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How do you color grade portraits?

Color grading portraits is an important part of the post-processing workflow for photographers. Proper color grading can enhance skin tones, create mood and atmosphere, and help the subject pop from the background. While color grading may seem intimidating at first, following some basic techniques can dramatically improve your portrait images.

Understand color theory

Before you start color grading, it helps to understand some color theory. The three main characteristics of color are:

  • Hue – The dominant wavelength that determines the actual color (red, blue, green, etc.).
  • Saturation – The intensity or purity of the color.
  • Luminance – The brightness or lightness/darkness of the color.

When color grading, you will mostly be adjusting saturation and luminance rather than hue. Key things to remember:

  • Increasing saturation makes colors more intense and vibrant.
  • Decreasing saturation mutes colors and can create a more subdued look.
  • Raising luminance lightens an image, while lowering luminance darkens it.

Choose a color palette

Decide on the overall color palette you want for your portrait. Do you want bright, punchy colors or a more muted, natural look? Cool or warm tones? Your creative goals will help determine this.

Some popular portrait color palettes include:

  • Warm, golden tones – Boosts reds/oranges/yellows for a vibrant, sunny look.
  • Cool, blue tones – Increases blues for a colder, moody effect.
  • High key – Bright, light, and airy feel with boosted highlights.
  • Low key – Darker, moody ambiance with heightened shadows.
  • Cinematic – Emulate the rich colors and high contrast of cinema.
  • Vintage – Muted, faded tones for a vintage, aged look.

Enhance skin tones

One of the main goals when color grading portraits is enhancing skin tones. Here are some tips:

  • Add warmth – Boost oranges/reds to warm up skin, but don’t oversaturate.
  • Reduce redness – Lower reds to minimize ruddiness or rosacea.
  • Brighten – Gently raise luminance to illuminate skin.
  • Smooth tone – Adjust colors to even out skin inconsistencies.
  • Match colors – Ensure consistent skin tones across subjects.

Use color grading layers

Utilize layer-based color grading for increased control and flexibility. Here’s a simple workflow:

  1. Start with the raw base image layer.
  2. Create new adjustment layers for corrections (exposure, white balance, etc).
  3. Make a new layer for overall color grading.
  4. Add more layers for localized adjustments (skin tones, backgrounds, etc).

This gives you the ability to tweak each layer’s opacity and blending modes. You can also erase portions of layers to selectively apply the effect.

Adjust luminance

Luminance adjustments are key for shaping contrast and enhancing your subject. Try these techniques:

  • Darken backgrounds – Lower luminance so the subject pops.
  • Brighten skin – Raise luminance to spotlight the face.
  • Increase contrast – Darken shadows and brighten highlights.
  • Reduce contrast – Lessen shadows and highlights to flatten image.

Be careful not to overdo luminance adjustments, as it can create an artificial HDR look. Make subtle changes for a natural effect.

Use color balance adjustments

The color balance tool lets you shift color casts toward specific hues. Here are some examples:

  • Add cyan/blue for cool, cinematic tone.
  • Increase magenta/red to warm the skin and lips.
  • Shift green to neutralize skin redness.
  • Add yellow/orange to brighten tone.

Try small increments of 5-15 to avoid overdone color casts. Color balance changes can dramatically alter the mood.

Boost select colors

Use HSL panels to isolate and boost colors in your portrait:

  • Greens in eyes
  • Blues in backgrounds
  • Reds/pinks in clothing
  • Yellows in hair

You can also desaturate other colors to make your chosen color stand out more.

Watch for skin consistency

As you color grade, keep a close eye on skin consistency across your subject’s face, neck, and body. The same skin tone should be maintained to appear natural.

Subtle hue/saturation/luminance tweaks may be needed to match skin areas affected differently by lighting.

Use masks for localized grading

Masks let you apply color adjustments to specific portions of your image:

  • Face mask to separately control skin tone.
  • Background mask for independent editing.
  • Eye mask to enhance color.
  • Clothing mask to change hue/saturation.

Add and subtract from masks for complete control over where adjustments are applied.

Compare before and after

When color grading, it helps to toggle between the before and after to preview your changes:

  • View original for reference.
  • See edits for progressive effect.
  • Spot overdone adjustments.
  • Determine if further tweaks are needed.

Try to strike a balance between enhancing the image and maintaining a natural look.


Color grading takes portraits from bland to brilliant. Following these key techniques will help you enhance skin tone, set mood with color palettes, sculpt contrast, and make selective adjustments. Mastering the hue, saturation, and luminance controls gives you the tools to take your portraits to the next level. Just remember to keep it subtle and aim for natural results.