Shaping A Scene With Warm And Cool Colors

Shaping A Scene With Warm And Cool Colors

One of the hallmarks of a strong photo is that your eye is guided through the photo. As a viewer, you know instinctively where to look because the photo has been crafted to make you look there. There’s a giant bag of tools you have as a photographer to control where the viewer looks, including:

All of these are elements of an image that you can tweak in post-production to help enhance your original vision. Often careful use of these tools will be the difference between a strong photo and a meh one. In this post, we’ll be concentrating on warm and cool colors. Using some simple tricks, you can subtly shape the colors in a photo to control where the viewer looks, and to give additional reinforcement to your composition. This trick is employed subtly in movie color grading (and on-set lighting choices), but nowhere is it more evident (and heavy-handed) than in Hollywood movie posters:


Here’s how you do it:

1 - Find an appropriate image

First of all, this only really works with color images. Second, for the technique to not be TOO obvious, it should be an image that isn’t super monochromatic. You want to skew the color palette subtly toward warm or cool colors, and with an image that isn’t very colorful, you run the risk of just painting things orange or blue (which can be a neat effect as well). Finally, make sure it has a pretty neutral color balance to begin with. Photos that are already pretty warm or cool can still benefit from this technique, though you might want to use two cooling layers, or two warming layers, to achieve the right balance.


2 - Develop a plan

Warm colors stand out. Cool colors recede. The rule here is that your subject should be warmer than the other background information. Analyze your image to decide what you want to stand out, and what you want to recede into the background. If your answer is “everything should stand out”, then you need to step back and think about your image, because that’s almost always an indication that your composition is weak, or that you don’t really have a photo of anything interesting. OK, so you have a plan now. Let’s get our hands dirty…

3 - Create cooling layer

In Photoshop, you can use the Cool As A Cucumber action from our original action set (TRA1). Alternately, just use a curves, levels, photo filter, or other method of your choice to create a layer that warms the colors in the entire image. There’s no wrong way to do it, though I still think the best results come from a simple curves adjustment. You’ll want something that looks like this:


Essentially, you’re adding some blue, and removing some red from the photo.

4 - Paint the cooling effect off the subject

Select the layer mask for the cooling layer you just created (it’s usually selected already). Select the brush tool (just press “B”). Now set your black as your foreground color. The easiest way to do this is just press “D” to set the Default colors, then press “X” to swap your foreground and background color. Make sure your brush is set to something reasonable, settings-wise. I, personally, prefer a soft, medium-sized brush (just a little smaller than the face of your subject), with 100% opacity and 30%-ish flow. Like this:


Once your brush is set up, just click and drag in the photo to paint over your subjects. By using your brush this way, you’re making the layer mask darker, which removes the effect from the photo where you brush. In this case, you’re removing the cooling effect from the subject, so it only applies to the background.

A quick tip here: you usually have to go back and forth a bit to refine your mask, because there’s usually spillover onto the background, which creates a noticeable “halo” effect. This is bad. Typically, I will make a quick pass with a large brush over the subject. Then, I’ll hit X to swap white back as my foreground color, and reduce my brush size for greater precision. This means the effect will be a added back where I paint. I’ll use the white brush to clean up the areas where the subject and background meet. Then, if needed, you can swap colors again, going back and forth refining the mask until you don’t notice the effect at the edges.

Another quick tip: use the bracket keys [ ] to adjust your brush size.Finally, there are a LOT of different ways to make a mask in Photoshop. This method is perhaps the least precise, but it’s also the fastest, and most of the time, for effects like this, it gets the job done. Finally, there are a LOT of different ways to make a mask in Photoshop. This method is perhaps the least precise, but it’s also the fastest, and most of the time, for effects like this, it gets the job done.

So, at this point, your photo should look like this:


Create a warming layer, and invert the layer mask

Create another layer with a warming effect. Again, if you’re using our actions, Warm It Up, Kris will do nicely. Otherwise, just do the opposite of what you did for the cooling layer. However, this time we are going to invert the layer mask so it doesn’t apply anywhere in the photo, and then paint it back in. Select the layer mask and press Cmd-I (Ctrl-I on Windows). The layer mask turns black, and the warming effect vanishes from the photo.

Paint additional warmth onto subject.

The procedure for this is nearly identical to the cooling layer above, with the exception that we are going to paint the effect onto the image where we want it, instead of erasing it from where we don’t want. Why do we do this? Because the subject takes up less space than the background, and this way we save ourselves some work.

Now that we’ve added some warmth to the subject, the photo looks like this:


Finishing Touches

Though we could keep going with other techniques, let’s stop here for today. Before we do, though, let’s add a tad more contrast to the image. The additional contrast will increase color saturation in a natural-looking way, and help to increase the difference between the warm and cool areas.


Subtle difference, but a very natural-looking one. If I were to keep going on this image, I’d also use some dodging and burning, some contrast control, and some other subtle tricks to further strengthen the image, because getting post-production right is usually a matter of making a whole lot of small tweaks. Remember, you want to see the photo, not the Photoshop.

Here’s a little gif showing all 4 steps, so you can get an idea of how the image progresses.


Any interest in seeing a Lightroom version of this tutorial?  Any questions?  Let us know what you think on Facebook and Twitter.

* indicates required