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Adding Color to your Highlights

Quick Tip
Darken Blending Mode

If you often shoot at night using only available light, you must have noticed that most of your light sources are always blown out and/or a bright white. To be honest, I don’t care that much about highlight details and I love the high contrast look. I believe that if something is bright in reality, why always try to bring it down in post? With the new raw cameras, it seems like there is a tendency to compress the dynamic range so that everything doesn’t clip. I often suggests to my clients to add colors inside the highlights instead of toning them down. If done right, it won’t look fake and will add richness to your pictures. The fastest way to do this using a professional color grading system is to qualify your highlights to your liking, sometimes blur your matte a little bit, then push the color wheels in the direction of the color you are looking for.

But what if you want to achieve this effect using a compositing software like Adobe After Effects or even more simpler, a picture inside Adobe Photoshop?

The answer is short: Use the darken blending mode. I find that it works especially great with night shots.

Take this example:

Image Without Darken Blending Mode

It’s not a disaster, but the highlights are pure white and a bit out of the color palette of the overall image. Here’s how I fixed it:

Create a new Solid Color Adjustment Layer and pick a color around your light source. Unless you want something fancy or experimental, choose a color that is already in your image to get a realistic final result.  This is important if you want to match the color temperature of your shot. Lower the opacity of your solid color until you get something that feels real. In my case, the opacity was set to 45%.

Color Solid in Photoshop

See the side by side difference:

Side by Side Darken Blending Mode

And have fun with this GIF:

Darken Blending Mode

Using this tip, you will get rich highlights and a better overall image in my opinion. It kinda adds a little Fincher to the image. And it’s fast. No need to mask anything, just drop the color solid, change the blending mode and lower the opacity. Done.

Here are some other examples using the same technique:

Darken Blending Mode

Darken Blending Mode

Darken Blending Mode

Darken Blending Mode

Now, these are only stills… but you can achieve the same result with your footage using Adobe After Effects. The technique is exactly the same.

Give it a try!

Charles-Etienne Pascal is a freelance digital colorist working in Montreal, Canada. His line of work mainly consist of advertising, but he also very much enjoys grading music videos, short films and documentaries. Chuck likes photography, motorcycles, travelling, bouldering, guitar and of course color grading.
  1. Yi Reply

    This is great! Thanks so much for your blog posts – they’re easy to understand, indepth and really interesting!
    Keep on posting! :)

  2. John Rozario Reply

    This tutorial solved my all problems to add color on photos. Thanks a lot for this useful tutorial.

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