Using Complementary Colors For Color Correction – How Does It Work?

umbrella, coloursColor Correction, also known as Color Grading, is the technique of altering the colors present in a photo. This can be either a subtle change like white balance or a stark change like blue to red conversion. Color Correction is actually changing the color of a pixel to another color. The colors of a photo are important to help you achieve the desired effect and this is why a lot of photographers apply color correction to the images. Color Correction usually involves adjusting various aspects of an image to increase its appeal. The most common corrections include contrast, white balance, highlight, noise and exposure.

Color Correction is a vital step in any photography work as it completes the overall mood and effect the photographer aims to achieve. At times, you face situations where the color scheme might be striking but the surroundings may not be ideal to complement the photography subject. The reason might be the lack of time to find the right location, great lighting or creating the ideal setup. Though you might get a really amazing outcome, you feel that your photos still lack something special in terms of colors. You may feel like adding something more.

This is where complementary colors come into picture. Complementary colors are those that are opposite each other on the color wheel. They can be found everywhere, especially in nature. Imagine a beach or sunset and you can see that they are full of these colors. They are called so because they complement each other.

You can use complementary colors in the photography to create a consistent look, feel and style in your images. You can either use the colors while capturing or apply subtle adjustments to colors of the image in post-processing. Here, we see how you can precisely achieve color correction with complementary colors in Adobe Lightroom.

Creating a Color Palette

Before actually starting color correction in Lightroom, it is important to be clear about what colors you want your image to include. An ideal way to do this is creating a simple color palette which you can refer to while editing the photos.

It can be anything, from few color swatches picked from a paint store, a bunch of squares on the computer filled with your favorite colors or a collection of pictures cut out of magazines.

Using HSL

When working with colors, you need to subtract the colors from your images which don’t match your color palette. Once you get satisfied with your colors, you can proceed to add, enhance and stylize.

Start with Hue option in the HSL tab. Hue sliders let you replace the existing colors with adjacent colors on the color wheel. The Saturation sliders enable you to control the color intensity in the images. Increase the saturation to make your colors more vibrant and stronger. Decrease it to make the colors less intense. Another look at the image will let you take note of any distracting colors which don’t align with the color palette. Use the corresponding sliders to desaturate such colors to get only the colors aligning with the palette you have. Once you get the base colors properly, give them some saturation boost to enhance the image.

The Luminance sliders let you control the brightness and darkness of a particular color in the image. Increasing the luminance adds brightness while decreasing it darkens the colors. Comparing the image to your color palette lets you identify whether they are too light or dark and lets you adjust the luminance slider in the HSL tab to lighten or darken the colors.

Using Curves

Next is the time to apply your consistent editing style to the images. You can apply specific characteristics to the image using the Tone Curve. You can create control points in the graph by using the Point Curve icon and drag the control points to change the values of the corresponding tones.

It works in four channels – Red, Green, Blue and RGB. If the tone curve channel is set to RGB, you can control the overall tone of the image by adjusting the Red, Green and Blue tones at the same time.

Adding control points on the left side of the Tone Curve allows working with shadows. Dragging them downwards darkens the shadows while dragging them upwards lets you create flat, light shadows. You can achieve a perfectly murky look by darkening the highlights using the control points on the right of the Tone Curve.

The Tone Curve essentially isolates the individual color channels to let you adjust how little or much of the particular color channel is present in your shadows, mid-tones and highlights. Introducing a tone to your image can help enhance the overall look, feel and style of your photographs. Select the color channel you want to work with and make adjustments to the Tone Curve to affect the particular color in the image.

Note that when you use the Tone Curve to remove a primary color, you introduce the opposite color. Here are the primary colors and their complementary colors:

  • Red – Cyan

  • Blue – Yellow

  • Green – Magenta

Split Toning

This step, though optional, is an important step in stylizing the image by applying a subtle split tone adjustment using the Split Toning option in Lightroom. If you feel that your image looks perfect by now, you can go ahead.

But if you feel that your image still needs a little work, use the Split Tone tab which offers a simple way to add a final layer of polishing to your image. Split Toning allows applying a particular color tone to your shadows and highlights. You can refer to the color palette to pick the right hue that you want to be present in your shadows as well as highlights. Then, you can adjust the intensity by using the saturation sliders until you get satisfactory results.


Working with colors is a process and not an exact science. We hope this tutorial helps you apply complementary colors in your photography and stylize your collections better.

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