Changing colors within a photo can be a daunting task. Think again! We’ll show you how Photoshop can easily do the trick.
Inevitably, the day will come when, as a designer, you need to change the color of something in an image. It could be that just a single object in the image needs changing, or it may be that the entire image needs warming up, cooling down, or otherwise altered to fit a certain mood. You may have some stock photography that would look nice as part of a marketing pack, but the shot doesn’t quite fit the overall look and feel you’re aiming for.
Whatever the case, when altering images, Photoshop is your friend. The problem is, with advanced features for just about everything apart from flying a rocket to the moon (I’m sure they’re working on it), Photoshop can feel monolithic and overbearing at the best of times. With so many features to choose from, it can seem daunting to know which technique to use in which circumstance.
Well, worry no more, as we have you covered with a whole host of processes that will allow you to change the color of just about anything. We start with a quick and dirty trick and end with more advanced, client-ready techniques.
Maybe you have a mockup that you need to share with a client, and you’d rather not go to the lengths of perfectly color matching before they sign it off. Well, for such circumstances, the Color Replacement Tool is a quick and easy way of making approximate adjustments without too much pain.
Choose the Color Replacement Tool
As with all Photoshop tools, this one is well-hidden, this time in the Brush menu. Hit Shift + B to cycle through until you get the right one.
Choose Your Brush and Blending Mode
It’s always best to start with a soft brush, as this will give you the most tolerance when painting directly onto an image. Color is the best blending mode, so you can leave this setting as it is.
Choose a Tolerance
The lower the percentage, the narrower the colors that will be replaced. If you choose pink as your replacement color, then a low percentage will mean only colors close to pink will get replaced. A higher percentage will let in a broader spectrum.
Choose Your Replacement Color
Now it’s time to choose the color you’d like to use!
Dupe Your Image
Before applying any changes to your image, make sure you duplicate it so you can roll back any changes should you need to. Cmd + J is a handy shortcut for this one.
Click on the color you’d like to replace. You’re now ready to go ahead and paint.
The Crème de la Crème of Color Changes
In this last section, we delve into hue and saturation. For major changes, or indeed those for commercial projects, hue and saturation are where it’s at, as they offer the most fine-tuning techniques that we’ve discussed thus far. As with any image manipulation, it really is the details that will give that authentic feeling, and hue and saturation allow for just that.
First up is a simple, but effective technique involving some light selection and a couple of slider changes.
Make Your Selection
Begin by selecting the element that you’d like to change color. Photoshop provides many options for this, ranging from Select Subject, Magic Wand, or for more complicated selections, the trusty Pen tool.
Create a Hue/Saturation Layer
Next, with the selection made, above your image layer, create a hue/saturation adjustment layer. This will create a mask from your selection.
Manipulate the Color
You’ll be presented with two sliders—Hue and Saturation. Sliding Hue will give you—no big surprise—a change in hue. The Saturation slider changes the intensity of the selection, allowing for a super-saturated look towards the right end, or a more natural, rolling feel towards the left.
Extra Tip: Colorize
When you use the Hue slider, if you were expecting the change to correspond with the color in the slider and that isn’t happening, don’t despair. Clicking the Colorize option will give you the ability to do just that.
Referencing Within an Image
The previous technique is perfect for eyeballing a color change, but occasionally, you might need to make a change that references other colors in the image, and you’d like more fine-tuning to do that. Here’s how.
Make Your Selection
We start in the same way as before (see above)!
Create a Solid Color Layer
This time, with your selection activated, create a Solid Color layer. The result is going to look pretty bad, but stick with it!
Select Your Reference Color
The Color Picker will automatically open. At this point, you can either select a color directly from the picker or, if you’d like to reference another color in the image, simply move the cursor over that area of the image and click. This will reference any color in the image itself!
Blend Modes to the Rescue
Your image is still going to look pretty bad at this stage, so now choose the Hue blending mode—et voilà!—you have a beautiful image with a perfect reference.
Overall Mood Manipulation
Say you’ve shot an image that you’re happy with. However, the light in the background or foreground isn’t quite giving off the right vibe. Well, the other techniques we’ve discussed won’t help here, as this time we’re making a change that, to look authentic, will need to change pretty much all aspects of the image, such as reflections, lighting, and other fringe details.
Create a Hue/Saturation Layer
You know the drill—no mask this time!
Select a Channel
Above the Hue slider, you’ll see a dropdown that may say Master or the name of a color. This is the channel selector. Say you have an image with a lot of block color, and you’d like to change the feeling or mood of the overall shot.
Selecting Blue from the dropdown allows you to manipulate just the blue tones within the image. Moving the Hue and Saturation sliders will give you different moods that provide an overall change to the entire image.
What’s great about this method is even notoriously difficult elements to color change, such as light reflecting in hair or off surfaces, will amend with the overall mood.
That might be enough, but you may find that changes creep into places where you’d rather not make any changes at all. In this case, make your changes above, select the mask on the Hue/Saturation layer, and then choose a black brush and simply paint over the areas you’d like to retain. This will punch a hole through the mask, revealing the original color of the image.
Extra Tip: Sweating the Details
While the technique above will cover 99% of cases, there’s actually an even more precise way of changing just the color channels you’d like to target.
Next to the color channel dropdown is a button with a hand on it. Select this, then hover over an area of the image that contains the color you’d like to manipulate. You can then click-and-hold while moving the mouse either left or right, and the hue will update for that specific color within the image. Holding down Cmd while doing this will update the saturation.
Using this method will often leave you with a much more natural color shift, and may even mean you can dispense with the fine-tuning step entirely.
Color Matching from a Swatch
This final one is perhaps the most complex to master, but it’s probably the most likely scenario in the real world. Say you have a client who wants you to color match an element in an image to a specific swatch or Pantone reference. The other techniques aren’t going to cut it, as they’re all either eyeballing the color change or taking references from within the image itself. This one lets you bring in outside influence to affect your color change.
Create Your Swatch
First, it’s best to create a swatch, as this will make referencing the color much easier later on. Just create a square or circle and color it with whatever color you’re using.
Make Your Selection
Just as before!
Sample Your Reference and Your Target
Next, you need to reference both the swatch and the target. Take your eyedropper tool (I) and hold down shift before clicking on your swatch and the element that will be changing color. This will leave a target icon with a number at each of the locations.
Switch to Lab
Open up the Info panel if not already visible by going to Window > Info or by pressing F8. In the final section, you’ll see two sets of numbers, each referencing a target on your image (the number will correspond with the target). Click on the eyedropper icon in each column and change the color profile to Lab Color. If done correctly, RGB will update to Lab.
Match Your Colors
Okay, now for the tricky bit. Basically, your job is to match the numbers in your swatch target with the numbers in the element target. Once you have them matched, the color of the element will reference your swatch.
To achieve this, add a Curve Adjustment Layer above your image—with your selection still activated—then locate the target on your element and hold down Cmd + Shift while clicking. That will add a point to the Curves panel, representing that specific color, as well as points for Red, Green, and Blue separately. These you can access by choosing from the RGB dropdown in the Curves panel.
The trick now is to access each of the RGB color channels and move the point on the curve to match the numbers in the info panel in both columns. It takes quite a bit of trial and error, and some changes may affect previous changes, so you may need to overcompensate to take in those amendments.
With some perseverance, you’ll end up with two sets of identical numbers (or nearly so) and, at that point, you know you have an exact color match.
Bear in mind that the element you’re changing is likely to be subject to light, shade, and shadows. As such, it’ll never look identical to your flat swatch, which isn’t in real space. But, so long as the numbers are the same on both sides, you know you’ve got a match.
Anything Is Possible
Making color changes in Photoshop can feel daunting at first, but once you understand what type of change you’d like to make, it’s easy to follow the same process over and over every time you come against a particular scenario.
Of course, the beauty is that you can combine any number of these techniques to create even more interest, or to make more specific and nuanced changes that require that extra finesse.
Color is fun! Let’s look at a few more color-inspiring articles:
Cover image via everst.
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