Photoshop Tutorial: Color balancing and exposure 28

I did not set out to write this tutorial today, but here it is, almost 8pm (and 80 degrees *melting*) and I’m writing this tutorial.


I’ll be totally up front, I post-process every single image I take with my camera. For the most part it’s because digital + photoshop has made me incredibly lazy, but it’s also because a lot of the times, my camera is not great at figuring out the color balance in my shot, and I don’t want to deal with futzing with my camera’s menu. So I just aim for a decent exposure and figure Photoshop can help with the rest. Which it often can.

The thing I use in almost every image is the Curves Tool. There’s a lot you can do with it, but I’ll show you the quick and dirty way I use it to color balance and fix exposure issues with my photos. If you want to see it in action, I made a janky little video which you can see at the end. There’s no audio but it shows an example of both fixing exposure and fixing color balance problems.


The first thing you do is open your image. (File -> Open, browse to image.)


Next you go to the menu and find Image -> Adjustment -> Curves.


This brings up a kind of intimidating pop-up, but don’t let it get to you! What it’s showing you is how much of your image is at the various values, from black to white. Notice in my graph there’s nothing on the right side which corresponds to white. Which makes sense, because my image is under-exposed.

So there’s a few little eyedroppers there at the bottom. One is for determining your blackest point, one is for determining a medium value, and the one we’re going to use is for determining our lightest value. Click that button and your pointer will turn to the appropriate eye dropper.


Now anywhere I click on my image, Photoshop will set that to white. That means anything lighter than that in the image will also be white. So if I click on a dark area, you will see the image turn into blown-out blech.


Instead, click on an area that you think is close to what you want to be whitest. This looks a bit better, although still a bit blown out. I’ll cover that in a second. I’ll note here that when I started using this tool a lot, I went to the local goodwill and got a $1 white sheet which I now use for the backdrop of many of my photos. I also make sure the sheet shows up in my photos even if I’m going to crop it out later, just so I have something white I can use this trick with. Yep, I’m that hardcore (read: lazy.)


Anyway, next up we’re going to fine-tune this a little bit. There’s a checkmark that is labeled “Show clipping.”



Click that and suddenly our image is made up of black and white and some colors. I ignore the colors and instead just focus on the white bits. Those white bits are everywhere that shows as white in the image.


Since I want to minimize the amount that is white (which is what makes it look blown-out), I click around in the white areas (which will set that color in the image (not the clipping thing you’re seeing) to white), and try to minimize the number of white pixels. It’s kind of like a little game.


You can check and uncheck the show clipping mask to see how the image is looking. When you’re happy, click OK, and voila! Properly exposed image!


You might notice that when you click on a white area of the image, the graph gets some colored lines on it. This is showing the color balancing it’s doing. So not only are you fixing the exposure ofΒ your image, but it’s doing color balance at the same time.


Here’s a quick before and after image of using the curves tool to get this white rabbit properly exposed and color balanced (it had a blue cast to it due to being in the shade late in the day.) The video shows the process I used (spoiler alert: it’s the same process) to do the color balance.

I hope that helps. I don’t know if other programs have something similar, but I assume at least some of them do!

And the video, as promised!Β If you find this useful, let me know and I’ll try to do a few more of these in the future. And maybe try to get better at taking videos, too. πŸ™‚


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28 thoughts on “Photoshop Tutorial: Color balancing and exposure

  • Whiskers

    Like machine quilting, that little routine takes practice. And, oh, nostalgic for the old days when I thought I would grow up to do such things. I would be happy to see more of your work. I’m impressed!

    • anne Post author

      It’s true, it takes some practice, but it becomes quite fast once you’re used to it. πŸ™‚ Of course, that could be said of almost anything, right? Just takes practice! πŸ˜€ You know, you could still grow up and do such things, it’s never too late! (This is what I tell myself. lol)

  • Pat S

    I have photoshop but I’ve become so incredibly lazy that I just use the iPhoto application that came with my Mac. I suppose I’ll have to switch over to photoshop and at least give this a whirl. Maybe after I retire in a couple of months. πŸ˜€

    • anne Post author

      Hahaha I totally understand! Sometimes I just take things with my cell phone and figure instagram filters will just hide any imperfections. That’s the ultimate in laziness! lol I hope you give it a try. πŸ™‚ Let me know how it works for you! And YAY!!!! Retirement!! Do you have plans? Or just basking in the luxury of no plans? πŸ™‚

    • anne Post author

      I hope you give it a try and let me know if anything is unclear. πŸ™‚ I started out just using the Auto button, and it took me a while to figure out what the heck was going on with all those extra buttons. πŸ™‚

      • Chantal

        I’ll try that with my boyfriend, who happens to be a graphic designer ! I’ll keep you informed (I have a picture taken outside with the snow, that I’m curious to check)

          • Chantal

            I finally tried it, by memory. It just made the two step for the white balance. The “clipping” step, wich I didn’t understand at first, really helped to balance the first step to the desired result.

          • anne Post author

            Oh wonderful, I’m glad you gave it a try and that it worked! The clipping step is a bit hard to explain, but it really does make a big difference. πŸ™‚

  • Steph Granite

    This tutorial was SO HELPFUL!!! I’ve heard before that curves was the adjustment to use but I never knew how to do it correctly… I would kind of just drag the curve over the mountain – looking thing around until I thought it looked good. This is definitely way better

    • anne Post author

      Yay!! I’m so glad it helped! πŸ˜€ Your comment made my day. πŸ™‚ I started out just using the “auto” button on the curves thing and then would be lost if I didn’t like how it worked. I forget how I figured out how to make it all work, but it was only in the last 5 or 6 months that I started realizing how to use it. (I’ve been using Photoshop since *1993* and I’m still learning stuff in this program!!) As it is, I’m sure there’s even more you can do with it but I like the quick and dirty solutions because I don’t want to spend a lot of time editing photos!

  • Leanne

    This is very helpful. I have been stumbling about in photoshop and although I do not understand what is happening in this process I can do what you did and I expect it will greatly improve my photos. Thank you. I even have some kona white about for photos, so can save that trip to the thrift shop.

    • anne Post author

      I’m so glad to hear it’s helpful, Leanne! Kona White is a great base white to work from. I used to use that but I kept using it up for my projects so I finally just got the sheet. lol

  • Susan A

    Thank you for a wonderful tutorial! Recently, I’ve used Auto Color, then adjust the brightness to process my photos, which has been an improvement but still not quite what I want. I’ll definitely be trying your technique. Seems I’m picking up a secondary hobby, in addition to quilting!

    • anne Post author

      Thanks Susan! πŸ˜€ I used Auto Color for a while, but when I upgraded to CS6, it started being REALLY weird. That’s what forced me to learn this new method which as it turns out, is probably what I should have been doing all along. πŸ™‚
      Almost every hobby benefits from knowing photography! πŸ˜€ What’s art and crafting without the ability to share it, after all? πŸ™‚

  • Elise Lea

    This tutorial is amazing! I know a little about editing in Photoshop, and usually I would mess with the settings or use the auto curves button, but it would color the photos funny and I didn’t like it. But this method works great! I really appreciate this tutorial, thank you so much for posting.

    • anne Post author

      Thanks so much, Elise! I’m so happy it was helpful! I did the same thing with auto curves all the time but didn’t like the way it would change the colors sometimes. I don’t remember how I stumbled upon this method, but now I use it all the time! πŸ™‚

  • Chari Ross

    Nice tutorial! Have you ever heard of Photoshop Actions? It allows you to “record” the steps of a tutorial and save it as a single Photoshop Action file (.atn), which you can load up later to perform the same steps in a different image with a single click of a button!

    This allows you to re-create complex effects such as 3d effects, shade filtering, etc. with very minimal effort. On my website, I have a hand-picked collection of free Photoshop Actions, categorized for easy finding, as well as a full tutorial on how to install and use Photoshop Actions. Have a browse: Free Photoshop Actions

    • anne Post author

      Generally I’m only working with photos of quilts and trying to get the colors as close to reality as possible, so 3d effects, shade filtering, etc, is a bit of an overkill. πŸ™‚ Thank you for the link, however! I’ve never used Actions, but I’ll check them out.

  • Michelle

    What version of Potoshop do you use? I dont currently have this software and would like to purchase it, but dont know which one I should get. I appreciate the tutorial. Thanks!

    • anne Post author

      Hi Michelle! I use CS6. I think they only do the Cloud version now, which is a monthly subscription but is not tied to a specific machine. Good luck!