Photoshop Tutorial: Subdued Colour

Streetcar (by StarbuckGuy)

Perhaps because I like monochrome images so much, I sometimes find the colour images produced by digital cameras too saturated for my taste.  I often find I need to use the Hue/Saturation tool in Photoshop to turn down the ‘volume’ of an image’s saturation.

Lately I’ve been experimenting with a more interesting approach — one in which I use a B&W or toned monochrome background image, mixed with the colour of the original. What follows involves using layers, in Photoshop, GIMP, Elements, Paint Shop Pro — any editor that features layers.  I’ll explain the basics of layers as I go, so if you’ve avoided using layers in the past, well, ‘get past it’ as they say 🙂

I’ll use the Toronto streetcar image above as an example. In its original form it looked like this:

streetcar-orig (by StarbuckGuy)

As photos go, this one is passably okay. It has some burnt out highlights and a bluish tone in the shadow areas that I don’t find very attractive but it’s not a bad city shot.

I wanted a different interpretation, so in Photoshop CS3 I created a duplicate layer of this image (Layer->Duplicate Layer) and on this duplicate layer I converted the image to a sepia-toned B&W. I used my favourite plug-in Silver Efex Pro for this but any type of B&W conversion works fine. I thought at first this sepia look might be my final image.

streetcar-sepia (by StarbuckGuy)

However, I loved the red of the streetcar so I decided to experiment. When you have an image on a layer you have several options, including what type of layer it is. Click on the down-tab beside Normal to see all the layer types. In this tutorial, I’m using a ‘Normal’ layer type.

Of particular interest on the top layer is the Opacity control, circled in red, in the preceding screenshot. By pulling it back to the left, you fade the layer image from 100% to whatever lower percentage you wish. It works in a way similar to the Edit->Fade control, if you’re familiar with that, but the layer approach offers more sophistication.

streetcar-sepia-75% (by StarbuckGuy)

Pulling opacity back to 75%, I liked the almost-monochrome feel with its sepia tones but with some colour showing. But the red of the streetcar wasn’t as saturated as I would have liked. If I had reduced the opacity further, to bring out more red, all the other colours would become more saturated as well and I didn’t want that. I liked the overall tone as it was.

To deal with this I invoked one of the Layer’s secret weapons: the Layer Mask. In Photoshop click the little icon circled in the next screenshot and you’ll see the white layer mask appear beside the thumbnail of the B&W sepia layer:

streetcar-layers-1 (by StarbuckGuy) . streetcar-layers-2 (by StarbuckGuy)

Now you’re ready for some serious fun! When the layer mask is active, you can ‘paint’ holes in the top layer so that the layer below can show through. If you go too far or make a mistake, you can ‘paint’ it back. What you use is the Brush tool. In Photoshop and Photoshop Elements just press ‘B‘ to invoke it. Make sure that the colours of the Brush tool are set to Black and White, as marked in red in the next screenshot.

streetcar-brush-colours (by StarbuckGuy)

Two simple rules: Black erases the effect of the top layer. White restores the top layer. In addition, the Brush tool also has an opacity control. The lower the percentage, the less the effect; the more, the greater. In a subdued-colour image, it’s best to start with a low opacity. I’ll start with 15% and brush in more red into the side of the streetcar.

streetcar-brush-opacity (by StarbuckGuy)

Use the bracket keys to increase ‘]‘ or decrease ‘[‘ the size of the brush for finer control. The effect of the brush is cumulative. I brush over and over the area to deepen the amount of red showing through. Applying an evenness to the colour with the brush tool takes a bit of practice. If it gets a little blotchy, switch the brush colour to White and fade away some of the work, then back to Black to reapply in more even strokes.

I also like the colour of the jaywalker’s clothing, so I brush it back too, also at 15%. Then I return to the streetcar, increasing the Brush opacity to 25% and to give it a small final boost of colour. Now I have the image I want. Sepia toned, subdued, and subtle, but with a nice bit of colour contrast to the sepia.

streetcar-final (by StarbuckGuy)

Save as usual and post to your favourite photo hosting site!

Additional Tips and Comments:

1. If everything is almost the way you want it, but the colour is just a bit too subdued for your taste, you can use the Hue/Saturation tool in Photoshop to boost the overall saturation of the image a little, or to boost selective colours.

2. You can use this technique to do the traditional B&W shot with a splash of colour, but instead of bringing back the colour part 100%, bring it back more subdued, brushing it in  with opacity between 15-25%. This is sometimes more effective than a bright but jarring splash of colour in a B&W image.

3. Using sepia and other tonings to your B&W layer, you can create images that have a faded, older look. Using dark vignetting will increase the effect.

4.  As always, there is more than one way to do things in Photoshop. Choose whatever seems most congenial to your personality.

5. If you are new to using layers, there are some excellent free tutorials available as web pages and videos. Try these:

Print and Image Tutorials

Video Tutorials

6. Here are additional examples of subdued colour using the technique in this tutorial.

7. If you love aggressive, punchy, over saturated colour, that’s fine, but this may not be an appropriate tutorial for you.