Color Correction vs. Color Grading
By Kevin Graham
One of the most-talked-about aspects of filmmaking is color. LUTs, curves, wheels, nodes, saturation, and dynamic range are some of the specific words you’ll see. You’ll come across countless videos, tutorials, articles, and resources dedicated to the color process.
And this is for good reason.
Once your footage is shot and your cards are transferred, color is arguably just as important to the quality of your finished video as the edit itself. Just like with sound, if your video has bad color, no amount of polished cinematography and sleek editing will be able to mask that.
But on a big-picture level, there is often some confusion between these two broader terms: color correction, and color grading.
In the video above and in this article, we define each and explain how they’re different.
Color correction is the process of normalizing, or “correcting” raw footage to appear consistent throughout a timeline and realistic to the human eye. These alterations used to be made to physical strips of film in development. But these days, with digital cameras, everything happens with software.
Color correction is usually done with alterations to white and black levels, and changes to color temperature. This is also commonly done with color correction LUTs, especially if you’re working with converting raw or LOG footage to accurate color.
You can download correction LUTs for just about any camera profile these days. These are generally quick to use and fairly reliable.
For example, let’s say you filmed a scene in a LOG footage profile (basically, a flat image profile that contains a large amount of color data and dynamic range). You’d need to increase contrast, saturation, and possibly adjust your color temperature to make that scene look the way it did in real life.
Color correction is generally not meant to be a creative process; it is simply the act of making your footage look “correct” and giving you a reliable starting point for further color work.
Many color tools, such as Premiere Pro’s Lumetri, have automatic white balance features to speed this process up. This can be further expedited when using a camera with the ability to automatically adjust its white balance based on a white or grey card in the shot prior to filming.
Color grading can basically be thought of as an optional second step to color correction; this is where you craft the “look and feel” of your whole video.
Color grading generally uses the same tools as the color correction process, but in a more extreme manner. This step is meant to significantly alter the color of your film (or even any given scene) to enhance the style and create a visual mood for the viewer.
A powerful tool when it comes to color grading is the color wheel. Color wheels are typically broken up into three individual controls: shadows, mid-tones, and highlights. You can adjust the hue, saturation, and luminosity of each of these independently, which enables you to control the color of an image much more than with making global adjustments. Creating color contrast between different parts of your image is a great way to add interest.
Another powerful color grading weapon is the secondary tool. This allows you to surgically alter the characteristics of a specific color within your shot, usually selected with a dropper. This is a great way to tame some oversaturated elements of your composition, or to fine-tune your subjects’ skin tones. There are also some types of curves adjustments that allow you to isolate a specific color and make these types of adjustments.
Most feature films (and many videos) have a color profile that is more dramatic and pronounced than what you would see in real life.
The most common iteration of this is the cool shadows and warm mid-tones of many modern action movies. Blue and yellow are opposites on the color spectrum, making this particular style visually-appealing down to a scientific level!
On the other hand, you’ll notice that a lot of horror movies have contrasty but desaturated looks. This subconsciously makes the viewer feel uneasy, and helps the movie achieve its goal of scaring you.
Color grading is arguably the most important part of the post-production process, because this is where your edit gets its character and a big part of its identity.
And within any given film or video, there will likely be many different locations, moods, and interactions, all of which can be further distinguished and accentuated with their own unique color grades.
One of the most famous and dramatic examples of scene-by-scene color grading happens in “The Wizard Of Oz”. The film begins as completely black and white, but as soon as the main character gets to the Land of Oz, the film becomes full color. This completely differentiates the two places and gives each their own unique character.
While color correction and color grading are similar processes, but they serve different purposes in your project. Color correction is necessary at a minimum, and color grading can really take things to the next level.
While these terms are often interchanged, it is important for any filmmaker to understand the distinct role that each plays within post-production.
And when they are both are used correctly together, your films will have even more character and look even more professional.
Kevin is the Music Director and Lead Composer at Filmpac.