Color shifting your HDR photos

Here is a technique that I use on a LOT of my HDR photos - in fact, I experiment with it on just about every image.  There may be times that I decide against it, but more often than not I go ahead and apply these techniques in some way, usually in a somewhat subtle manner.

I am talking about color shifting - at least, that’s what I call it.

What do I mean by that, exactly?  Well, I am talking about adjusting the colors to fit my vision of a photo.  This is not Photoshop, so I am not taking one color and completely changing it to another color.  I don’t want to do that, but I do like to move colors around to better align with the mood that I am creating with my final version of a photo.  Basically what this comes down to is using a couple of different menu items in the right-hand adjustment panel: Color and Color Toning.

Tip: I recommend you create a new layer before you do this color shifting and perform these edits there.  That gives you more flexibility later on, should you need to brush the adjustments in to a portion of the image or adjust the opacity of the layer to achieve your final look.  It's just a more flexible approach.

Let’s look at each of those a little more closely.


Many of us use the Color menu to adjust Saturation and Vibrance in a photo.  It’s easy and common as well as very powerful.  This is something I do all the time.  But another step I like to do is to examine the Temperature and Tint sliders just below that.

I find that moving them, even slightly, can have a big impact on the look of a photo.  Add in the ability to selectively brush in those adjustments (or erase them), and you can make a serious impact on your photo.

Using the same photo from previous pages, I have made some temperature and tint adjustments to the below photo, and erased them from the sky to maintain the same neutral tones there.  The intent was to give it a more saturated look that would correspond with an approaching sunset.  You know, sort of give it a little more blue and pink tone, which I think can accentuate the buildings.  Here's a screenshot to see the changes and the menu adjustments:

Now here is a split-screen view to show you the before and after, which illustrates how big the change was:

I like it but I don't love it.  I believe it mostly accomplishes what I was aiming for but it's not ideal.  From here, I could open up the Color Filter menu and make adjustments to the individual colors themselves, so as to more accurately represent my vision for the shot.  Instead of that, I am going to show you another tool.

You see, there’s an even more powerful way to do these color shifts - Color Toning.

Color Toning

What is color toning, anyways?  In Lightroom and other places, this is known as split toning, and it is quite possibly my FAVORITE technique to use on an image.  It allows you to adjust the Saturation and Tint of the Highlights in an image separately from the Shadows.  This means you can add a touch of one color to the Highlights while adding a separate color to the shadows.

It sounds simple, and it is - but it’s extremely powerful and is a very easy method to color shift your photo.

The great thing about the way this is done in Aurora HDR is that they have created Presets within this menu item to make it quicker and easier for you.  If you open the adjustment panel for Color Toning, you will see a row of little bi-colored rectangles across the top of that section.  Those are the Presets - just click on one of them and it will update your image.  Note that the left side color of the rectangle is the highlights color, while the right side color is the shadows.

Alternatively, you can drag the Tint and Saturation sliders under each section on your own to achieve your desired colors - but I prefer the Presets.  They often work for me without further adjustment, which I love.  It’s a one-click color shift in the image.  Simple and quick but powerful.

Here are examples of 4 different color toning presets applied to this image (click any image to enlarge):

See what a difference a single click can make?  It really has a major, positive impact on your photo.

A couple of things to know:

  • Under Highlights there is a slider called Protection.  This basically protects the highlights from taking on too much of your chosen color.  Yes, this section is intended to change the color of your highlights, but this Protection slider keeps the REALLY bright parts (sky, for example) from becoming too much of your chosen color (and thus looking unnatural).
  • At the bottom there is a Balance slider.  Moving it left will bring up more of your chosen Shadows color (across the entire image) and moving it right will increase the overall image in the direction of your highlights color.
  • There is also an Amount slider at the very bottom of this section.  This is somewhat like an Opacity slider for Color Toning.  If you drag it all the way left, none of your color toning adjustments will show on the image.  If you drag it all the way right, you essentially get 100% of the adjustments applied to the image.
  • Next to the word Tint in each section (under both Highlights and Shadows) you will see a rectangle that represents your chosen color for that section.  You can also click on that and it will open a color wheel.  You can then select a color by clicking in there.

Now, I recommend you go back and take a look at each of the 4 preset examples above, and examine the sliders for Highlights and Shadows (both the Tint and the Saturation), Protection, Balance and Amount.  Note how they have changed from image to image, and the corresponding changes to the images.

If you like the look of the Preset then you are done.  If you want to further refine it, just move the sliders as you see fit.  I often choose a Preset and make no further adjustments to it but of course it's up to you to customize if you see fit.

Here’s a quick tip: perhaps you like the look but think it’s a little too strong for your image.  Instead of making further adjustments/refinements to the sliders under the Color Toning menu, just go to the Layers section and adjust the opacity of that layer.  (Remember my first tip up above, suggesting you do these edits on their own layer?)

I usually experiment with Color Toning BEFORE I go into the Color menu and adjust the Temperate and Tint.  I find that Color Toning sets me in the right direction, and then I use the Color menu sliders to further refine it.  

In the Color menu, I will test out Saturation and Vibrance, but as I mentioned above I also experiment with Temperature and Tint.  I have found that adjusting Temperature and Tint after making my Color Toning selections is a great way to “finalize” the look of the photo.

Also note that usually what I end up doing in this section (after the Color Toning work) is moving the Temperature to the left (making it cooler, or more blue) while I drag the Tint slider to the left (making it more pink) - though this depends entirely on the scene.  This is basically playing the Temp and Tint off of one another but I find that I really like how it helps finalize the overall color shift in my image.

I have done just that with the photo below and as you can see, I also followed my own advice from above and adjusted the opacity of that layer down to just 41%.  I chose the first preset option (the top left image from the group of 4 preset examples shown above) and then went into the Color menu and did some fine-tuning.  Here's the result:

And here is a split-screen view illustrating how different the photo looks from its original version:

But wait, there's more!  How about a luminosity mask?

Yes, you can also create a luminosity mask on this layer for an even more subtle application of the color shifting technique.  I am sure you remember luminosity masks from the previous page of this tutorial, right?  As I mentioned there, they are a great way of applying an effect to a photo in a very gentle manner.  

They are quick and easy to add - just go into the menu for this layer and select Create Luminosity Mask.  It will get created and applied to this layer automatically and it just takes a few moments.

Here is what the luminosity mask looks like on this layer:

And here is the final version of the photo, using color shifting, opacity adjustments and a luminosity mask:

Just for comparison, here is the original photo side-by-side with the final version so you can see the subtle but distinct differences in colors between the two versions:

You can begin to see that the power of Aurora HDR is in the layers and masking, and like me, your head will probably start swimming with creative possibilities after some experimenting - which is a good thing!

I highly recommend that you spend some time experimenting with color shifting in your photos - even if it's not an HDR photo.  I try out this technique on nearly everything that I edit, whether it's an HDR or not.  It gives me incredible flexibility over the artistic direction I am taking the photo and allows me to really expand the bounds of my final creation.  Give it a try!

If this technique interests you, I recommend you check out the video shown below, because I use this technique on that photo to great effect.  To skip to the Color Toning portion of the video, jump ahead to about 3:25.

Today I walk you through the creation of this HDR of a blue hour morning at The Temple Bar in Dublin, Ireland. I stack the same preset - twice! - and add a third for good measure, before also making color adjustment with the split toning feature and more!

That’s it folks - some simple techniques to really change the colors in your image!  I hope that this helps!

Ok folks - one more page, and it's all about noise reduction.  Click here to see it!