Adobe Photoshop CS3 Tutorial: Changing Colors Selectively

If you rue the hue, here's what to do

A friend, Marcia Hart, showed me this image she shot in Mexico. She wanted to change the color of the shirt to something that looked a bit more rustic. The challenge? How do you change the color without affecting the underlying tonalities of the folds in the fabric.

As with everything in Adobe Photoshop there are several ways to do this, but my favorite is the one I think is the simplest. If I select the shirt I can then use that selection to mask a Hue and Saturation adjustment layer set to Colorize. I like this method because the mask (the selection) can be tweaked to perfection after the adjustment is made, and the adjustment itself can also be tweaked at any time because it is on a separate layer above the image itself.

I love that kind of flexibility because I often want to make small changes when I go back and look at an image some time after the initial work.

I'm using the brand-new (and wonderful!) Adobe Photoshop CS3. You can use earlier versions of Photoshop and you may be able to use a different image editor, but you'll need one that allows adjustment layers with layer masks. Of course menus will be different in different programs and versions, and I'm speaking Windows here. If you use a Mac substitute Cmd for Ctrl and Option for Alt.

Marcia had already done the basic adjustments to the image so I opened it in Photoshop and went to work selecting the shirt. Before CS3 I would have first tried the Magic Wand tool, then polished the selection in Quick Mask mode. If the Magic Wand wouldn’t isolate the area well, I would have used my favorite method of painting the selection directly in Quick Mask mode which I discussed in the tutorial "Virtual Fill Flash" and which I have used in many of the tutorials here).

Introducing the Quick Selection Tool

But CS3 has a wonderful new Quick Selection tool. It worked very well for this image because the shirt is tonally distinct from the areas surrounding it. It is found in the Toolbar below the Lasso tool if you use the single-column layout. Some tools have associated similar tools, as shown by a small black triangle in the lower right of the tool's box. Just click and hold on one of these tools for a second and the other options pop up. This is the case for the Quick Selection tool, which also allows you to choose the old Magic Wand tool.

With the Quick Selection tool chosen, I simply scrubbed the cursor over the various tonal areas of the shirt. I got most of the areas in one motion and then added others with subsequent scrubbing strokes. I didn't have to hold down Shift to add to the selection, as I did with the Magic Wand tool. If I selected an area I didn't want, I pressed Alt and scrubbed in it to un-select it. This tool is more magic than the Magic Wand.

When I had what looked like a good selection, I went to the top menu bar and chose Select > Refine Edge, which is also new in CS3, in order to slightly feather the edge of the selection so it will look natural. This new dialog combines into one box several refinements you commonly need to make to a selection.

Here's that dialog box, which also shows my selection. I will leave the settings at their default values for now and see if that subtle feathering will work for this image.

If I didn't have CS3 I would have gone to Select > Feather and tried a value of about 1-3 pixels for this image. The value would be larger for a softer-edged area.

Then I had a closer look at my selection by hitting the Q key to go into Quick Mask mode. This shows the non-selected (protected) areas in translucent red (or other color if the default has been changed) and shows the softness of the edges, unlike the marching ants view. I zoomed in to a 100 percent view by double-clicking the Zoom tool (the icon in the Toolbar that looks like a magnifying glass) to have a good look at the edges. Here is the view in Quick mask mode.

If the edges didn't look right I would back out by clicking the previous step in the History palette and repeat the step with different values for the feathering or the other parameters in Refine Edge.

You can see the edges aren't perfect but the feathering looks good. An initial selection almost always needs to be fine-tuned. I could do that now, but often I'm not sure my attempts to fix an image are going to work so I'll usually leave the selection imperfect and see what my fix will look like. Then, if I like what this adjustment can do for the image, I'll refine the selection, which will be a mask on an adjustment layer by that time. I'll do it that way here.

Time to change the color

So on to the adjustment. I made a Hue and Saturation adjustment layer. (From the top menu bar, Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Hue and Saturation, or click the half-black/half-white circle at the bottom of the Layers palette and choose Hue and Saturation.) Then I clicked the box near the bottom of the dialog window that says Colorize. That changes the Hue and Saturation adjustment to something very different than what we usually use.

Since a selection was active when the Hue and Saturation adjustment layer was created, the adjustment will be restricted by a mask (circled in red in the figure above) which shows the area where the adjustment will take effect in white and the areas blocked off from the adjustment in black.

I moved the Hue slider till I got a color I liked, then toned it down with the Saturation slider. I left the Lightness slider at zero. It is a crude adjustment and will trash the contrast. I want to darken the shirt a little but I'll do it in another step, below.

I changed the Hue to +29 and the Saturation to 38. The Hue slider is very sensitive; a small movement will change the color a lot. You have fine control by using the Up and Down arrows on the keyboard (not the Right and Left ones.) If they don't cause a response, click the desired slider or click its numeric value and then the arrow keys will work.

Whenever I make a layer that contains a mask I like to link it to the Background layer so I don't inadvertently move it. It could move if you have the Move tool active and happen to drag the cursor over the image with a masked layer active (blue.) If you did that the mask would be moved out of register. If it was only a slight movement you might not notice it until you printed the image or committed it to a JPEG for the web or whatever. (An adjustment layer that doesn't have a mask can't be moved.)

Linking layers is easy. In CS2 and CS3, with the adjustment layer highlighted, hold the Ctrl key and click the Background layer so both will be highlighted. Then click the link icon on the left at the bottom of the Layers palette, the one that looks like a chain link. In earlier versions, to link a layer to the highlighted one, click in the empty thumbnail just right of its visibility (eyeball) thumbnail.

I saw I could do what I wanted with this image, so next I fixed the imperfect edges of the selection. I showed how to do this in detail in my previous tutorial, "Refining Selections." Briefly, I clicked on the layer mask thumbnail (circled in red above) then went to the Channels Palette and clicked the visibility icon for the channel for that mask.

This showed the mask as an overlay on the image, with the protected areas in a translucent color. Its color and opacity can be changed by double-clicking the mask thumbnail, just as they can be changed for Quick Mask mode. (When you are viewing a mask in the Channels palette you are not in Quick Mask mode, although it looks very similar.) Then I used the brush tool to touch up its edges and any other flaws. A black foreground color will add to the mask and white will erase it. You can change the size, opacity, and hardness of the brush to get the edges you need. Zoom in to a 100 percent (or more) view to be able to work in sufficient detail.

Next, I wanted to darken the shirt. After I had the selection refined I made sure the Hue and Saturation layer was still the one highlighted, then went to the top menu bar and chose Select > Load Selection. (You don't need to save a selection when you use it in a mask. You will always be able to re-load it from the mask.) With the shirt selection re-loaded I made a Levels adjustment layer and pulled the middle slider a little to the right to darken the mid-tones. (You could also use a Curves layer if you are comfortable with it. I use Curves in place of Levels in most cases because it gives me more control over contrast.)

Finally, I double-clicked the adjustment thumbnail for the Hue and Saturation layer, fine-tuned the color, and toned down the saturation a bit more. I think this is a great improvement for this lovely earth-toned image.

When several adjustments will use the same mask they can be put in a Group and the mask assigned to the entire group. That way if the mask needs to be altered later only one copy of it needs to be changed. But that's too much to go into here. I'll do another tutorial on that soon. It is a very handy tool to have in your arsenal.

Diane Miller is a widely-exhibited freelance photographer who lives north of San Francisco, in the Wine Country, and specializes in fine-art nature photography. Her work, which can be found on her web site,, has been published and exhibited throughout the Pacific Northwest. Many of her images are represented for stock by


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