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As you've seen, color balancing can be a really difficult thing because color is pretty subjective. And sometimes the only way that you're going to feel confident about changing the color in an image is to do it visually and that's where the Variations adjustment really shines. It's one of the most intuitive ways to correct a color cast in an image and to balance the colors in an image because it's all visual. Unfortunately Variations is one of the few adjustments that's not available as an adjustment layer. But I'm going to show you a work around that lets you use Variations in a way that makes it non- destructive and re-editable even though it's a direct adjustment. This is the same Smart Filter work around that I showed you how to use with the Shadows/Highlights adjustment earlier.
So before I apply a Variations adjustment to this image to balance its color, I'm going to convert the Image layer to a Smart Object. To do that I'll make sure that the layer is selected in the Layers panel. Then I'm going to go up to the Filter menu and I'm going to choose Convert for Smart Filters. I'll click OK and down in the Layers panel, I can see that icon on the image thumbnail. That means that this is a Smart Object layer. Now I'm going to add a Variations adjustment by going up to the Image menu and down to Adjustments and over to Variations. Notice that most of the adjustments here aren't available and that's because I'm working on a layer that's been converted to a Smart Object layer. So I'll select Variations. That opens the large Variations dialog box. If your dialog box doesn't look like mine, you can get to this view by clicking here on Midtones and then in this area clicking on Original.
So let's take a look at what's here. This is the area where you'll be doing most of your color balancing. In this area there is a wheel or a circle of thumbnails that represents the image with different variations of color balancing. This circle represents a color wheel of primary colors with opposite or complimentary colors across from each other on the wheel. So for example, the opposite of blue is yellow. So the More Blue thumbnail is down here and diagonally opposite it is the More Yellow thumbnail. The opposite of red is cyan. So we have the More Red thumbnail over here and across from it the More Cyan thumbnail. The opposite of green is magenta. So we have those two thumbnails opposite one another diagonally in this diagram.
Up here on the right, you can choose whether you want to adjust the color of the shadows or the dark areas of the image, the Highlights, the bright areas of the image, or the Midtones. I'm going to start here with the Midtones. I'm going to come down into this color wheel and just look at these thumbnails and choose the one that looks best to me. I think that this image will look a little bit better if it has more blue. So I'm going to click once on the More Blue thumbnail and that changes the Current Pick thumbnail in the middle and it also changed all these other thumbnails to show me what will happen next if I apply one of those.
So for example, I can apply More Red and now I've changed my Current Pick again and all the other thumbnails have changed too. If I want to compare my Current Pick with the changes I've made to the Original, I could just look up here where there is another copy of the Current Pick thumbnail right next to the thumbnail that represents how the image looked when I first opened it. So you can see that there is already quite a difference just from those two small changes. Next I'm going to try to adjust the highlights in the image. So I'll go over to this area and I'll click Highlights. There is a slider here from Fine to Coarse and if I drag that over to the left, I'm going to make smaller adjustments with each click on a thumbnail. Here in the highlights, I might want to add a little bit more yellow. So I'll click More Yellow. I could also make color adjustments in the Shadows if I wish, but I don't think I have to in this image.
Notice that there is a field here called Show Clipping. I have that unchecked because it sometimes gets in the way. I'm going to check Show Clipping again and you can see there are these bright colors here on the white wave. What that's indicating is that that part of the image is going to be clipped to pure white without detail. I don't think that's relevant to my color balancing, so I'm going to leave Show Clipping unchecked for now. But you can always turn that on if you want to check on whether the changes that you're making are resulted in some unwanted clipping of highlight or shadow detail.
From this dialog box I can also change the brightness of the image by clicking on these thumbnails over here. But I actually prefer to address brightness with a Curves adjustment or a Levels adjustment or even a Brightness/Contrast adjustment where I have more control over brightness. So I'm going to leave those as they are. I could also adjust the saturation of the image by clicking on this button and choosing from one of these thumbnails. I usually do my saturation adjustments using the Hue/Saturation adjustment or the Vibrance adjustment because again I get more control over saturation there. But just to show you how this works, I'll click on the More Saturation thumbnail this time and that changes my Current Pick here and up here at the top of the screen. I'm going to go back to Midtones by clicking here.
Notice that on the right, if I like the settings that I've chosen and I think I'm going to be applying them to other images that I've taken in the same light, I can click Save to save these settings and then on another image I could load the settings. But for now I'm just going to click OK. Notice in the Layers panel that I have this Smart Filters layer underneath my Image layer and the Variations sub- layer under Smart Filters. If I click the Eye icon next to the Variations sub- layer, you can see how the image was, quite yellow and green looking, and how it is now, a lot more blue and magenta.
So what I've done is to fool Photoshop into thinking that I'm applying Variations as a Smart Filter. Smart filters are re-editable and so if I wanted to, I could go back into the Variations adjustment dialog box by just Double-clicking on this Variations layer and I could make another change here. Maybe I'll add a little more cyan and then I'll click OK. I also can use the layer mask that comes with every Smart Filter layer by clicking on that layer mask to select it. Then getting a Brush tool from the Toolbox, making sure I have black paint as my foreground color and I can get that by pressing D and then X on my keyboard and then coming into the image, making the brush a bit bigger and I'm going to paint over this area of the sky and the sea to hide this adjustment from that area of the image.
If I want to bring it back just a little bit, I'll click on the Masks tab to bring up the Masks panel and I'll lower the Density of that black mask turning it into more of a gray mask. So a little bit of my adjustment shows through in the sea and the sky. So that's how you can use the Variations adjustment to visually balance the colors in an image. Under the hood, it's working much like the Color Balance adjustment that I have showed you earlier. But it's easier to use and I think a lot more intuitive.
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