Use Your Image Editor to Replace a Color in a Photo

Sometimes reality just isn't good enough. In fact, that's the basis for most photo editing. Whether you're applying the Orton Effect to make your subject glow or accenting your subject by removing color from the rest of the photo, there are a lot of ways to make dramatic changes to a photo after it has been taken. But sometimes the change you're looking for is a lot more subtle. What if you only want to change a single color, like the shade of someone's clothing or your subject's eye color? This week, let's see how that's done.

Introducing the Color Replacer

I'll show you how to change a color in your photo using Adobe Photoshop Elements, but if you use a different photo editing program, don't sweat it: The process is almost exactly the same in any modern program. That's because most photo editors feature a useful little gadget called the Color Replacement tool (though the name will vary from program to program).

The Color Replacement tool lets you paint over one color with a different color, and it relies on a tolerance adjustment to know which shades of that color to replace. With a little practice, you can wield the tool well enough that no one will suspect you changed someone's eye color from brown to blue, or painted your house a different color.

Swapping Colors

To get started, begin by opening a photo in Photoshop Elements. Then select the Color Replacement Tool, which you can find in the toolbar on the left side of the screen, 17 cubbies from the top. It shares a space with some other brush tools and the pencil tool.

Before you start painting, you need to choose the color that you want to apply to your photo. In the color palette at the very bottom of the toolbar, click the foreground color swatch (which is the one on the upper left). You should see the Select Foreground Color dialog, where you can browse for and mix colors until you get the exact shade you want. When you are happy with the color, click OK, and you should see the swatch in the toolbar change accordingly.

Now start painting. Click in the photo where you want to change the color, and you should see the old color replaced by the new color. Now just paint to apply the color. Here, you can see I've begun changing my daughter's dress from green to purple. (Note that I just painted over the white pattern; the tool's tolerance adjustment lets it ignore huge differences in contrast.)

Correcting Snags

Depending upon the way the tool was configured, you might run into some easily correctable snags. For starters, the brush might be too large or too small for the area you are trying to paint. I generally pick a brush that's about a quarter the size of the area I'm working on. To do that, click the Brush drop-down in the Tool Palette at the top of the screen and set the brush size in pixels. Make a first pass on the photo to do most of the work, being careful not to color outside the lines; we'll fine-tune the edges later.

Another setting you'll want to tweak is the Tolerance control. Tolerance determines how similar the nearby colors have to be in order for the Color Replacement tool to paint over them. If the tolerance is too low, the old color won't get satisfactorily replaced; too high, and you'll end up including dissimilar colors you didn't want. I recommend setting Tolerance (also found in the Tool Palette) between 30 and 40 percent, and experimenting from there if that doesn't work for you.

Honing the Edges

Finally, you might have noticed that the Color Replacement tool doesn't do a great job painting around the edges of your color region. That's usually because your brush is too big. For edge work, reduce the size of your brush and carefully paint around the edges, being careful not to let the brush stray too much into neighboring colors. Paint with a steady hand, and you can convincingly recolor almost any photo.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 800 by 600 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Bluebell Forest" by Alessandro Sacilotto, Oakton, Virginia

Alessandro writes: "While taking a stroll through the forest in Auderghem, Belgium, I came across this lovely field of bluebells interspersed among the trees and stacks of firewood. I took the photo with an Olympus E-Volt 510 and used Corel Paint Shop Pro Photo X2 to do some minor editing."

This week's runner up: "Tiger Swallowtail" by Darryl Hayes, Rocky Face, Georgia

Darryl writes: "On the first day of spring, I stepped outside to see this beautiful butterfly among the apple blossoms. I took this photo with a Canon EOS Rebel T1i mounted on monopod."

To see last month's winners, visit our July Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

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