Color Range

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The Color Range dialogue in Photoshop is powerful and versatile and maybe underutilized.

What it does is make a selection based on color and once a selection is made then all kinds of great adjustments can be done - and one of the real keys to working with Photoshop is your skill at selecting stuff.

When you completely understand the power of this selection method you will surely add it to your Photoshop toolkit!

It can be found in the Selections menu and this is a screen shot of the dialogue ...

color range dialogue

As you can see, it is possible to select ...

  • one of six different colors
  • colors sampled with the eye droppers
  • the highlights
  • the mid-tones
  • the shadows
  • out of gamut ...

That is a lot of selecting you can so with color range - and once a color is selected then it can be changed.

So let's look at some examples ...

Color Change With
Color Range

The color range dialogue is very useful to create a selection based on color.  Take this shot of Chris, for instance....

color range chris

He's wearing a nice blue shirt - how easy is it to change the color?

A Hue and Saturation adjustment layer would work but it's a lot of painting (which would be easy with a Wacom tablet, of course).  This is, however, a tutorial on Color Range so we will use that method.

The process will take 4 simple steps ...

Step 1

Open the Color Range dialogue (Select > Color Range), keep the Select: on Sampled Colors, select the left eye dropper and click on the area in the small preview window you want to select.  It will turn white - it the whole area you want to select does not turn white crank up the Fuzziness until it does.

If some parts are still missing select the Middle Eye Dropper (with the plus sign) and click on additional areas.

color range dialogue color range chris selected

When you are satisfied click OK and don't be concerned if too much of the image is selected - it will be fixed soon enough.

Step 2

So now just the shirt is selected - promote the selection to its own layer by pressing Ctrl-J/Cmd-J , turn off the background layer and you will see something like this ...

color range selection

There are some selection artifacts on the new layer and if the color is changed with these artifacts then they will change color as well - not something that is really desired.

The easiest way to remove them is to take the eraser, activate the selection layer and get rid of those unsightly artifacts leaving only the shirt (in this case).

Step 3

Add a new Hue and Saturation layer above the selection and start moving the Hue slider around until you find the color you want - then experiment with the Saturation and Lightness sliders to fine tune the striking new color.

color range creepy

You will notice that the newly colorized image will be a bit creepy, especially if you have a person in the picture - this is how to fix that nasty little problem ...

Step 4

The way to fix this problem is to clip the Hue and Saturation Layer to the Selection layer.  

What clipping one layer to another does is make the top layer only affect the layer to which it is clipped - in this example the effect of the Hue and Saturation layer is only applied to the Selection layer, the selected shirt layer.

To clip the Hue and Saturation layer to the selection layer is easy - activate the Hue and Saturation layer and move the cursor above the Selection layer and the cursor will change to the hand tool.  Move the little hand up until the index finger is just below the line separating the two layers (the red line I put in for clarity), press the Alt key and left click.

color range layers color range clip
Alt-Click the Red Line Hue And Saturation
Clipped to the Selection Layer

The little hand will turn into - um - something and the Hue and Saturation layer will indent itself which signifies the two layers are clipped and the effect of the Hue and Saturation layer will only be applied to the Selection layer - the shirt.

This will be used later on this page so it is worthwhile getting it correct right now.

And here is the final image ...

color range final image

Highlights, Midtones and Shadows

This is so cool and works perfectly with both black and white as well as color images.

color range dialogue 2
Just as a review - here is the Color Range dialogue once again.  

At the bottom of the drop down Select: are three options - Highlights, Mid tones and Shadows and applying them to an image with either a Levels or Curves Adjustment Layer is magic!

How It Works

This is a straightforward process of selecting the three ranges (highlights, shadows and mid tones), making the Levels or Curves Adjustments and then clipping the adjustment layers to the selection layers.

Here is our sample picture - a flower with a little fly sitting on one of the petals.

color range flower

This image is rather flat and needs some "pop".

We could easily perform the Levels or Curves Adjustments on the whole image but selecting the three ranges (highlights, shadows and mid tones) provides an enormous amount of flexibility and fine tuning.


  1. Open the Color Range in the Select menu and scroll down to Highlights (in this image color range highlightsthere are very few highlights - just a few in the raindrops).  The Selection Preview Menu (at the bottom of the dialogue) was changed to Grayscale which provides a preview of the selection on the original image - not necessary but interesting.  

  2. Click OK.

  3. With the selection active on the Background layer, press Ctrl-J/Cmd-J to promote the selection to a new layer. Just to get an idea of what the selection looks like simply turn off the Background layer.

  4. Activate the new layer and name it Highlights (just a bit of housekeeping).  Now create a new Curves or Levels Adjustment layer directly above the Highlights layer and click OK without any adjustments.  I am using Curves for this image.

  5. Clip the Curves Adjustment layer to the Highlights layer (as explained above) and double click the Curves layer (the part outlined in Red) to bring up the Curves dialogue.  

color range highlight layer color range highlight flower
The Layer Palette Close View of

With this flower the mid-point of the curve was moved up to create more intense highlights.

Shadows and Mid tones

The highlights are done and now its time to do the Shadows and the Mid tones.

Activate the Background layer and Select > Color Range > Shadows and click OK  
  1. Promote the selection to a new layer and name it Shadows

  2. Add the Adjustment layer (Curves or Levels) above the Shadow layer and click OK

  3. Clip the Adjustment layer to the Shadow layer

  4. Double click the Adjustment layer and make your adjustments and click OK.

color range selected shadows This is the Shadow selection from Color Range.  All of the other layers have been turned off.
Color Range curves adjustment The Shadows were darkened by moving the bottom point to the right and by pulling the mid-point of the curve down.
color range adjusted sahdows This is the image with the Highlights brightened and the Shadows darkened.

The Shadow layer is done ...

Activate the Background layer and Select > Color Range > Mid tones and click OK  
  1. Promote the selection to a new layer and name it Mid tones
  2. Add the Adjustment layer (Curves or Levels) above the Mid tone layer and click OK
  3. Clip the Adjustment layer to the Mid tone layer
  4. Double click the Adjustment layer and make your adjustments and click OK.

color range midtones selection This is the Mid tone selection from Color Range.  All of the other layers have been turned off.
color range midtones curve adjustment The Mid tones were adjusted with a typical contrast improvement "S" Curve.
color range midtones adjusted Here is the final image with the Highlights, Shadows and Mid tones all adjusted with Curves.  Similar results can be achieved with a Levels Adjustment layer.

And that's it - that is how to use the Highlights, Shadows and Mid tones in Color Range to improve and image.  

color range flower original color range flower after
Original Image Adjusted Image

.Big difference, right?

Other Uses For Color Range

It is not necessary to use all three (Highlights, Shadows and Mid tones) all the time.  You can just modify the mid tones if you want, or the highlights or the shadows.

This will work just as well with black and white images and the procedure is exactly the same.  

Any of the Adjustment layers will work with the Clipping Masks - experiment and have fun with them!

The Video

Using the Color Range

Clipping One
Layer to Another

Clipping one Adjustment layer to the layer directly below it means that any modifications to the Adjustment layer will only be seen on the layer to which it is clipped.

There a a few different ways to clip layers ...

Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Levels (for instance).  When the New Layer Properties comes up simply put a check

color range layers

mark in "Use Previous Layer to Create Clipping Mask".

You can also add a color to the Layer in the layers palette.

Or ...

Press the Alt key and then left click and hold the New Adjustment Layer Icon in the layers palette. 

Scroll up to the type of layer you want to add, release the left mouse button and the Layer Properties box will appear.

Put in the check mark and change the color of the layer.

And finally ...

Create your new Adjustment layer, put the cursor on the line between the layers you want to clip, press the Alt key and click the line.

In each case the clipped Adjustment layer will indent to the right.

color range colored layers

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