Enhancing the colors of your photos

There are many different ways to enhance the colors of your photos using the Gimp.  In this tutorial, I will show you the basic process for color enhancement, then I will show you differences in each method so you can decide which way is best for you.

When I did the tutorial on editing photos for wedding enhancement, I got a great suggestion in the comments that instead of using saturation for color enhancement, I could use LAB decomposition.

I played around with it a bit and it has some interesting results.  Before I show you all the different methods for color enhancement, I will show you the basic process.

Step 1 - Prep The photo

You should not do color enhancement to all your pictures, try to select one with vibrant colors.
Original file we will be editing
They are in the process of building a bike trail near where I live in Spanish Fork Utah.  I was pretty excited to see what it was like, so a couple months ago in the fall I hiked it.  It was so beautiful and I remember all the vibrant colors.  I took this picture and remember being disappointed when I got home because the colors seem so bland.  This is what we will fix!

I always like to make a copy of my base layer.  This way I can always revert back to the original easily and have something for a point of comparison.

Step 2 - Decompose


Select LAB and click OK (You really can select just about any decomposition you would like; below I will show you the differences with each)

Step 3 - Adjust the Color Curves

On the newly created black and white image, select the A layer and go to Colors>Curves....  Move the curves as seen above; one square over.  You can do more than that for more vibrant colors.  I find that a square and a half is pretty good.  Anything more than that starts looking fake.

Step 4 - Recompose


That is it!  Pretty simple, but a great way to bring out the colors a bit.

Original Image
Lab Composition
Color Enhancing Techniques Comparisons:

Now I will show you some side by side comparisons of different color enhancing techniques so you can decide what is best for you.

1. Auto Levels - This is probably the most basic technique.  This does not really do much for colors (unless you manually change color levels) but is perhaps the most common way of doing photo enhancement.  As you can see, it does improve the image, but does not really enhance the colors much.
Original Image
Auto Levels
2. Saturation - I increased the saturation to 40.  This is also super quick and easy; the colors already seem more vibrant.  In the Gimp you can see live changes as you move the saturation bar; this is nice so you don't overdo the saturation.

Original Image
Saturation - 40

3. LAB - This is Lightness and A and B color spaces.  In this first example I only edited the curves for the color spaces and not for the lightness.  It is definitely better than the original, but difficult to say if it is significantly better than saturation or not.  LAB seems to keep the light levels better than just using saturation.

Original Image
LAB - Edited A and B only
4. LAB - In this example I edited the lightness curves in addition to A and B.  I like how this adds a bit of contrast in light values... a nice glow effect that would work well in some photos.

Original Image
LAB - Edited all curves
5. RGB - Red Green Blue.  This also does a great job with light levels.  The light contrast seems to bring out a bit more vibrancy in the colors.

Original Image
6. HSV - Hue Saturation and Value. I only edited the saturation and value.  Levels and colors are not quite as vibrant.  Gives it a vintage like effect.

Original Image
HSV - Edited Saturation and Value
7. HSL - Hue Saturation and Light. I only edited the saturation and lightness.  Even darker and less vibrant colors.

Original Image
HSL - Edited Saturation and Lightness
8. CMY - Cyan Magenta and Yellow.  Virtually no visible difference with RGB.

Original Image
Play around with it and see what works well for you!

Original Image
RBG with Duplicate layer on overlay

About McKay


  1. Good ideas for some quick post-processing methods!

    I think I'll add it to my list of Best GIMP Tutorials 2010!

  2. I tried several ways to get the image to recompose, but I didn't figure out how to do that.

  3. Colors>Components>Recompose

    You have to make sure you do it on the new decomposed image (the black and white image) and not on the original image (the image in color)

  4. Thanks. Impressed by the results!

    Stumbled on your blog recently. I've started to use Inkscape and Gimp alot (aren't they great?), am glad your tutorials really help! Good to find tutorials for both in one place. keep adding.
    PS: I bookmarked this site...

  5. Simple & to the point. Easy to follow.

  6. I could not get the black and white photo to change GRRR!!! frustrated. It said to select the A layer... what???

  7. Thanks, the HSL part was useful to bring some life to one of my blog photos. It is also a good idea to watermark photos using gimp to prevent mis-use of the photos you brought back to life =;

  8. Thanks..this is such a wonderful idea of enhancing colors of your photos. I tried it and it worked fantastic. thank guy. ..Good work

  9. Finally, a group of Gimp Photo Tutorials that are truly teaching something us; Very useful for image editing professionals I have download all and these are very useful for me.

  10. is there any way to enhance just a specific area of a photo?

  11. Nothing happens when I recompose the grayscale image. Is there something different that you have to do on a Mac using Gimp 2.8?

  12. Great! I learned something new today.

  13. Great tutorial!
    The only part I missed was that when you click recompose, the original image changes and not the grayscale one.

  14. Really nice and simple tutorial, thanks a lot :)))

  15. Just found this and I'm finding your tutorials really useful. However, I'm another one who is having problems with "recompose". Nothing happens when I do. I am doing it on the B&W image, not the original, but it does nothing. Any thoughts?

  16. Ok, just figured it out. In case anyone else is wondering, you won't see the B&W image change, but the original that you decomposed will. I was just looking at the wrong thing.

    1. Ah ha! without the comment I would still getting frustrated. Thanks!

  17. When I recompose, the image just looks really blue.... I'm pretty sure I'm following the steps right??

  18. To see changes in B&W decomposed image, you have to turn off L layer, because the three levels are opaque and only L level is interactively shown.
    Using decompose and recompose works with a basic gimp install, but with G'MIC plugin ( you can have an interactive control of color changes in LAB space (with predefined sliders, not with a full control on the curves).

  19. Thank you! My photos look better already after following these steps. I look forward to reading more of your tutorials.


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