Quickly color correct underwater photos in Photoshop

If you’ve ever taken an underwater photo without a strobe more than a few feet from the surface, you’re probably all too familiar with the deep blue color cast that blankets your entire photo. Well, here is a quick and easy way to reduce/remove the color cast, using PhotoShop. (Note: This is just a quick an easy method for images shot in jpeg format.) We’ll start with an uncorrected image.

Uncorrected underwater photo of a great white shark
Original Unmodified Underwater Photo of a Great White Shark

Open the original file in PhotoShop. Before you make any other modifications to the file, create a duplicate layer of the original image. This can either be done through the main menu (Layers>Duplicate Layer) or by clicking on the original layer in the Layers Palette and dragging it to the New Layer icon. (We make a duplicate, so that we have a backup of the original if we decide we don’t like the changes we’ve made and need to start over in the same file.)

Create a duplicate image using the Layers Palette
Creating a duplicate image using the Layers Palette

You’ll notice in the example above that I have renamed the original layer name from "Background" to "Original Image." For the sake of keeping things organized, I will rename the duplicate layer to "Working Copy," as this will be the layer we will be making changes to. (Make sure that the "Working Copy" is selected as the active layer for the next step.)

Rename our duplicate layer
Rename our duplicate layer to "Working Copy"

Now, we are ready to remove some of that pesky deep blue color cast. There are countless ways to do this including using the photo filter layers, adjusting hue and/or color balance, modifying color channels, etc. For this example, however, we are going to do a quick and easy fix using PhotoShop’s "Match Color" function. This can be accessed through the main menu (Image>Adjustments>Match Color).

Select Match Color image
Select Match Color from the Image>Adjustments

This will bring up the Match Color dialog box. The only options that we will interested in for this particular example will the the "Neutralize" checkbox and the "Fade" slider. Click on the checkbox to "Neutralize" the image. (Make sure that you also have the "Preview" checkbox clicked, if it is not checked by default.) You should now see a noticeable difference in the color cast of your image. From my experience, 100% neutralization tends to over-correct and give the image a color cast that leans more toward red. This is where the "Fade" slider comes into play. Adjust the amount of fade until you achieve the results you’re looking for. In my example, it will be about 40%.

Click Neutralize and adjust Fade slide image
Click on "Neutralize" and then use the "Fade" slider to adjust the image

Once you are satisfied with your results, click "OK" to apply the changes to your "Working Copy" layer. You should now have a color corrected image as your "Working Copy." This is what my image looks like, at this point.

Color Corrected Image
Color Corrected Image

I’ve found that removing the blue color casts sometimes lightens my image a little more than I would like, so I often will use a Levels adjustment layer to correct this and increase contrast a little bit. If you are not familiar with adjustment layers, they can be added via the Layers Palette. (I don’t have time to get into a description of adjusting levels for this post, sorry!)

Adding a Levels adjustment layer image
Adding a Levels adjustment Layer from the Layers Palette

Using the Levels adjustment layer I "tighten" the black point slider up a bit on the Histogram and end up with my final product. When using the Levels tool, alt-clicking on the black point and white point sliders will give you a preview of what will be lost from the image given the placement of the slider. "Tightening" the white point results in a loss of detail that I’m not happy with, and, yes, I adjusted the Levels purely based on the resulting image.

Levels Histogram image
Levels Histogram

Now, that I’m satisfied with my adjustments in the Levels layer, I click “OK” and and left with the resulting image below.

Final Color Corrected Image
Final Image

This is a quick and easy way to bring out the colors of underwater images and is a great method to use if you’re short on time, do not have RAW format images, and have a lot of underwater images to edit.


Comments

Avatar of Rick
Posted by RickFeb 10, 2012 at 11:56 am

Thanks for effort in doing this

Many of my pics are taken deeper

Have you done anything similar to cover balancing out lack of Red when pics at more depth have the dreaded Blue cast

Avatar of George Probst
Posted by George ProbstFeb 10, 2012 at 12:22 pm

Rick,

When you start getting down to deeper depths, the water ends up filtering out almost all the red, so it becomes difficult to do too much with deep shots in terms of removing the color cast. If you shoot raw(depending on how deep the shot is taken), you have a little more to work with, but if you’re deep enough to have filtered out all of the red, no amount of adjustment is going to help much.

I’ve had some limited success with shots at around 35-40’ when working with the raw files, but shots at 80-100’ with no strobe have been a lost cause for me when it comes to getting the reds back.

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