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What Is Color Grading? Learn Visual Storytelling for Video Post-Production

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Read Time: 8 min

If you're a filmmaker and you’d like to know more about editing, particularly colour, then you’ll love our free course, How to Colour Grade Video. In this lesson, you’ll learn what colour grading is and how you can make it work to tell better visual stories.

Colour Grading: What Is It and Why Do We Need It?

There’s a lot of confusion about colour grading and colour correction. At their core they're both about pushing pixels around and altering exposures and colour, but each process has a unique function. Colour grading is a specific part of the post-production process, and in this lesson you'll find out exactly what it's all about.

Colour correction is a process where you take your clips and you match the exposure, colour temperature, and saturation so that they all look relatively uniform.

Colour grading is more of a creative process, where you make choices about the exposure, colour temperature, and saturation to support the emotion of the sequence and provide continuity of style and feeling.

They also go in that order: colour corrections first, then colour grading. The reason for this is that trying to do colour correction and colour grading on each clip individually can get very complicated, and it involves extra steps.

For example, let's say that in order to correct the clips in a sequence, you need a three-way colour corrector, a fast colour corrector, and the curves adjustment. Then, for the colour grade, you need another three-way colour corrector and a curves adjustment. For every clip, you'd have to adjust at least five effects, and that is a recipe for inconsistency and headaches.

A better way to do it is to do all of your colour correction first, and then go back and apply the colour grading to the scene more globally. As the shots were matched pretty well in the colour correction process, this colour grading process will go a lot faster, and you might even be able to use something like an adjustment layer to apply some blanket grades and then tweak a few clips individually.

To summarise: colour grading happens after colour correction, and colour correction happens towards the end of your project. You don't need to worry about the colour of clips and shots that are going to be edited out.

Basic Colour Workflow

In general, the colour editing workflow goes something like this:

  • import your footage
  • organise it
  • trim your clips
  • make sub-clips
  • do a rough assembly
  • refine your edit
  • do your colour correcting
  • do your colour grading
  • do your sound mixing
  • add your titles
  • export your project

This order definitely has some flexibility, but it's probably the most efficient way to tackle most of your projects.

Exceptions to the Rule

Sometimes, depending on the footage, the line between colour correction and colour grading gets a little blurred. If your footage is less than ideal, then the lines between colour correction and grading become a bit more blurred because you're doing more than your typical colour correction passes.

An open project in DaVinci ResolveAn open project in DaVinci ResolveAn open project in DaVinci Resolve
An open project in DaVinci Resolve / David Bode

For example, the three shots you can see in the screenshot above are not ideal. They were filmed with one of the very first ‘prosumer’ HD cameras, and each one has a little bit of craziness going on with the colour. They could be colour corrected, but the number of steps that it would take to do that can seem like we're getting into the territory of colour grading. That's because colour grading is a more isolated process where we're not making big changes, but rather quite specific changes to parts of the image.

Sometimes, you do need to do more in the colour correction process. That can be a single adjustment, or sometimes it's many adjustments, and you have to pull keys and motion track. These are often more typical of things that you would do at the colour grading stage, but sometimes they have to be done with colour correction, and in those cases they might take more work and be more involved than usual.

Why You Might Want to Colour Grade

We’ve looked briefly at what colour grading is and how it's different from colour correction, but we haven't talked a lot about why you would want to do colour grading.

A drone shot of a beachA drone shot of a beachA drone shot of a beach
A drone shot of a beach / David Bode

This was shot from a drone, and it already has some basic colour correction applied to it, but let's say that you wanted to fit this clip in with a tropical island scene.

The beach drone shot after colour grading / David BodeThe beach drone shot after colour grading / David BodeThe beach drone shot after colour grading / David Bode
The beach drone shot after colour grading / David Bode

Above you can see the same clip, but with a colour grade to give it a tropical island vibe. There's a big difference to the water—it has much more of a blue tone, and the sand is warmer, with a highly saturated, rich feeling to it. This would be a great example of what you might want to do to a clip to make it fit within your project.

Let's say you needed to fit this same clip in with other footage that was shot at night.

The beach drone shot after alternate colour grading / David BodeThe beach drone shot after alternate colour grading / David BodeThe beach drone shot after alternate colour grading / David Bode
The beach drone shot after alternate colour grading / David Bode

This might be something that would work in that situation; you can see that this has a real moonlit vibe to it. The look is completely changed, and that would help it to fit with the rest of the shots in your scene.

Colour Correcting

A clip of some stock footage from VideoHiveA clip of some stock footage from VideoHiveA clip of some stock footage from VideoHive
A clip of some stock footage from VideoHive

This clip is stock footage from VideoHive, and you can see that it needs some help: the colours are quite crushed out, the lighting strip is clipped, and a lot of detail has been lost.

The same stock clip after colour correctionThe same stock clip after colour correctionThe same stock clip after colour correction
The same stock clip after colour correction by David Bode

With a little bit of colour correction, you can't really recover everything, but you can bring back some of the detail—you can see more in the shirt that wasn’t there before, for example. The shot looks good with a little bit of colour correction, so why then grade it?

Colour Grading

The same stock clip after colour correction plus grading by David BodeThe same stock clip after colour correction plus grading by David BodeThe same stock clip after colour correction plus grading by David Bode
The same stock clip after colour correction plus grading by David Bode

This is after grading, and you can see it’s definitely stylised now. It’s more saturated, and your eye is drawn towards the main person in the shot, running away from the camera. The person has been brightened a little and everything else darkened down, which helps her become the focus.

When you’re shooting, you may want to do it with a flatter profile or potentially expose up because you want things like skin tones to be exposed properly. You could see from the shot of the original clip that they’re not, and a bit of colour correction can help with that. Then a grade can relieve some of that potential flatness.

Another Example

Another stock footage example from videohiveAnother stock footage example from videohiveAnother stock footage example from videohive
Another stock footage example from VideoHive

Here’s another stock footage example. This already looks pretty good, and it’s got nice contrast, but there are some things that don’t work well. For example, the red salt shaker and the red food items are quite saturated and take the focus away from the characters. Colour grading can help.

The same stock clip after some colour gradingThe same stock clip after some colour gradingThe same stock clip after some colour grading
The same stock clip after some colour grading by David Bode

A colour grade here helps draw the eye to the people and warms them up, giving the shot an evening look. This is a creative decision because it looked fine before but afterwards looks a lot better, and the bright red elements from before are definitely less distracting now with some of the saturation out of them and more added in the tones of the people at the table.

Colour correction isn’t only a creative thing where you’re trying to create a look to match another scene, setting, or environment, but there’s also a lot that can go into it to help draw the attention to the main element. A lot of the time, that's done with lighting and composition, but it can be helped along quite significantly in colour grading.

Summary

Some colour correction is to make your footage fit in a particular environment, where you need a shot to match footage that was shot in a completely different light, situation, or scene. Sometimes, though, you just need to refocus the eye. There are a lot of different reasons for colour grading your images, but ultimately it comes down to helping you to tell better visual stories.

More Colour Grading Resources

About the Authors

David Bode created the video course that includes this lesson. Dave is an expert on video and audio production, and he lives in the upstate NY area. He works as a camera operator, editor, inventor, motion graphics designer, recording engineer, and studio musician.

Marie Gardiner wrote the text version of this lesson, and it was edited and published by Jackson Couse. Jackson is a photographer and the editor of the Photo & Video section of Envato Tuts+.

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