color analysis for photographers

Color Analysis for Photographers: The Essential Guide

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 form.

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 color of an 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 colors an image is made of. 

Essentially, it maps out the colors in an 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. 1Adobe Color
  2. 2Adobe Photoshop
  3. 3Dedicated color analysis software

2. How to Analyze Colors 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 money buying new software!

Let’s dive in!

2.1 Adobe Color

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

It tells you if the colors 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. 1Click Extract Theme on the top left corner.
  2. 2Upload an image by dragging and dropping or browse the file on your computer.
  3. 3Select the Color Mood on the left. (the color extraction changes instantly as you change the mood).
  4. 4Click Color Wheel on the top left corner.
  5. 5You 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. 1What am I trying to achieve with the colors?
  2. 2Does the circle distribution fit any of the color harmony rules?
  3. 3Are the circles close to each other? Do they groups of clusters? Are they separated far away from each other? 

Very often, you’ll find the circles in some kind of color harmony rule or clusters 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.

In contrast with 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 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

In most cases, Adobe Color and Photoshop are sufficient for the purpose of color analysis. 

If by any chance you feel you need more in-depth analysis, there are paid software you can explore. BabelColor is a software dedicated for color analysis that can do more than what we have discussed.

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. 1A color wheel that maps out the dominant colors in your image (Adobe Color).
  2. 2A color abstract of your image – the color viewers see on first sight and the psychological impression in their subconscious.

Based on the color analysis with the color wheel, you can adjust individual colors so it matches more closely to one of the color harmony rules.

You can also change the overall color based on the data from the color abstract. E.g., by adding a Photo Filter in Photoshop.

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 the colors 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 colors in your image so they are more harmonious.

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 first. 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 aim before you start applying color adjustments will save you precious time from lingering in Photoshop.

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 specific and selective color adjustment I need.

Also, you don’t necessarily need Photoshop. There are many other options out there, both free and paid that can achieve the same results as what I’m about to show you here. Check out the list of image editing software here.

3.3 Color Adjustment Tools

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

As we move down the list of tools, things are going to get more complex. So move on to the next on the list.

3.3.2 Channel Mixer

Still pretty straight forward.

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. 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 colors this way. It’s my personal preference and 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 adjustments will inevitably affect the tones. Check Preserve Luminosity if you prefer to keep the tonality as it is.

3.3.4 Selective Color

The most flexible of all…also a lot to think about.

You can adjust the CMYK output of nine individual colors. 

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 adjustment tool you can select from the menu. You have to either create it manually or generate it using a Photoshop Action.

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 the necessary color adjustments, you need to re-run the color analysis at least with Adobe Color again.

This is to see if the changes you made have moved you closer to your aim.

If it doesn’t, fine-tune the adjustments and re-run color analysis once more.

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 of this tutorial, 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 on Adobe Color, this was what it showed:

color analysis before color adjustment

Before color adjustment

I chose muted color mood because I wanted the image to look fairly neutral with just a hint of color. As I was aiming for abstract, I also wanted the colors 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 off 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 applying three color adjustments, I saved the image back to Lightroom. I left the image for a few days before coming back to it.

I felt the colors were still too saturated for my liking, so reduce saturation selectively with the HSL panel.

This is the final version:

case study final image in color analysis for photographers

After fine-tuning in Lightroom

Now let’s re-run the color analysis and see how the color wheel looks with this one.

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 eye. The subtle complementary colors (blue and orange) helps to draw attention.

6. Don’t Underestimate Color

I hope this article raises your awareness in color management. 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!

  • Manthan says:

    Simple and easy way to understand colors as a photographer after reading this article, first of all, thank you for that…

    Because of your inspiration, I created one article on Beginner’s guide to color theory in photography 2020, source: , I hope you like it.

    keep up the good work 🙂