When it comes to movie-making, there’s a big difference between what the director sees on the monitor while shooting compared to what we, the viewers, see in the final product. 

It all comes down to the edit and what’s called color grading. You’re probably more familiar with this concept when it comes to still photography (who hasn’t played around in Photoshop or Lightroom these days?) but it’s a technique that can be applied to any form of visual media.

In this post, we’ll answer some of your top questions, like “what is color grading in video editing?” with before and after examples to help you understand how this process can dramatically alter your work. We’ll also give you an overview of some of the best color grading software available so that you can start applying it to your own projects.

What Is Color Grading?

Color grading, at its simplest, is the process you use to change the visual appearance of a still photo or moving image like a video. This can be anything from the color itself to its saturation, contrast, detail, and hue, or the black and white balance.

You might be wondering why you can’t use whatever footage you have directly from your camera, and you definitely can if you’re happy with how it looks naturally. But most of the time, you’ll want to make edits to achieve the look and feel you’re aiming for. We can bet you’ve used a filter on Instagram or other social media platforms before—you might not have realized at the time, but that was color grading!

Professional color grading is as much a technical skill as it is an art, and there are few places where this is more evident than filmmaking and looking at what color grading is in video formats. Time and budget usually limit how many shots a film crew can get in a single day, so it’s not always possible to test out different on-camera styles. This needs to happen in post-production and is usually one of the last pieces to be worked on. 

Color grading allows you to completely change the mood of the image, which can be used to help you further the story or convey something about a particular character or setting. For instance, you might want a horror film to look darker with higher levels of contrast to add a spooky element, compared to a romantic film which might use warmer tones and a more saturated look.

Examples of Color Grading

Color grading for both still images and film can help you to produce dramatically different outcomes. Take a look at some examples where the before and after shots highlight different moods and tones to suit the artist’s preference.

Still Photography

two slightly different posters
By adjusting the contrast and brightness with color grading, you can create unique styles in any of your still images.
photos slightly different
Aiming for a certain tone or mood in your final piece? Color grading can help you to achieve that in no time.

Films and Videos

screenshot from Moonrise Kingdom
When you compare the before shot to the reference photo, you’ll see that there’s some editing that needs to happen.
edited screenshot from Moonrise Kingdom
Using the reference photo and adjusting the color settings, you can create a shot that fits with the rest of your work.
a film still edited
Skillshare instructor Jon Brommet demonstrates the difference between raw footage straight from the camera and the color graded version in the final piece.

The Difference Between Color Correction and Color Grading

The terms color grading and color correcting are often used interchangeably, but there are some differences between them. 

Color correction can include touch-ups like editing out blemishes or removing dust particles that made their way into the shot. It can also include matching footage taken on different cameras so that when color grading happens, there’s a consistent look and feel throughout. 

Color grading, on the other hand, is more about editing the visual for stylistic purposes to give the final shot or image a particular feel and mood. 

Where correction focuses on small fixes, grading is mainly used to bring an artistic vision to life.

Take Your Film Project From Small Screen to Hollywood!

Color Grading: Creating a Cinematic Look

What Software Do You Use for Color Grading?

editing using DaVinci
Using DaVinci Resolve color grading tools, you can easily take your film project from amateur to professional quality.

When it comes to tools, there are a few standout industry favorites. 

If you’re new to this type of work, the best color grading software to get started with is either Adobe Premiere Pro or Final Cut Pro. These will have some of the basic features you need to start color grading both your still photos and your videos.

Once you begin to work on more advanced film projects, especially when working in a creative team, DaVinci Resolve color grading will likely be a better option. This free tool is used from amateur products all the way up to studio motion pictures and now includes visual effects (VFX) and detailed editing features to help you create your vision.

For photographers, Adobe Photoshop is a tried and tested staple of the industry. If this feels a little overwhelming, get started in Adobe Lightroom, where you can work on basic editing like saturation, exposure, and color balance. There are plenty of presets that you can find online that give you templates for different color graded looks. These can be helpful when you’re still learning about the various elements of your image and how manipulation of these can change the final look.

Color Grading Central is a great hub for artists—both photographers and filmmakers. You’ll find tutorials and workshops that show you how to use any of their free lookup tables or LUTs. Like Photoshop and Lightroom presets, LUTs can help transform your video projects to look like your favorite Hollywood blockbusters and bring consistency across all of your shots. You can download and import LUTs into any software you’re using, so if Premiere Pro color grading is more your style than DaVinci Resolve, you’ll still be able to make use of these templates.

How to Get Started Color Grading

Step 1: Color Correction

color grading in premiere pro
When you’re new to editing, Premiere Pro color grading tools are a great place to start.

Making sure that all of your shots have a matching and consistent look is an important first step. Any color grading that you do after will need to be applied across every shot, so cleaning everything up first will save you time down the editing road. Think of this step as getting all of your images or video footage up to the same starting point.

In Premiere Pro, the Lumetri color panel is where you’ll want to make any changes. In this first step, focus on elements like white and black balance, shadows, highlights, and exposure. Use the Color Wheels & Match section on the right to tailor your levels at a more granular level.

Step 2: Shot Matching

editing on premiere pro
Using a reference image can help to make sure that all of your individual shots are color graded to the same tone, preventing any jarring scene shifts.

Once all of your individual shots have been color corrected, you can move onto looking at a whole scene together. This is an important step to ensure that there’s no single shot that’s breaking the overall consistency throughout the scene. If there is, you’ll want to go back to the first step to correct this before moving on.

First, choose a reference image for the sequence that you can use to match all of your shots to. This is usually going to be the widest shot in the scene as you’ll have more color information to pull from when making further edits. 

If you’re working in Premiere Pro, try the tool Reference Window, which can be found in the Window > Reference Monitor section of the main toolbar. This will bring up a still screenshot of your reference image in a separate window so that you always have this available to review as you edit.

Remember that you don’t need to match every shot color for color. Instead, aim for levels that are continuous enough that the audience won’t find transitions between clips jarring.

Step 3: Match Skin Tones

vectorscope meter
Matching skin tones is an important part of color grading as our brains instinctively focus on this and will pick up on anything that seems unnatural. This can alter perceptions of the rest of the scene, so it’s crucial to get this right!

Skin tones are one of the areas that our brains naturally pick up on and notice if something’s out of place. If skin tones don’t match from shot to shot, the whole image will be thrown off. To test whether your skin tones are within the natural range within Premiere Pro, use the vectorscope tool to check if any adjustments are needed. 

Once the vectorscope graph is turned on, you’ll be able to see where colors appear throughout the shot. No matter what ethnicity, all human skin tones fall between the yellow and red quadrants (known as the flesh line). If skin tones in your image aren’t appearing on this line, you know that they’ll need some edits.

Step 4: Final Color Grading

Now that you’ve established your baseline, you can make your stylistic color grading choices to wrap up your project.

Once all of your color corrections and baseline grading is complete, you can start to develop your stylistic color grading. You can download LUTs from websites like Color Grading Central to directly import into your software and tweak from there, or you can start from scratch. 

If you choose to work on your own edits, remember some of the basic color theory rules like contrast (choosing colors from opposite sides of the color wheel) and balance. From here, keep adjusting the levels until you’re happy with the final product and can move on to your next scene!

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