An introduction to Lab Color mode / 40 comments + post
online tutorials

In this tutorial we will work through a range of examples, using four layered Photoshop files, to explore LAB, a powerful alternative to RGB. Specifically, we will discuss how to increase the saturation of an image by rotating the ‘a’ and ‘b’ Curves, learn how to tone an image, and discuss how to invert specific colours and colour ranges within an image.

The specific topics covered in the tutorial include:

• Converting an image to LAB
• The Lightness channel
• The ‘a’ and ‘b’ channels: the basics
• The ‘a’ and ‘b’ channels: working with saturation
• The ‘a’ and ‘b’ channels: toning an image
• The ‘a’ and ‘b’ channels: altering colour balance
• Converting to black and white
• Inverting colours


oldest comments first
comment by YETi at 07:39 PM on 31 December, 2007

Oooooo ta.

comment by djn1 at 01:56 AM on 1 January, 2008

YETi: you're welcome.

comment by Mike at 01:57 AM on 1 January, 2008

Hello, thanks for the tutorial, this is heavy stuff, inspiring for sure. Your daughter is very beautiful, i hope i will be able to do something like that with my kids pictures some day ;-) personnaly i will have to read this many times to understand everything..especially that my main language is french ;-) and has never use Lab before.. Happy new year to you and your family !!

comment by JasonHope at 02:17 PM on 1 January, 2008

This is a very good tutorial. When compared to Dan Margulis' work on LAB, which is complex and lacks examples, this tutorial stands out on it's own due to it's assisting photoshop users in expanding their creative wings.

comment by djn1 at 03:30 PM on 1 January, 2008

Jason: I had two main aims with this tutorial. First, I wanted to make sure that I gave a detailed explanation of LAB (much as Dan does in his book), as using it is much easier if you understand the principles behind it. And second, I wanted to make sure that I included enough practical examples to demonstrate how to use it with real world images. So thanks, it's good to hear that you found it useful.

comment by Jennifer at 09:59 AM on 3 January, 2008

Wonderful tutorial. I have THE book but it's just gathering dust - much prefer this way of learning :-)

comment by Gerrit at 04:52 PM on 4 January, 2008

Woooho. It's the stuff like this I expected to read when I subscribed to your tutorials. Thanks! :)

comment by djn1 at 10:41 PM on 4 January, 2008

Jennifer/Gerrit: thanks :-)

comment by One Way at 03:38 PM on 7 January, 2008

I am going to give your tutorial a try, based purely on the fact that I was so inspired by your 'snow queen' image. I hope I don't find it too complicated though ;-)

comment by djn1 at 04:23 PM on 7 January, 2008

One Way: I'm sure you'll be fine, but if you do get stuck I'd be happy to help.

comment by Giulia at 02:44 PM on 8 January, 2008

it's a bit difficult for me read (and write too) in english, I'm Italian, but I can understand very well what you explain in your tutorial...thank you very much for your clarity!
the LAB is a true revelation for me...I thik this is a fantastic tutorial, the best of all and the most exciting :-)

comment by salvatore at 12:02 AM on 9 January, 2008

No other words!

comment by Jamey at 12:00 PM on 15 January, 2008

good intro. I can't pretend to understand a lot of things yet but it's a great foundation. It's like trying to get my head around curves for the first time all over again, but even harder. I think I'll just have to play around with it.

comment by djn1 at 10:16 PM on 15 January, 2008

Jamey: it should all make sense by the time you get to the end, but give me a shout if you get stuck.

comment by Jamey at 11:51 AM on 16 January, 2008

Had a play with Lab on some images I'd been umming and ahhing with for ages. I see what you mean about being able to accomplish a lot with a single layer. In fact, I can see myself doing too much with one layer and then trying to separate the individual elements (colour/luma) out onto their own layers further down the line when I want to start playing with the opacities of each :)

comment by djn1 at 12:04 PM on 16 January, 2008

Jamey: I often find it useful to use one adjustment layer for colour and another one (or more) for luminosity, not least because I often want to apply the colour changes to the entire image but might want to mask the ones used to adjust contrast.

comment by Jamey at 02:21 PM on 16 January, 2008

Yep, makes sense. It's just a case of stopping myself going too fast when I start editing. I'm really bad at taking time to do the "admin-y" bits like naming layers and all that gubbins.

comment by djn1 at 11:13 PM on 17 January, 2008

Jamey: you don't need to name them if you create them in the same order each time. Adjust the colour first, then the contrast. If you get into the habit then you won't need to worry about naming them.

comment by Jamey at 01:29 PM on 18 January, 2008

Ah, I always do contrast first... Well usually, anyway... that's inherited from the Blatner/Fraser book, where they go on about making the biggest changes first and leaving the subtler ones to the end. Although you could argue that colour is just as "big" a change as contrast. I guess it depends on the colour/contrast within the pre-processed image. Each picture is probably different in that respect but nevertheless, I usually find myself getting the luminance sorted before the colour.

comment by djn1 at 01:38 PM on 18 January, 2008

Jamey: the order isn't quite so crucial in LAB as in RGB as colour and luminosity are entirely independent of one another. For example, if you have an image with ten adjustment layers in LAB, one of which is a Curve that alters the colour balance, it doesn't make any difference where in the layer stack you place it, either to the appearance or quality of the image.

comment by steve deer at 11:52 AM on 22 January, 2008

dave... I sense there's a lot of lab post-production here...
can you confirm?

comment by djn1 at 07:23 PM on 25 January, 2008

Steve: possibly, though I couldn't say for sure. The thing about Photoshop is that there are numerous ways to achieve much the same effect, and while some of the image on jinkyart do look as though they were probably processed in LAB they could have been created in a number of ways. What I can say though is that they're quite approachable so I'd drop them an email and ask.

comment by Cesar at 11:07 AM on 11 July, 2008

Hi, thanks a lot for your tutorial. Excellent work!
By other hand, I detected a little mistake: in page 3 when you says: "If you now take a look at the ‘b’ Curve (above right)... ", I think that the correct version is "If you now take a look at the ‘a’ Curve (above right). It's OK?


comment by djn1 at 11:14 AM on 11 July, 2008

Cesar: I'm glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for the heads-up about the typo - I've corrected it.

comment by will at 10:25 PM on 15 July, 2008

finally getting back to working on these after a long absence, and i have to say....if you did a book i think it would be a big success!


comment by Heli Soto at 05:15 AM on 19 July, 2008

Wonderful tutorial. I got more and more excited after reading every paragraph and can't wait to try out these techniques. One question (may be silly) is: I noticed that you used the eraser tool on the mask instead of using a white brush (opposite to black). Does this make a difference?

Thanks again!

comment by djn1 at 11:30 AM on 19 July, 2008

Heli: using the eraser tool is functionally identical to using a white brush, so on, it doesn't make a difference.

comment by Catalin at 01:10 PM on 17 August, 2008

I was reading through this tutorial and I just realized that the "image 2" used in the "toning the image" chapter is a photograph of me. You took it when you were in Dubai, two years ago... Cool photo :-)

comment by Cesar Parroco at 09:31 AM on 15 September, 2008

Do you have any plans of publishing a book soon or a DVD tutorial I can purchase. Thanks

comment by djn1 at 09:44 AM on 15 September, 2008

Cesar: yes, we're considering both options, but at this stage we don't have a definite time-frame in mind. I'll keep you posted.

comment by KOMETA at 02:28 PM on 10 May, 2009

fantastic photos and tutorials in this web...

comment by Jonas (americanvirus) at 06:18 AM on 21 August, 2009

Wow David. Your tutorials are working out great for me so far. I've been playing around with the curves tool in LAB mode for awhile now, not at all understanding it, but liking what I can do with it. I also like converting an image to LAB and then going to IMAGE -> APPLY IMAGE, and then playing around in there, changing the blending to Soft Light and playing with the Channels & Opacity (I don't even know if I'm describing this right, but I'm hoping you know what I'm talking about). Anyway, I'd love for you to explain sometime what's going when I go to IMAGE -> APPLY IMAGE in LAB. Maybe you already have. I've been working through your tutorials from the bottom up and I see there are some more LAB tutorials to come. I keep having these 'Ah-Ha' experiences when I work through your tutorials. I especially had light bulbs going off in this one, mainly because I'd already been playing around in the LAB mode before reading it. I find that the more I work through your tutorials, the more I better understand what is technically taking place with each adjustment, and the faster I get at making my own images look the way I want them to. SO Thanks!! I'm looking forward to learning more about LAB, and curious about what's going on when I go to IMAGE -> APPLY IMAGE. Thanks again. I've been really enjoying and getting much out of my subscription.

comment by djn1 at 06:33 AM on 21 August, 2009

Jonas: I'm glad you're enjoying the tutorials :)

As for your question ...

Using Image -> Apply Image is functionally equivalent to duplicating the image layer then changing the blend mode of the newly created layer, and while there are a couple of things you can do with this dialog that can't be done using the duplicate layer method (which I'll explain in a future tutorials), the duplicate layer method is a bit easier to work with insofar as you can tweak the settings of the new layer at some future point. In other words, you'll have a bit more scope to alter the image during its subsequent post-production.

comment by Jonas (americanvirus) at 06:49 AM on 21 August, 2009

Thanks!! That makes sense... and I'm looking forward to the future tutorials.

comment by Mohamed at 03:36 PM on 23 March, 2010

I've seen some tutorials and videos about LAB but always felt that it's difficult. This tutorial makes it very easy to understand and make use of it. Thanks Dave

comment by Nino Frewat at 08:44 AM on 6 April, 2010

I find this tutorial, and anything related to LAB to be very important. I too have the Dan Margulis book and several online tutorials on LAB, but this was by far the easiest to understand, and the most applicable to photographers. Thanx!

comment by Florian at 03:32 PM on 7 April, 2010

Hello David. This is another great tutorial. This may be a stupid question, but where does LAB fit in in terms of work flow? So, for example, would you do all work on a photo in LAB or some in RGB? If you do part in RGB, then would you do the LAB portion first?

comment by djn1 at 06:03 AM on 9 April, 2010

Florian: generally, if I use LAB I try and stay in that mode, but if I am going to combine the two I tend to start out with LAB then switch to RGB. Take a look at Creative Workflow #4 as it's a good example of this process.

comment by LOWELL D. FRANGA at 08:02 AM on 25 April, 2011

David: The 2 LAB tutorials are great! I have Dan Margulis books and gave up trying to learn due to the complexity of his teaching methods. You have simplified it greatly and by reading the other comments, there are a lot of photographers like myself who are grateful for them! Is there any chance you can make a training dvd covering: Calculations; Apply Image; and Lab Color? I have found all these subjects to be difficult to learn but have an idea you will be able to simplify and teach brillantly. I have a lifetime membership but would be more than willing to pay an additional fee.

Thanks for sharing and I will be looking forward to your response.


comment by djn1 at 08:52 AM on 25 April, 2011

Lowell: Thanks for the kind words about the tutorial, they're much appreciated. As for your suggestion: it's certainly something I'll consider, but I don't often use Calculations or Apply Image. I'll take another look at both techniques though and see if I think they'd make the basis of a good tutorial or two.

And you're right about Dan's book: it's an excellent resource, and certainly very detailed, but it is a bit difficult to follow at times.