Color correcting has an incredible power to give films a polished, cinematic look. The difference between a cool, blue-ish tone of a film vs. a classic, grainy film aesthetic can really set the tone, and help you tell your story.
But color correction can be overwhelming! There are a lot of confusing tools, and it takes research and practice to correct images with advanced precision. The good news is that there are more tools—and more affordable tools—for color grading and color correction out there than ever before.
It’s still a complex process, and if you have the budget to hire a professional colorist, you absolutely should! But this post is geared towards editors who are new to color correcting, and DIYing it. (If you’re new to editing generally, you should also check out our guide on how to edit video for beginners).
We will not be focusing on a particular platform for this, because the fundamentals are the same even though the interfaces may be different. If you’d like to dive into the workflows for particular platforms, you can try C.M. De La Vega’s tutorial on Adobe’s Lumetri Color Tools, DaVinci’s robust reference manual, Apple’s Final Cut Pro X Color Correction Overview, or this tutorial on Color Correction in Avid Media Composer.
Table of Contents
- Color Correction vs. Color Grading
- When to Start Color Correction
- What is a Picture Profile
- Working with Flat Footage
- Trust Your Eyes but Don’t Trust Your Monitor
- Working with Video Scopes
- A Basic Workflow for Balancing Your Footage
- Get Those Natural Colors
- Refining Your Color Correction
- Stop and Come Back to it Later
- A Quick Color Grade Process
Color Correction vs. Color Grading
The terms Color Correction and Color Grading are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Color Correction is adjusting your footage to look natural and consistent from shot to shot. On the other hand, color grading is using color to set the tone or add a specific atmosphere and style into your project from beginning to end. First color correct and then color grade.
One practical use of Color Grading is “day for night” shooting a scene at day time and making it look like night in post production with the color grade among other techniques. Most simply, make the the scene a bit more dark and usually much more blue to accomplish this. One recent prominent example of this technique is the film Mad Max: Fury Road. You can read a break down of how they used color grading to achieve this in this FXGuide article. You can learn more about how they used color grading to highlight what was important in scenes for Fury Road in this interview with colorist Eric Whipp.
In this post, we’ll focus on color correcting, which lays the groundwork for color grading. Some projects may never involve color grading. For other projects, color grading is integral, but very dependent on the particular project and aesthetic goals of the creators. All tools that are used for color correction can also be used for color grading.
When to Start Color Correction
Color Correction should be one of the last parts of the editing process, alongside finalizing sound editing and mixing. Color correction is a long and involved process and it shouldn’t be done until your project has been picture locked. It’s a significant waste of time to adjust your footage before you’ve finalized what you are and aren’t using. Part of color correcting is getting your footage to look consistent from shot to shot, which you can’t do until you know all the shots you’re using in the project.
What is a Picture Profile?
When a camera records a scene, it collects data and translates that data into a viewable format. When it does this, it includes instructions on how to modify the data to try and more accurately recreate what you saw. That is a “picture profile”—the set of parameters that determine the characteristics of your footage. Popular picture profiles include ‘C-LOG/Cinestyle’ (Canon) or ‘S-Log’ (Sony). “RAW” is a popular option because it gives the most control over the image; but it also takes up space. Flat picture profiles are also popular, as they give ample flexibility to color and enhance your footage. You may also hear the term “log” which is a neutral profile.
Working with Flat Footage
In all likelihood your project was shot with a “flat” profile, which is to say that the director of photography set the camera so that the final image from the camera never has areas that are totally white or totally black. Everything tone in the image at most rides just below peaking at white or just above falling into being totally black. This gives the image you import into your video editing software a slightly washed out look. Everything is just a little bit gray. There’s not strong contrast in the image. You have details in the highlights and in the shadows.
Flat footage ultimately gives you the most options for working with your footage in post production. You push the contrast in the tones in either direction without losing much in your video image quality. This can give you more from the color in your final product as well.
As you spend long hours editing flat footage be aware that you may get used to how it looks. Over time the low contrast and washed out colors may seem normal. You look at it for so long that sometimes when you do your initial round of color correction, the results may seem extreme or strange when really you’re just bringing the tones to something more natural. Take a step back from the project briefly, if this happens to give yourself some perspective.
Trust Your Eyes, But Don’t Trust Your Monitor
Unless you’ve got a properly calibrated monitor, your results may vary working with color correction and getting the image to look natural. It can be difficult to trust your monitor in this case, because it may not be representing the color in a way that’s accurate for adjusting across other monitors and platforms the project may be seen on.
You may not be able to trust your monitor, but you can still trust your eyes by leveraging tools in the platforms designed to represent the image you’re working with in mathematical terms. These tools are video scopes.hey’ll show you a representation of your image on a chart and the strength of the light or particular colors, dependent on the tool you’re working with.
Working with Video Scopes
Across every major platform you may be using to edit your video you will find one consistent set of tools to work with when color correcting: video scopes. Broadly speaking you’ll have access to Waveform Scopes, The RGB Parade Scope, and the Vectorscope.
There are two broad categories of Waveform Scopes: the standard waveform scope showing you a distribution of dark and light tones in your image and an RGB waveform scope representing overlays of Red, Green, and Blue color distribution of dark and light tones in the image.
A good place to start to balance the contrast and tone of your image is the standard waveform scope. It’s typically shown as a distribution of fine white dots across a black background forming what appear to be waves on the chart. Left to right on the chart is equal to left to right in the image, up is increased brightness, and down is decreased brightness. The scale is typically represented as both 0% to 100% and 0 to 255 colors. Black is 0 and white is 100/255. So the higher the peak, the brighter that part of the image. The lower the valley, the darker that part of the image.
Assuming your video was shot flat you’ll find that the distribution of your wave is mostly in the center of the chart. It won’t rise up to 100/255 or fall down to 0. You can use the waveform scope as a guide to help you with adjusting your flat footage to have a more natural contrast and tone. This can also help you see if your blacks are too black and hurting detail in the nearby tones or, similarly, if your white are too white.
The RGB waveform scope is similar to the standard waveform scope but it allows you to see adjustments that are needed per color. So, if the reds are too bright, or the blues too dark, you can track specific adjustments to those tones.
The RGB Parade
The RGB Parade functions very much like the waveform scopes, but rather than being a single scope for the whole of your image it’s three waveform scopes, one for red tones, one for green tones, and one for blue tones. This can be particularly useful for getting a good sense of what color may be dominating a shot and which of these three colors may need to be adjusted.
The Vectorscope looks very different from the other scopes. This scope is basically a representation of the strength of the colors on color wheel. If you are looking at a flat black image or flat white image the vector scope will only be a dot at the center of the wheel. If the image is red, then that will be a spike in the red section of the color wheel. The bigger the spike the more saturated the color.
The Vectorscope is great for identifying if you have a color cast because the camera wasn’t properly white balanced, or for more advanced users a great way to make sure you’ve got skin tones in the right range.
A Basic Workflow for Balancing Your Footage
Different platforms have somewhat differing controls and options for your color., But you’ll generally always find curves, color wheels, and simple sliders controls for different attributes including overall exposure, highlights control, shadows control, and color saturation control. Learn about the controls for your platform of choice to work through the process that follows.
To get started with balancing your footage: crush it. That is take all the controls and turn everything down until your footage is totally black or close enough to it. You basically want to start at zero and start revealing the light until the image starts to look natural, and the scopes start to look balanced.
If you have global controls like an overall exposure control, bring this up just below the default setting to get started with properly making the fine adjustments to your exposure.
Reveal the Light
Then adjust the controls for blacks, shadows, and contrast. Adjust them and watch the bottom of your waveform scope. Move the controls until you bring the bottom of the waveform just up above 0. You’ll notice it was below 0, you can bring the blacks in your image down below 0, which is called “crushing the blacks,” and that will also bring the other dark tones in the image down, often also to black. For now we’re bringing everything up just above being totally black. We’ll be adjusting it more later.
Then you should adjust the controls for whites, highlights, and brightness up until you get the peaks just up to the edge of the 100/255 mark on the chart. This will also bring your shadows and blacks up and your image will likely look too bright. Go back and adjust your blacks, shadows, and/or contrast controls to bring the parts of the image that are supposed to be flat black down closer to zero while keeping the other dark parts of the image from losing detail.
Balancing the Light and the Dark
Once you work through these first steps go through and make fine adjustments to each setting. What you are generally looking for is adjusting the exposure so that as much as possible you’re retaining details in the highlights that aren’t supposed to be pure white and in the shadows that aren’t supposed to be pure black.
Depending on the ultimate destination of your project you might need to be concerned about keeping your work broadcast safe or legal. If you project is for the web, then you typically don’t have to worry about this. If it’s going out to broadcast, DVD, DCP, or a similar form of distribution this may be a concern. Larry Jordan breaks down what you need to do to keep your image legal in this post.
Working with LUTs
You may also want to try working with LUTs (which stands for look up table). A LUT or 3D LUT is a method using an array of numbers to map one color space–the way a device or program displays color information–to another.
Since we’re working with digital media all of the colors we’re capturing can be represented with numerical values. Those numerical values reproduce the color by being mapped to combinations of red, green, and blue color. A LUT can be used to change the color space captured by your camera to match the color space of another camera, a display, or even approximations of film stock. LUTs can be useful for streamlining the whole correction and grading process, but it’s not a magic wand that will just correct the footage. You’ll still need to make adjustments to get the best final results with your footage. Shutterstock has a useful tutorial on working with LUTs in color grading.
Get Those Natural Colors
Remember, color is the wavelengths of visible light a material reflects as interpreted by the eye. So, the conditions of your shoot always affect your color. You’re likely already familiar with this from white balancing your footage. Even if you white balanced the camera, you may still need to make adjustments in post.
Many editing platforms include a white balance tool in their color correction tools. Often it will include a sampling eyedropper. Use that to click on any part of the image that should register white and the tool should automatically adjust the color correction to compensate for the lighting conditions.
If you need to manually adjust this because you don’t have the sampling eyedropper, or you don’t have anything white in the video, then you’ll typically be manipulating two color controls. One will shift the colors between blue and orange to compensate for color temperature. If the image seems a bit blue, add more orange and vice versa. The other control will shift the colors between magenta and green. This is to compensate for fluorescent lights.
Once you are sure you’ve white balanced the image, check your saturation. Saturation is how intense the colors appear. No saturation is a grayscale image. High saturation tends to look very artificial as the colors are more intense than found in nature.
Shooting flat reduces color saturation as well as the contrast. Adjust the saturation back up in post to get more natural colors. You usually don’t need to add much. Only bringing saturation up by 10 or 20 should get you close depending on the footage.
Refining Your Color Correction
After you’ve balanced each clip, it may not quite feel cohesive. Some clips might fit together well. Others may have such a big change in tone that it’s distracting. Now you need to go through and adjust your color correction so that the tone is consistent and flows from one clip to the next.
One thing that’s important about this part of the process is that it’s not about getting the whole video uniform. It’s about getting each clip to fit with the one before and the one after. Sometimes that means brightening a clip a bit that has darker colors, though was already clear when balanced. Sometimes that means darkening a clip that has a light of light colors. Often it’s a little of both. The clips don’t need to match exactly. Just try and make sure the transition isn’t jarring. You may find as you do this that clips from a single source may look slightly different at different parts of the project depending on these adjustments. That’s okay. Remember your audience will be watching this beginning to end and not jumping from one part of the video to another to check to see if those clips match.
Stop and Come Back to it Later
One of the most important things you can do when color correcting your own project is walk away from it for at least a few hours. Go for a walk. Have lunch. Go to the gym. Carve up some squash and sweet potatoes so you can play Toto’s Africa. Just get your eyes away from the color correction for a little while. It’s very easy to get sucked into the details of color correcting your video and think everything looks fine, when in fact everything is a little blue, a little too bright, or a lot magenta. You won’t notice it if you’ve just been staring at it for hours, so you just have to walk away and come back later.
A Quick Color Grade Process
As stated, a color grade is different from color correction. Color correction balances the footage. Color grading adds style and reflects the intended tone of the piece. When doing the color for your own projects, and after you’ve finished color correcting, you may want to try your hand at color grading.
Most editing platforms with color correction tools also have presets for color grading. Sometimes they are separate effects. Sometimes they are presets in the color correction tools. For a quick color grade find one of the presets that works, apply it to all of your clips, and then go through and adjust the intensity of the preset or effect until it looks right for that clip.
Check out this primer on color grading:
We won’t go too in depth on color grading here, but if you want to dive deeper into color correction and grading you may want to study up on color theory.
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