are much easier to do in Photoshop, but if you haven’t taken the time to dive into its depths, it can be daunting to try. If you’re not already using Photoshop, it’ll be much easier to do your color adjustments in Photos, Lightroom, or other program.

Screen Calibration

Unless you calibrate your monitor or screen, you’re likely to be seeing different colors on your screen than others are seeing on their screens. Luckily, for everyday photo editing and image viewing there’s a standard for what these colors should look like and your Mac comes equipped to guide you through the process. Simply go to the “Displays” tab of your system preferences, choose the “Color” tab, and click on “Calibrate.” The system software will then walk you through the calibration process. Just be sure to save the profile when you’re finished.

How to Adjust Colors in Photos

Adjusting color in Apple Photos

Apple Photos offers a surprising amount of color adjustment options

Making certain color adjustments in Photos is extremely easy. Simply double-click on the photo you want to work on, click “Edit,” and then click “Adjust.” If you don’t see the type of adjustment you’d like in the adjustment panel, click “Add” at the top. From there a drop-down menu will appear and you can choose either “Color” or “Light” for basic adjustments, or “White Balance” or Levels” for more advanced edits. Believe it or not, the amount of options Photos gives you covers a pretty wide spectrum. But if you’re wanting more options you can always install plugins that will give you a broader range of changes. If you’re the sort of person who likes the visualness and simplicity of Photos-or just like the fact that its free and/or has some great cataloguing tools-you may not need anything else.

How to Adjust Colors in Lightroom


Lightroom is the industry standard app for professional photographers

Lightroom is pretty straightforward. Just enter into the Develop module and all the adjustments will show up in the panel to the right, largely in the order that many photographers use in their work flow. It begins with white balance and tone adjustments (including an auto option), and then moves on down through presence, curves, HSL, etc.

How to Adjust Colors in Luminar


Luminar is slowly capturing a wide array of users due to it’s simple but thorough interface

Luminar is a bit different-it does it adjustments through the use of filters. To choose an adjustment, you simply go to “add filter” and then choose from the pop-down list. If you’re looking for more standard adjustments, i.e. HSL, curves, levels, etc.-they’re all there as well. You can add as many filters as you like. If you have all of your photos catalogued in MacOS Photos, but like the presets and editing power of Luminar, simply use the plugin version and you’re all set.

Other Options


Pixelmator is among the many other photo adjustment apps

While Lightroom and clearly some of the photo-editing heavy hitters, they do come with a price. If you’re looking for a slightly less expensive program for color correction on the Mac, Pixelmator Pro not only allows you to edit and retouch photos, but you can also draw and paint with it. Color adjustments in Pixelmator include all the standard things like white balance, levels, curves, HSL and a special histogram that shows the amount of every color in your images – check out the short video about its capabilities here. It currently retails for $59.99.

If you’re looking to go more in the visual art direction, Affinity Photo is a great choice and usually retails for $49.99. In each of these programs, color adjustment runs along pretty standard lines. It all just depends on how much time you’re looking to put in – all the adjustments are explained in detailes here.

There are many other editing programs out there for the Mac as well, but these are some of the heavy hitters, with something for everyone.

Learning to adjust colors in your images is a bit of a learning curve, but with a little patience it’s not too difficult, and there are always more layers to be uncovered for those who want to go deeper. Whether you start with presets and mostly “auto” adjustments, dabble in sliders, or dive in deep, you’ll find what a big difference color correction and enhancement can do for your images.