Steve's Photography Tips: Selective Color in Photoshop

Tips to help you improve your photos!

Today’s post picks up where the recent Steve’s Photography Tips post Processing Photos in Photoshop post left off, because as was mentioned there, Photoshop can do so much more than can be explained in one post. And even this post is just one small, but potentially powerful tool to use in Photoshop.

This time around, we will look at the Selective Color adjustment layer to see what all it can do. When you first hear the term “selective color”, you probably think of a photo that is all black and white except for one color, such as red. While some say that it can be overused, that type of photo is effective at grabbing your attention. However, that really isn’t what we are talking about here.

The Selective Color adjustment layer in Photoshop lets you adjust the values of different color ranges, so that you can make slight adjustments to the way your photo looks. Or as you will see in the example below, you can even make major adjustments. As with the Curve adjustment from the previous post, this one is nondestructive. In other words, it doesn’t actually change your photo, and you can easily turn it off or delete it and quickly be right back where you were to begin with.

For this example, we will use the same photo from Cocoa Beach that we ended with last time. If you don’t want to click back to the last post, here is how it looked when we were done:

Easily change colors and give your photos a new look with the Selective Color adjustment layer in Photoshop. Read all about it at Burnsland.

Not that bad overall, right? But suppose you want to give it a slightly different look? Maybe you want the sky to be a little more blue, or the sand to be a little more white? Just add a Selective Color adjustment and get to work.

Let’s start with changing the color of the sky. To begin with, add a Selective Color adjustment layer. You can get there by clicking the Selective color button, or by choosing “Layer/New Adjustment Layer/Selective Color” from the menu. Once you have that, select “Cyan” from the dropdown menu in the adjustment box, and adjust the values accordingly.

SPT-Photoshop Selective Color-screens-02a

I circled the Selective Color button above, and I also pointed at the layer that is added, which is right above the layer I want to adjust the look of. If the layers aren’t ordered how you want them, just drag them around to where you want them to be. And just ignore all of those other layers that I have in there for now.

On the left of the above partial screenshot, you can see the adjustments I made to the Cyans color range. I increased Cyan a lot to make the sky more blue, and then I also adjusted Magenta and Yellow to get it more to the blue that I wanted it to be. That gave the following result:

SPT-Photoshop Selective Color-screens-02

That is just a slight difference from the original, nothing too drastic. But sometimes those slight changes can make a big difference. Not here all that much, though. Stick with me; it gets better. So let’s keep going. To make the sky even more blue, let’s switch to the Blues color group, and make the following changes:

SPT-Photoshop Selective Color-screens-03a

The adjustments here were much the same as to the Cyans group, just to bring out the blue even more, while controlling the magenta and yellow tones in that blue color. That gives us this:

SPT-Photoshop Selective Color-screens-03

Still not a huge difference to most people, but I like this slight change better than the original.

The sand looks a little yellow here. And while Cocoa Beach is known for having cocoa-color sand instead of white sand (hence the name), we can change that in the photograph by adjusting the Whites group:

SPT-Photoshop Selective Color-screens-04a

This reduces the yellow of the sand to give it a whiter look, as you can see:

SPT-Photoshop Selective Color-screens-04

But then in looking at it, maybe the green bag by our chairs is just a little too green. Maybe we want to tone that down just a little. So we switch to the Greens group:

SPT-Photoshop Selective Color-screens-05a

By moving the Yellow slider far to the left and the Magenta slider far to the right, along with some slight movement of the Cyan slider, we get a much more subdued bag color, so that the green doesn’t distract you from the rest of the photo. But you may notice below that the green colors in the umbrella were also affected. That is a possible downside to this adjustment, because it adjusts the color everywhere that the color occurs in the photo. However, if you don’t want to change an area, you can easily adjust the layer mask to exclude that portion. More on that some other time. Anyway, here is the result of this change:

SPT-Photoshop Selective Color-screens-05

But now, let’s say we want to do something really bold, and give the photo a yellow, somewhat vintage look. So let’s adjust the Neutrals group to see what we can get:

SPT-Photoshop Selective Color-screens-06a

Increasing the Yellow here gives everything a sunny yellow glow, and decreasing the Black makes the photo a bit lighter, as you can see:

SPT-Photoshop Selective Color-screens-06

And with that change, what to me was originally an interesting photo suddenly became much more striking in appearance. As you can see from the layer list at the right, the original photo is still there, and still the same as it was when we began, but this adjustment layer changes it drastically. If you want to remember what it looked like before, just click the eye icon next to the adjustment layer to turn it off and then back on.

Here is the final photo that we ended up with:

SPT-Photoshop Selective Color-1200

Next up, here is an animation of the progression, showing some of the minor changes a little better:


And just for fun, here is a half and half, before and after comparison:

SPT-Photoshop Selective Color-before after-1200

As you can see, the final result is a pretty significant change, and to me it is much more pleasing to look at. In hindsight, however, we could have skipped the step to make the sand look more white, since everything ended up with a yellow cast, but that’s okay.

Also for me many of these adjustments are just trying things to see what works and what I like. While I sometimes have a specific look in mind, at other times I just start experimenting to see what happens when I move the different sliders.

I actually haven’t been using the Selective Color adjustment layer in Photoshop for all that long, because for quite a while I didn’t know what all it could do. But now I tweak just about every photo I process, whether it is something minor or a major change to the entire photo. Hopefully, sharing what I know will help you to use this handy tool to make your photos even better, too.

Watch for more from Steve’s Photography Tips coming soon!

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Burnsland is Steve Burns, with generous help from his lovely wife Laura. Steve is a husband, father, photographer, webmaster, writer, podcaster, artist, Christian. Steve enjoys sharing his photography, art, and stories through, from the Burnsland World Headquarters in Tennessee.