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How to Make Creative Color Adjustments in Adobe Lightroom

“How do I edit my photo to look like (insert famous photographer’s name)?”

It’s a question that dominates editing forums.

There are certain photographers that have unique, signature styles that others try to emulate. There are all kinds of things that go into a signature style subject matter, shooting approach, equipment, and a big basket of other choices that is essentially unique to every photographer. One thing can be emulated, however, is how your favorite photographer adjusts color and contrast in post-production.

In this tutorial, we’ll dissect the controls for adjusting color in Adobe Lightroom. You’ll learn to use the HSL / Color panel to customize the color of your images. Photographers will often shift one hue into another, or desaturate certain colors to achieve a unique visual effect.

Custom Color Example a portrait of a woman outdoors
This image in my portfolio features custom color adjustments. The foliage just behind the subject was shifted from a green to a warm yellow-green for a summer type effect. Additionally, blue shades were desaturated in order to reinforce the look in the skies and subject’s attire.

Before we jump into color, let me reiterate: style isn’t just post-production; much of it is related to how the image is captured. Simulating effects like shallow depth of field and backlighting in post-production is usually an unconvincing substitute for good gear, subjects, and technique. However, adjusting color can help you create a unique style of your own.

Understand the Color Controls in Adobe Lightroom

Before we dive into Adobe Lightroom, it’s important to understand color. When we talk about visual terms like hue, saturation, and luminance, it is sometimes to difficult to understand how they affect an image. Let’s define them with some examples.


The terms hue and color are often used interchangeably. I really like the Color Wheel Artists‘ simple definition of hue, as “one of the twelve colors on the mixing wheel.”

In Lightroom, I think of the ability to adjust hue as a color shift. You can move shades of blue into violet or red tones into the orange spectrum.

Hue Shifting Example
This image was adjusted in Lightroom using the hue sliders. I shifted green tones into the yellow and yellow turns into orange for a warmer, fall-style effect.


Saturation describes the intensity of a color in an image. Technically, it is how much grey is mixed into a particular color value. The more grey, the more muted the saturation.

Think of saturation as a volume knob for color. Turning the saturation up for a color will make it more present and noticeable. When we desaturate a color completely, it’s removed from an image. Conversely, increasing the saturation will emphasize a color.

Blue saturation slider
This image is divided into three sections. On the left third, I have completely desaturated blue. In the middle, I’ve left blue at the default saturation setting. The far right third has had the blue saturation increased by +100. Notice the differences in the dominance of the color blue.


Luminance describes the brightness of a specific color in an image, or how much black a color contains. Pulling the luminance down for a color will darken all parts of the image that contain that color (adding more black). If you increase luminance, it will increase the brightness of that color throughout the image.

A common luminance tweak is adjusting the foliage (typically the greens) or skies (the blues) in an image. 

Luminance Example
In these two examples, I’ve shifted the luminance of the color green. The image on the left has the green luminance shifted down, and this is evident in the foliage.

How to Adjust Color in Adobe Lightroom

There are two ways to finely tune color in Adobe Lightroom. The HSL and Color panels are basically two modes for working with the same settings. You’ll find this panel in the Develop module of the application on the right side just below the Tone Curve.

This panel is labeled HSL / Color / B&W. In this tutorial, we’ll focus on the HSL and and Color settings. You can work in either HSL or Color mode by clicking on the label at the top of the panel.

In HSL mode, the sliders are divided by Hue, Saturation and Luminance. When in HSL mode, the sliders are grouped by Hue, Saturation and Luminance

HSL and Color Sliders
HSL and Color are two ways of working with the same settings. 

In Color mode, the sliders are grouped by color. Each color has a hue, saturation, and luminance slider. It’s simply two methods for working with color. While working through this tutorial, you can be in either HSL or Color mode.

Find Your Target Colors

In order to emulate a certain look, it helps to work from references. The technique is similar to finding reference targets for skin tones, but applied to creating a particular look instead.

First, find a collection of images that you like. I suggest doing this casually: when you see something you like by another photographer online, save it! Add these photos to your Lightroom catalog.

Color picker on a picture of Parliament Hill in Ottawa Canada
Use the White Balance Selector as a color picker to give you RGB percentages.

When you find a photo of your own that matches something you’ve saved in your reference collection, find the image and open it in the Develop module (D). Select the White Balance Selector tool (W) and hover the eyedropper over areas in the image that have tones you’d like to match. This will give you an RGB reading, with percentages for red, green and blue. Note down the percentages for all the areas that are similar between the reference and your picture.

When you adjust your own image, you’ll try to match the target percentages. Do the adjustment by eye first, to get things relatively close, then tweak the settings until they are the same as your reference. Your picture might not look the way you want even if the values match, however, so after you’ve adjusted your picture evaluate again to decide if anything needs further adjustment to get it just right.

Creative Color Adjustment

So far, we’ve reviewed the color controls and how to use them in Lightroom. Mastering the color panel comes down to experimentation and forging your own style. Here are some recipes to get started:

  • Use the hue slider when you want to shift a hue to a neighboring color (blue to violet, orange to yellow, for example)
  • Use the saturation slider when you want to emphasize or de-emphasize a color, affecting the intensity of a given color
  • The luminance slider is useful for adjusting exposure for specific hues

To learn more about adjusting color in Adobe Lightroom, check out the short video tutorial below.


Recap & Keep Learning

This tutorial is a launching pad for custom color adjustments in Lightroom. However, there are many other tools and settings to really customize the look of an image. Here are more tutorials for building your color knowledge.

  • Harry Guiness’ tutorial on Split-Tone Processing is another way to approach custom color adjustments with a different set of sliders in Lightroom.
  • Simon Plant explores the tone curve for creative color in Lightroom, yet another tool for crafting a custom look.
  • I’m no expert on color theory, but this tutorial by James Thomas is excellent for learning more about the art and science of color.

I hope you come away form this tutorial excited to experiment with color adjustments in Lightroom. If you have any suggestions on creative color tweaks, let me know in the comments below.