The HSL/Color Panel

The HSL/Color Panel

This post was updated on September 28th, 2019

Adobe ® Lightroom’s Develop Module explained

Last month we had a look at the Color Channels in Tone curves in Adobe ® Lightroom’s Develop Module. Now it is time to head on and explore the HSL/Color Panel in depth. First, we review what HSL means and what we can do with it as opposed to what we can do with the Color side of things. Later we examine what happens if we don’t use a color image but a monochrome.

What does HSL stand for?

HSL is the abbreviation for Hue, Saturation, and Luminance; which are the three elements that define a color. Let’s look into it.

Hue refers to a specific color tone, say red or green.

Saturation means the intensity or purity of a color. A purer more saturated red contains less grey than the same red at a lower saturation.

Luminance tells you something about how much black or white a specific color contains. In other words, luminance determines the brightness of a color.

Hue, Saturation, and Luminance

HSL/Color Panel

Let’s have a look at the panel next, as it has quite a few different settings. 

In previous versions of Lightroom, this panel was called HSL/Color/BW Panel. The current version of Adobe ® Lightroom Classic CC would show the BW part only if you chose a Black & White profile in the Basic panel. Since Black and White and Split Toning – the next panel – work well together, we’ll skip the BW part here.

HSL Panel

If you click on the HSL part of the panel’s header, it opens like in the following image.

The HSL Panel

You can open the Hue, Saturation and Luminance tabs on their own by just clicking on the appropriate word. 

Hue Panel
Saturation Panel
Luminance Panel

As you can see, we have a Target Adjustment Tool (TAT) again in each of the tabs. It is working the same way as the TAT in the Tone Curve Panel, only that it is here addressing a specific hue or combination of hues. We’ll have a look at that later in the examples.

When you want to change the Hue and the Luminance of a color, it might be more practical to open both of them at the same time. However, clicking on All would open all three of them, and that might be one too many. Despair not, there is a solution for that too.

<Cmd>-click/<Ctrl>-click on the tab that you want to open additionally and the second (or third) tab opens as well.

Opening multiple tabs at once

If you, however, only want to address one or more specific colors, you might be better off by opening the Color Panel instead of the HSL Panel.

Color Panel

Clicking on the word “Color” opens the Color Panel. Any settings that you have previously made in the HSL panel are transferred to this panel once you open it. Depending on, if you have opened it before with a color selection or all colors, it opens again with said selection or all colors. 

Color Panel with all colors visible

In the Color Panel, you can address the Hue, Saturation, and Luminance of one Color while having all three sliders directly below each other. So depending on your needs, you might find it easier to work with the Color Panel on some occasions and with the HSL Panel in others. 

As with the HSL Tabs, you can choose one color or a selection of colors. You do so by clicking on the appropriate colored rectangle in the top of the Panel. Again, <CMD>-click/<Ctrl>-click for opening more than one color at a time.

Color Panel with only one color visible
Color Panel with multiple Colors visible

The only difference between the Color and the HSL Panel is that the HSL Panel comes with a TAT for each tab, while the Color Panel has none. 

Restoring the initial values of a Slider in the HSL/Color panel

Double click on the name of the Slider to set it back into its initial (0) position. If you decide to reset all sliders of one group, for example, all Hue sliders in the HSL Panel, you need to double click on the name (here Hue) of the group.

Hue Tab in the HSL Panel / Hue Sliders in the Color Panel

You find a set of eight hues, from red to magenta so that you can address each of them separately. However, these hues are not quite what you would expect when you read their names. Have a look at the color-octagon below. It starts at 12 o’clock with red, followed by orange and yellow, then green and aqua, before blue and purple and finally magenta. Yet, the so-called orange here looks rather like cinnamon, a muddy orange.

The HSL/Color Panel in Adobe Lightroom's Develop Module
Hue Octagon – muddy edition

This muddiness, however, is a result of centering the Saturation and Luminance sliders. If we were to set the Saturation and Luminance of all hues to +100, the color octagon would look different.

The HSL/Color Panel in Adobe Lightroom's Develop Module
Hue octagon – clean colors

So let’s see what happens if we move the orange slider to the left. One would like to believe that it would only affect the orange hue in the octagon. However, look for yourself.

The HSL/Color Panel in Adobe Lightroom's Develop Module
Orange hue set to -100

Because the red in the octagon is not a true red but also contains orange, it changes too. So moving the red slider to the right, and the result looks almost as if red and orange had changed places in the octagon.

The HSL/Color Panel in Adobe Lightroom's Develop Module
Red hue set to +100 and Orange hue to -100

So let’s have a look at the extremes for all sliders.

The HSL/Color Panel in Adobe Lightroom's Develop Module
All Hues +100
The HSL/Color Panel in Adobe Lightroom's Develop Module
Hues in 0
The HSL/Color Panel in Adobe Lightroom's Develop Module
All Hues in -100

If you look closely, you find that with the red slider to the left, the former red triangle takes almost the color of the orange triangle. There is not much of a difference between them.

Fine tuning the White Balance

Changing a color’s Hue can help you fix a color cast in an image. Say your reds have a little cast toward the oranges. In this case, you could drag the red slider somewhat to the left to fix the reds without affecting other colors. If you use the White Balance settings from the Basic Panel for this, it can create color casts in other areas. This because the White Balance settings affect the entire image and not just certain colors of it.

Preparing for Print

When you are preparing a photo in Adobe ® Lightroom for Print, you likely want to soft proof the image. By that, you would figure out how a color looks in the final print given a specific paper and ink. Sometimes you find your beautiful blue sky looking a little purple.

With the HSL sliders, you can address and fix the problem. There are some conditions though. You need the specific ICC profile for the paper and ink and install that in Adobe ® Lightroom. Also, it is best to use a color calibrated screen. The latter enables you to see the “real” colors of the photo. An uncalibrated screen might show you a clean yellow when the image contains a mustard color. So post-processing images on an uncalibrated screen is all right if you want to see them only on this particular screen. However, if you want to print your images, you might get disappointed when the printed colors look nothing like your image. 

We explore this in more detail in a later article.

How to give the sky a little more punch without using filters

On days when you left your polarization filter at home or did not use it, you might come home with a great photo. However, the sky is just that little bit too bright. Now you could try and darken it with a graduated filter in Adobe ® Lightroom.

What if you only want to address small areas of blue sky and not the storm clouds? The filter might not do the trick. You could, of course, try to fix it with an adjustment brush instead. Seriously brushing say twenty tiny spots and fine adjusting every single one of them? That does not sound tempting to me.

Addressing specific tones in an image

However, with the HSL/Color Panel, Adobe ® Lightroom provides you with a solution to address specific tones. Granted, if you had a blue sky and another blue object in the image, this panel would work on both so you’d be back at the brush.

I have a beautiful seascape with a storm cloud coming in, taken at the North Sea coast of Denmark.

The HSL/Color Panel in Adobe Lightroom's Develop Module
Tversted Beach Original

In the photo above, I have made some adjustments within the Basic Panel already. However, there is this light blue spot on the right side in the sky. I want the whole image much better if this spot was a little darker. Not much, it doesn’t need to turn black.

So I am going to the Luminance part of the HSL Panel. I could also have used the Luminance slider of the Color Panel for the color blue to achieve the same result.

Dragging the Blue Luminance slider to the left adds black to the blue areas in the image, and herby darkens it. A subtle change in the settings.

The HSL/Color Panel in Adobe Lightroom's Develop Module
Blue Luminance Setting
The HSL/Color Panel in Adobe Lightroom's Develop Module
Slightly darkened blue in the sky

Of course, you could do something like this with one or more of the other colors in the panel as well. 🙂 

How to create a natural red tone

Have you ever photographed a red object, it could be a car or a flower, and the colors in the image did not add up to what you saw? It just tuned out too red? However, your exposure is correct, and the white balance adds up, so what is going wrong then?

The reason behind this is the Bayer filter, or RGGB filter, in your camera. This filter helps to save a color image on your memory card.

Let’s blame the Bayer filter

It looks somewhat like this:

Bayer filter

Thankfully they build it more accurate than I can draw it 🙂 

With the help of the Bayer filter, color information saved in your image file. It also reassembles the human eye’s color sensibility. 

Human eye versus filter technique

The human eye (and brain) use a staggering 72% of the green values of a scene to determine the brightness and contrast values.  Only 21% come from reds and 7% from the blues. The Bayer filter, named after his inventor Bryce E. Bayer, tries to reassemble this relationship. However, as you can see in the photo above, green only takes up 50% of the spots while blue and red take 25% each. This structure leads to a red-problem in images that are mostly red, as the poppy photo below.

The HSL/Color Panel in Adobe Lightroom's Develop Module
Original Poppy Image

However, with the help of the HSL Panel, I can address this problem and get some detail back into the red poppy.

Fixing the reds

Let’s see what is wrong with this image. First of all, the saturation of the reds leads to a loss of detail in the poppy. Now desaturating the reds and oranges alone leads to an almost transparent blossom.

The HSL/Color Panel in Adobe Lightroom's Develop Module
Poppy Orange Luminance changed
The HSL/Color Panel in Adobe Lightroom's Develop Module
Saturation changes

While it has more detail than the original, it is still not very natural looking. So what can we do? The color tone itself seems reasonable, so changing the Hues won’t do the trick. However, what if we decreased the luminance of red and orange as well?

The HSL/Color Panel in Adobe Lightroom's Develop Module
Luminance and Saturation Settings
The HSL/Color Panel in Adobe Lightroom's Develop Module
Final image of the Poppy

I think this is looking rather good. What do you think? Would you do more?

How to create a selective color image

Selective coloring means that the majority of your image is monochrome. Only some detail or object of particular interest keeps its color. It is not a new technique. Moreover, as with all sorts of post-processing, it can look good in some photos and terrible in others.

The same way the human eye is paying more attention to bright areas than to dark ones; it focuses more on saturated areas than on desaturated ones. So this technique is one of putting special attention to some detail.

Examples of this technique in photography and film

The technique is not only used in photos, but in films too. One movie that uses it, in my opinion to perfection, is Schindler’s List.

If you have watched it, you may have noticed a little girl appearing only a few times in the movie, wearing a red coat. If my memory serves me right, Oskar Schindler first takes notice of her in the Krakow Ghetto. He later watches her body – still dressed in the red coat – being taken to a mass grave. This scene seems to be one of his epiphanic moments, starting his work to save as many Jewish lives as possible. Pretty much everything that took place during the second world war in the movie is portrayed in monochrome. This girl in her red coat is one of the very few if not the only exception until the end of the war, as far as I can remember. 

Of course, there are more “peaceful” examples of this technique as well. A classic example might be someone walking in the rain with a red umbrella – everything but the umbrella in black and white.

So what is this technique about?

It is all about desaturating all but one color. Granted, you might have an image which contains that color in many areas., but want to desaturate it in all but one. In that case, the HSL/Color Panel won’t be of as much help, and you might want to consider other tools, like the brush tool and its Saturation slider.

However, for some images, the HSL/Color panel might be enough to achieve the desired effect. Alternatively, you could combine multiple tools for fine-tuning your result. I’ll show you other ways of achieving this effect in later articles when we examine these tools. For now, we stick to the HSL Panel and the Saturation tab alone.

Creating a selective color photo

The photo I am starting with is from the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle.

The HSL/Color Panel in Adobe Lightroom's Develop Module
Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle – Original

The red sculpture already stands out against the background. However, I would like the houses to be less visible and only have the artwork become the one feature in the image. To realize this, I am desaturating all colors but red and orange completely. Which leads to this image:

The HSL/Color Panel in Adobe Lightroom's Develop Module
Saturation Settings
The HSL/Color Panel in Adobe Lightroom's Develop Module
Seattle with everything but Red and Orange completely desaturated

Some more adjustments in the HSL Panel

It is not terrible. However, I want to desaturate the orange a little bit. In my opinion, the image would look better if the house between the Sky tower and the sculpture loses its color completely. The elevator section of the Sky Tower, however, should stay orange. For this, I am desaturating orange a little bit too.

The HSL/Color Panel in Adobe Lightroom's Develop Module
Saturation Settings
The HSL/Color Panel in Adobe Lightroom's Develop Module
Saturation in -100 for everything but Red (0) and for Orange -49

Fine-tuning with a brush

With the HSL/Color Panel, this is as far as I can get. However, I find the red chairs on the left side and some areas of orange in the Sky Tower and the skyscraper still distracting. To desaturate these as well the brush tool comes in. I don’t want to describe how to use the tool here in detail; this is for a later article. To help you on the way:

The HSL/Color Panel in Adobe Lightroom's Develop Module
Tools Panel with Brush Tool marked

You need to use the circled button to access the brush tool. The right Develop Panel is going to change and look like this:

The HSL/Color Panel in Adobe Lightroom's Develop Module
Brush Tool Settings

How to use the Brush tool


The most important settings to desaturate other areas in the photo are here: Saturation Slider, set to -100. Brush size – the size that works for you depends on how much detail work you need to do to address the right sections in the area – here I am using a smaller brush.

Also cross off for “Auto Mask,” which ensures that even with a broader brush you address only areas of a specific color. In this case, it prevents me from desaturating parts of the Sculpture.

You can change the size of your brush while painting over the sections of your image. So in this image, closer to the Sculpture I would use a smaller brush and farther away I’d use a larger one.

Fixing errors

If you accidentally draw over a section that should not get desaturated, you can use the Erase function to draw over it again to remove the brush-effect.

Only when you hit Done in the bottom right below your photo, you are applying the selection to your image. Still, you can always go back and edit it.

Resulting Selective Color image

The HSL/Color Panel in Adobe Lightroom's Develop Module
Selective Color version of Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park

I hope this article has given you some ideas of what you can achieve with the brush tool. Feel free to ask questions below in the comment section.

All trademarks and copyrighted items mentioned are the property of their respective owners.

I am in no way affiliated with any of the products used in this post-processing process. I do not receive any kind of compensation for this article, it was neither offered or asked for.


All photos taken by Lille Ulven Photography.

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