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Changing color

I’m sure that almost every product image retoucher is familiar with changing the color of some items, at least to some extent. It just happens. Sometimes you alter the color of the whole image to fix white balance, sometimes you remove parasitic tints from objects, but sometimes it’s more complicated than that. There are even cases when you have a lot of different colors of the same item, so instead of shooting them all and retouching one by one, you shoot a few or just one, duplicate it as many times you need and then colorize. It’s not such a good idea though, as colorized items either look fake, or require a lot of efforts to colorize, or both.

There are some restrictions as well, as you can’t colorize just everything. We also have to separate color changing from tone changing when we talk about it, and this is really a slippery surface. The deal is that there are a lot of terms that describe colors and tones. But not many people know what they all mean, and when they use some of these words they mean different things. So let’s set things straight first:

Color, Tint, Tone, Shade, Hue

Color, Tint, Tone, Shade, Hue – all these words mean different things. Even artists, the people that need to differentiate between all these terms the most, sometimes confuse and mix them up. I do it, too. When I say color, sometimes I mean color, but more often I mean hue. And when I say tone, most of the time I mean tint or shade. So let’s agree on the following: for us, catalogue retouchers, it's not really necessary to use all these terms. But we need to differentiate between hue, tone, and color. It’s just not a common thing for people that don’t work with graphics to be aware of the difference, and when clients ask me to do things they usually use just one word, which is color. And when they say color, they can mean hue, tint, shade, tone – whatever. It doesn’t really matter which words they use as long as I can understand what is expected of me. But it matters in Photoshop and that’s why we need to know the difference as well. We can say color instead of hue and tone instead of shade for convenience as long as we know the difference. Only artists and designers can notice it anyway.

So, there are three basic colors: red, green and blue. The mix of any of these colors gives us hues.

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So when you have a red hat and you want to change its color to turn it blue, it’s easy to do if you only need to change its hue. Look at this red hat. By accessing the Hue/Saturation panel I can easily change its hue and paint it yellow or blue or green or whatever by moving the hue slider. So when I say I changed its color from red to blue I mean I actually changed its hue. I can also adjust saturation by moving the respective slider. Now we’re dealing not with hues, but with tones. But the word tone is much more useful when we describe darker and lighter colors, so we don’t use it this way. We just say: saturation, to desaturate, to saturate.


But when we deal with how light or dark colors become, that’s when we say “tones”, having the tonal range in mind. We say “tone is the effect the light has on color”, so no light gives us dark tones and a lot of light gives us light tones. And when you want to change red color to dark blue you mean hue as well as the tone. But the whole thing is just called color in the big world outside the screen.

Normally when people ask me if it’s possible to change the color of an object in Photoshop I never say “Yes” straight away, I say: “It depends on the color”. Because it’s relatively easy for us to change hues, but not as easy when you need to change tones. So turning something blue to violet is easy, but turning mint to dark brown is not. By using the Hue/Saturation panel I can turn the hat blue or gray, I can also turn gray to red – there’s this Colorize checkbox for that, it’s not a big deal. But try to twiddle with the Lightness slider and you’ll see that it doesn’t look so natural if you make things significantly darker or lighter. Why? Because all the volume of an object is stored in the same place – in the tonal range. It’s not that evident when we deal with the hat, with it being so flat. I can turn it black or even white with little problems. When we work with objects like that, it gives us the illusion that changing tones is easy and the Hue/Saturation is a powerful tool that can be of great help when you do so. In fact, it’s not true, the opposite is true.

When you want to change hues, sure, it’s great and easy, but it doesn’t work so well with tones. We just need another image to prove it.

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When you have an object that is not flat, that has some shape, you can recognize this shape by perceiving the dark and light areas. That’s what gives us the volume effect.

I can draw a circle and fill it with some color, and you’ll see a circle. But if I fill it with shades of gray, you’ll see a ball. If I try and make the whole thing much lighter, the shadows will be lost, and the ball will become a circle again. Same if I make it much darker. The same is true for any objects that are not flat.


So the task at hand becomes much harder: we have to preserve the shape while changing the tones of some object, sometimes drastically. So now let’s try to answer the ultimate question: “Can you make white things black and vice versa?”. If you asked me this a few years ago I would say: “No”! Not because it’s not possible, but because it’s not easy, it’s time-consuming, not every retoucher can do it and sometimes it cannot be done anyway. But there are particular situations when your clients won’t take no for an answer and you just have to do it because they are desperate.

In this case, you have to be ready, so I took some time to prepare the colorizing action kit for this course, and I will explain how to turn black things to white and vice versa. Just have in mind that this is not a very typical task for catalogue retouchers. Remember what I said about keeping the images flat, avoiding layers, staying away from adjustment layers, blending modes and so on? Well, this is the case when we have to use all that and more, otherwise, it won’t work. So be prepared for some advanced photoshopping. And I will not be doing any detailed explanation on how to change red to blue or anything as easy as that, because that's pretty evident: just use the Hue/Saturation panel and you're fine. It's only tricky when you try to change the tone of the item drastically.

Next: Automatic colorizing


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