For most photographs of nature, the color green is essential to the overall impact and believability of the image. If the greens look good, then the rest of the photo is believable. If the greens are oversaturated or under saturated, then viewers will suspect something has been done to artificially enhance the color and will write the image off as "over photoshopped."
Back in the film days Fuji was known for incredible greens in their slide film Velvia. Nature photographers came to love this film and it became the defacto standard for the way greens should look in nature photography. Because of the way this film impacted my photography, I work to re-create that look in modern software during my post processing in Lightroom and Photoshop.
I want to show you three ways for achieving believable greens using a variety of software tools. The first method is using the Lightroom 5 brush tool, the second method is using the Lightroom 5 HSL targeted adjustment tool (TAT) tool, and the third being Nik Color Efex Pro 4 Foliage Enhancer.
1. Lightroom 5 Brush Tool – Saturation Slider
One of the most powerful tools in Lightroom 5 is the brush tool. To access this tool go to the Develop module and click on the brush tool icon just above the Basic pane. Another way to access the tool is by typing the letter K on your keyboard (I don’t know when they used K either). Once you’ve opened up the brush tool dialogue, make sure that you zero out all the sliders. The best way to do this is to double-click on the word “Effect,” which automatically zeros all sliders in the panel.
Now, set your brush size so that it covers an appropriately sized area of your photograph. I like to set my feather to 100 for most of my work, but will adjust my feather downwards to 50 or zero when I need to be more accurate with the edge of my brush. A feather setting of 100 results in a soft-edged brush while a feather setting of 0 results in a hard-edged brush.
Paint over the photo in the green areas by clicking the mouse and dragging it across the specific regions you want to affect. Be sure to turn on Auto Mask by clicking in the check box next to the word Auto Mask near the bottom of the brush panel. As long as you keep the center of the brush (plus symbol) over the green sections, then Lightroom will do a pretty good job of not spilling the adjustment over into the other regions nearby.
Once you get pretty close to the end of your painting session, type the letter O on your keyboard to show the red overlay. This shows you what you have painted and what you haven’t painted. To get rid of the red overlay, type the letter O again. It is colored red to help you see what area is being impacted.
The next step is to increase the saturation slider. Starting out, I like to set the saturation relatively high so I can easily see where my adjustment is impacting the image. After I’ve completed my painted selection, then I will readjust the saturation slider until the colors look natural. Keep in mind that it is easy to go overboard with the saturation slider since this is a very aggressive tool. You’ll probably find that your final setting will most likely be in the +10 to +20 range.
2. Lightroom 5 HSL Targeted Adjustment Tool
The HSL tool is one of the least-used tools in Lightroom. HSL stands for Hue, Saturation and Luminance. For this example I will use the saturation portion of the HSL to make most of my adjustments. The neat thing about this tool is that it allows you to pick a specific color range without impacting other colors in the image.
Even if people do use the HSL sliders, they very rarely understand that there is a specialized tool here that allows you to specifically pick a color with your mouse and adjust only that color range in the photograph. This tool is called the targeted adjustment tool, otherwise known as the TAT. Without using the TAT, you’re often trying to guess the exact color range to modify. For adjusting greens, many people don’t know that proper adjustment also requires a subtle dose of yellow to make them look natural. That’s where the TAT comes in; it automatically picks the color sliders you need for the adjustment.
Using the tool is very simple and straightforward. Simply click on the small circular button in the upper left corner of the HSL pane. Now the TAT is active. Bring your mouse over to the photograph and click down on the color range you want to modify (i.e. the green grass). With the mouse still clicked, move your mouse upwards to increase the saturation or downward to decreased saturation. Keep in mind that all the colors in the photograph that are similar to the colors you first click on will also be impacted. This is true even if the colors are in the lower part of the frame are the same as those that you clicked on in the upper part of the frame.
If you are feeling confident about using the TAT with the Saturation sliders, then go ahead and work with the Luminance sliders in the same way. Luminance will impact the brightness of the colors separately from the saturation of the colors. I generally stay away from the Hue sliders, but they can be helpful if you want to bias the colors towards another color. For example, perhaps your greens look too yellow or too brown, then you’ll use the Hue adjustment to bias them back towards green.
When you’re finished adjusting the TAT, click on the Done button at the bottom of the picture in your toolbar.
3. Nik Color Efex Pro 4 – Foliage Enhancer
The third method I want to show for adjusting greens is using a software plug-in specifically designed for foliage. One of my favorite plug-ins is called Nik Color Efex Pro 4 and inside of this excellent program is a filter called “Foliage.” The filter itself is very simple with only two adjustment options. Even though it is simple, it is very effective.
The first adjustment option is to choose the Method and in this case the method asks you to choose the hue of green you want to apply to the image. The pull-down menu that has three method types with the first being somewhat yellow, the second being a bit more green and the third being very green. For most foliage, I really like the third choice since I find that greens with too much yellow in them don’t look so great.
The second adjustment option you’ll make is adjusting the “Enhance Foliage” slider. Adjusting this is very straightforward as the numerical values ranges from 0% to 100%. I suggest starting out at 50%, then moving the slider right and left until you find a color that seems natural. Keep in mind it is very easy to overdo greens, so what I often do is move the slider until I like the color saturation, then pull it just a bit to tone it down. Remember that you don’t want the photograph to look like Disneyland, rather you want it to look natural and believable.
After you’ve adjusted the Method slider and the Enhance Foliage slider, you can use also use a control point to selectively apply the adjustment to regions of the photograph. The control point technology is one of the reasons I love using Nik Software products since it allows me to very easily and quickly apply adjustments to specific areas of the photograph.
When finished adjusting the foliage in the image, click on the Save button to close the plug-in and add the image back into your Lightroom library.
So there you have it. Three ways to produce believable green colors in your outdoor photographs. Give these methods a try and see which one you like best. The most important thing is to remember to not overdo the saturation. If you keep the greens believable, then most people will believe the photograph has been represented honestly.