Color Analysis for Photographers: The Essential Guide

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Color is a peculiar subject. We're surrounded but color everyday but most of us know very little about it.

We know color mainly in its literal form. But the psychology behind it actually dominates over its physical appearance.

This article is an extension of The Practical Guide to Color Theory for Photographers, a tutorial I’ve published quite some time ago. This time we're going dive further at a different angle - color analysis.

color analysis for photographers

In this tutorial, I'm going to show you how to convert the colors in your image to information you can use to apply color theory to improve its aesthetics. 

1. What is Color Analysis?

In the context of color theory…

Color analysis is basically a process to figure out what color an image is made of. 

Essentially, it maps out the color in the image.

You can then use this information to understand how the viewers would feel what they see your image and what you can change to make it look more visually compelling.

There are several tools available for color analysis:

  1. 1
    Adobe Color
  2. 2
    Adobe Photoshop
  3. 3
    Dedicated color analysis software

2. How to Analyze Color in an Image

Let's look at the tools mentioned above to see how it works.

The good news is, you don't need to spend a single cent in this.

Let’s dive in!

2.1 Adobe Color

This is a free color analysis tool by Adobe. You can access it here.

It tells you if the color in your image are in harmony or in rogue.

How it works is pretty straight forward really.

You upload an image and it extracts five colors according to the color mood you set. This is then displayed on a color wheel for visualization.

2.1.1 How to Use Adobe Color

adobe color in color analysis for photographers

Follow this step-by-step guide: (red numbers correspond to steps below)

  1. 1
    Click Extract Theme on the top left corner.
  2. 2
    Upload an image by dragging and dropping or browse the file on your computer.
  3. 3
    Select the Color Mood on the left. (the color extraction changes instantly as you change the mood).
  4. 4
    Click Color Wheel on the top left corner.
  5. 5
    You can go back and forth between Color Wheel and Extract Theme to change the Color Mood.

2.1.2 How to Interpret the Color Wheel in Adobe Color

color wheel color analysis for photographers

The most useful part is the color wheel. You can ignore everything else for now.

Look at the color wheel and pay attention to where the circles are placed. 

Here are a few questions you need to ask yourself:

  1. 1
    What am I trying to achieve with the colors?
  2. 2
    Does the circle distribution fit any of the color harmony rules?
  3. 3
    Are the circles close to each other? Do they group in clusters? Are they separated far away from each other? 

Very often, you'll find the circles in some kind of color harmony rule but there's one sits further away from the rest.

I call that a color outlier.

Don’t worry about it, there’s often an outlier. Correct it if you can, but unless it’s miles away, I’d just focus on the bigger picture.

Now continue reading for the time being. I’ll explain how to apply the information from color analysis to your image in the next section.

2.2 Adobe Photoshop

This color analysis method provides an overview of the dominant color/colors in an image. This color is the first impression people get when they see your image.

In other words, this color affects how people feel the moment they set their eyes on your image.

Contrasting to Adobe Color, this method doesn’t tell you if the colors complement each other. But you can always cross-check with a color wheel to find out.

How does it work?

Deliberate removal of compositional elements to render the image into a color abstract. Once the image is devoid of distractions, all there is left is color.

2.2.1 Color Analysis with Gaussian Blur

This essentially blurs off every texture, lines, and shapes in an image.

Go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur.

Set Radius to 1000 pixels, which is the maximum you can apply at one time. Hit OK.

You should now see only color in the image. You can also use a color picker to sample the color to see where it sits in the color wheel.

2.2.2 Color Analysis with Pixelate

This method renders the image into pixels with each pixel represents only one color.

Go to Filters > Pixelate > Mosaic.

Set the Cell Size to 200 square and hit OK.

You will see groups of pixels with similar color but different shades. This gives you a visual representation of the dominant color/colors in your image.

2.2.3 Color Analysis with Average

The concept is similar to Gaussian Blur, the only difference is it renders the image to only a single color.

The advantage of this method over the other two is the single color. This one color represents what the viewer sees in your image.

Go to Filter > Blur > Average.

Every color has a different effect in our subconscious mind. You can read more in the section about the psychology of color in the original color theory tutorial I published.

2.3 Other Tools

Personally, Adobe Color and Photoshop are more than enough for the purpose of color analysis. 

If by any chance you feel you need more in-depth analysis, there are paid software you can certainly explore. BabelColor is a software dedicated to color analysis. It does more than what we have discussed above.

For the purpose of this tutorial, I won’t go into the details but you can check it out here.

3. Applying Data From Color Analysis

Let’s review what you have so far:

  1. 1
    A color wheel that maps out the color in your image.
  2. 2
    A color abstract - the impression viewers get when they see the image

Based on the color analysis with color wheel, you can adjust the individual color so it matches more closely to a color harmony rule.

The color abstract, however, will only change very subtly unless you apply dramatic color adjustment to the image.

Just to reiterate, the main purpose of color abstract is to help you understand how your viewers feel with your image.

Any color adjustments should be subtle and subtlety is what you need to bear in mind ALL the time. 

E.g. you can adjust the blue color of the sky to color adjacent to blue in the color wheel, but you can’t change it to the opposite color like orange!

In this section, you’re going to learn how to adjust color with different tools in Photoshop.

But first, you need to consider this…

adjacent colors color analysis for photographers

3.1 What is Your Aim?

color outlier analyzing colors on color wheel

Think about what you want to achieve. What kind of photograph do you want to create?

E.g. The color harmony rule you’re aiming for. Is there a color outlier you like to adjust? 

Do you want the colors to be more unified or separated?

Do you want to increase or reduce the contrast in hue, saturation or luminosity?

Having an objective before you start doing anything saves you from wasting precious time lingering in Photoshop aimlessly.

3.2 Software Consideration

I use Lightroom and Photoshop in my workflow. For the purpose of selective color adjustments, I’d recommend Photoshop instead of Lightroom.

The reason is obvious...

As much as I like quick adjustments, Lightroom is not able to provide the flexibility I need in selective color adjustment.

Also, you don’t necessarily need Photoshop.

There are many other options out there, both free and paid that can achieve the same results but in different ways. Check out the list of image editing software here.

3.3 Color Adjustment Tools

It’s time to take the information from color analysis and apply it to your image!

I’m going to show you the adjustment tools I routinely use in Photoshop. 

But as you know, there’s more than one way to skin a cat! If you already have a preferred tool, by all means, stick to it.

3.3.1 Hue/Saturation

I like this because it’s the simplest of all.

But like all things that are simple, it doesn’t have enough flexibility. Still, it’s a tool I choose to use first.

hue saturation adjustment color analysis for photographers

How to use it:

  1. 1
    Select the Targeted Adjustment tool.
  2. 2
    Click on the color in the image you want to adjust.
  3. 3
    Move the slider in Hue, Saturation or Lightness to the desired effect.
  4. 4
    Alternatively, instead of Step (1) & (2), choose a color from the dropdown menu to adjust.

When using the Targeted Adjustment tool, left click + hold on a color and move your mouse side ways to adjust Saturation. Holding cmd/ctrl + left click + moving side ways adjust Hue.

3.3.2 Channel Mixer

In Channel Mixer, you can adjust the individual RGB in each RGB channel output.

Sound confusing? Let’s take a look!

channel mixer color analysis for photographers

How to use it:

  1. Select the Output Channel (Red, Green or Blue).
  2. Move the Red, Green, and Blue slider to adjust these within the selected output channel. Remember the opposite of RGB is CMY (cyan, magenta & yellow). E.g. moving red to a negative value will increase the amount of cyan, etc. 
  3. Use Constant for an overall adjustment of the Output Channel.

3.3.3 Color Balance

This is my favorite of all!


Because the color adjustments are based on highlights, midtones, and shadows. It feels more natural adjusting color this way. It’s just my personal preference, you don’t have to agree with it 🙂

color balance color analysis for photographers

How to use it:

  1. Select Highlights, Midtones or Shadows from the dropdown menu.
  2. Add or reduce the amount of RGB. All settings are 0 by default. Remember that reducing RGB increases the amount of CMY.
  3. Color adjustment will inevitably affect the tones. Check Preserve Luminosity to keep the tonality as it is.

3.3.4 Selective Color

The most flexible of all...also a lot to handle.

You can adjust the CMYK output in nine individual color. 

selective color color analysis for photographers

How to use it:

  1. Select a color from the dropdown menu.
  2. Move the sliders in CMYK. Once again, remember the opposite of CMY is RGB. K is black, the opposite is therefore white.

3.3.5 Saturation Mask

It’s a layer mask that targets the most saturated part of the image and leaves everything else unaffected. 

saturation mask sunset

I find it extremely useful when it comes to post-processing fine art photographs. 

Just to clarify, saturation mask is not a conventional Photoshop tool you can select from the menu. You have to either create it manually or generate it using a Photoshop Action which you can find it here.

I have previously written a comprehensive tutorial on saturation mask and how I use it. You can check it out in the Luminosity Masks Resource Page under Articles in the top menu.

4. Analyze, Apply & Re-analyze

Once you have made all the necessary color adjustments, I recommend re-running color analysis again at least with Adobe Color.

This is to see if the changes you made have taken you closer to your objective.

If it doesn’t, fine-tune and re-run color analysis again.

Rinse and repeat until you are satisfied with the results.

5. Case Study

I know it's hard to understand all these without an example. After all, a picture paints a thousand words!

In this last section, I'm going to show you how I use color analysis to change the color and mood of an image I created recently.

case study original image color analysis for photographers

Before color adjustment

This is an abstract photograph I was working on. It's a structure designed by Calatrava in Valencia, Spain. The image shows the front of the structure and I rotated it to make it look like sculptures.

When I load this up to Adobe Color, this is the color wheel:

color analysis before color adjustment

Before color adjustment

I chose muted color mood because I wanted the image to look fairly neutral with subtle color. As I was aiming for abstract, I also wanted the color to convey a feeling of dissociation from reality.

Look at the color analysis above and you can spot one thing instantly:

There's an obvious color outlier...

...and the rest of the circles are a little all over the place.

The first adjustment I applied in Photoshop was a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer. This was targeted at the yellow structure on the left to reduce its saturation via saturation mask. 

hue saturation adjustment color analysis for photographers

Reduce saturation via saturation mask

Next, I added a Selective Color adjustment layer to target the structure by masking out the sky.

selective color to structure color analysis for photographers

Selective color adjustments to the structure

Before I finished in Photoshop, I added a second Selective Color adjustment layer. This time, I targeted the sky and masked out the structure with layer mask.

selective color adjustment to sky color analysis for photographers

Selective color adjustment to the sky

After all three color adjustments, I saved the image back to Lightroom. I left it for a few days before coming back to it.

I felt the color was still too saturated for my liking, so I reduced the saturation selectively with the HSL panel in Lightroom.

This is the final version:

case study final image in color analysis for photographers

After fine-tuning in Lightroom

Now let's re-run color analysis to see how the color wheel looks like.

color analysis after color adjustment

After color adjustment

The color outlier is now closer to the rest and the colors look more unified.

As you have noticed, the colors form a line. Some are in the neutral zone (middle), one in the blue zone and some along the orange/yellow zone.

Neutral colors are pleasant to look at  because they are not color intense to exhaust the eyes. The subtle complementary colors (blue and orange) help to draw attention.

6. Don't Underestimate Color

I hope this article raises your awareness of color management in photography.

Color influenced our subconscious and ultimately our actions without us even understanding why we make the decision we made.

Now that you've been shown how easy color analysis is, I hope you'd consider it in some of your images.

For more tutorials on image editing technique, please check out the editing technique resource page!

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