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What is color grading? Everything you need to know

Use color grading to enhance visual storytelling through hue adjustments to make designs standout.
Words by
25 June, 2024
4 mins read

Color grading is the process of altering the visual appearance of an image or video to achieve a desired look or mood. You might be familiar with simple adjustments like contrast or saturation, but color grading goes far beyond these basic tweaks. It involves nuanced changes to color tones and can greatly affect the emotional impact of the visual content you’re viewing.

Every image tells a story and color grading helps to tell that story by setting the tone and supporting the narrative. Whether for films, television shows, or photographs, this technique can transform the visual palette to better convey emotions and themes. It’s a powerful tool in the hands of skilled professionals who use it to craft memorable visual experiences.

Fundamentals of color grading

Mastering color grading is like fine-tuning a musical instrument; it helps to harmonize the visual elements of your footage, creating a polished and effective piece.


The basics of color theory

Color theory is central to color grading. Hue, saturation, and luminance are the three pillars you’ll work with. Hue refers to the color itself, saturation to the intensity of that color, and luminance to the brightness or darkness. Mastering how these interact is key to conveying mood and emotion in your images.

Color grading vs color correction

It’s easy to confuse color grading with color correction, but they are distinct processes. Color correction fixes imbalances in your image to achieve a natural look. It’s the first step, ensuring consistency across shots. Subsequently, color grading takes over as an artistic tool, allowing you to give your project a unique visual style.

Storytelling with color

Color profoundly influences storytelling, guiding your audience’s emotional response. Warmer colors can evoke feelings of comfort or agitation, while cooler tones might impart calmness or detachment. The strategic use of color in your project can craft a compelling narrative that resonates with viewers on a deeper level.

The color grading process

The color grading process skilfully alters an image’s visual tone to convey the intended narrative feel with specialized software and using a distinct color palette.


Workflow overview

Understanding the sequence of operations in color grading is pivotal. Preparation is the first step; gather your materials and set your goals. Next, Primary Correction addresses the image’s basic properties such as exposure and white balance. Secondary Correction allows for the modification of specific image areas. Finally, the Creative Application defines the stylistic look, bringing your vision to life through precise adjustments.

Using color grading software

When you’re ready to start, you’ll need reputed software—tools like DaVinci Resolve or Adobe Premiere Pro are frequently chosen by professionals. Each program offers a range of functionality:

  • Corrections: Modify exposure, contrast, and saturation.
  • Masks and Tracking: Isolate and apply effects to specific regions.
  • Looks: Apply preset or custom filters for quick stylization.

Always save your presets for consistent look across different projects.

Creating a color palette

Your artistic intent should guide your color palette. Warm tones often convey comfort or nostalgia, while cool tones might suggest detachment or tension. Contrast can draw attention or create depth, and saturation levels carry weight in emotional storytelling—high saturation for vibrancy, low for desaturation or a vintage look.

Technical aspects of color grading

Color grading transforms the visual impact of your footage through the manipulation of various technical elements. Dive deeper to master the technical aspects that bring your visual storytelling to life.

Credit: unknown

Working with log and raw footage

Log and Raw footage provide a flat, neutral base that preserves dynamic range, making it ideal for color grading. Log footage is a type of video output that appears washed out but contains a high dynamic range. This makes it flexible for color grading in post-production, giving you the ability to adjust the image to your preference without loss of detail in highlights and shadows.

For Raw footage, this is the unprocessed data directly from the camera sensor. Think of it like a digital negative that you can develop and mold during color grading. It offers even more control compared to Log, allowing for finer adjustments in color and exposure.

Benefits of log and raw are:

  • Extended dynamic range
  • More control in post-production
  • Greater flexibility for exposure adjustments
  • Preservation of details for a more polished final product

LUTs and how to apply them

A Look-Up Table (LUT) is essentially a map that tells your software how to translate colors from the raw footage to the desired final output. It plays a pivotal role in color grading by providing a reference point for consistent color transformation.

When using LUTs, consider:

  • They can be used for creative looks or to standardize color across various clips.
  • Calibration LUTs can match your monitor to ensure what you see is what you get.
  • Technical LUTs convert images from Log to Rec. 709 (or other color spaces).
  • LUTs should be applied selectively because each footage may require a different touch.

Artistic considerations in color grading

Color grading isn’t just about correcting footage; it’s an expressive tool in your arsenal to set the desired mood for your visuals and strengthen your narrative’s visual consistency.

Credit: People of the Planet

Setting the mood and tone

Your project’s mood and tone are profoundly influenced by the colors present on the screen. A cheerful, sunny scene will often use warm hues, while cooler colors can suggest a more somber or tense atmosphere. Brightness and saturation play pivotal roles too. Low saturation can convey a past era or a memory, hinting at nostalgia, while highly saturated colors might be used in scenes full of energy and life. Insight from the field suggests that color grading can evoke specific feelings in the audience, making it a key expressive element.

Enhancing visual cohesion

Your visuals need to feel united, giving your project a professional sheen. Color grading helps you achieve a consistent look across various scenes, which may have been shot under different lighting conditions or with varying camera settings. By harmonizing hues, you ensure all scenes belong to the same world. For instance, a sequence might use a particular color scheme to unify separate moments, while still allowing specific elements to catch your viewer’s attention, aiding in narrative cohesion.

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Justas Markus

Justas Markus is a traveler, blogger & entrepreneur. He was the co-owner & CEO of Who Design Today until 2019. Catch up with Justas on Twitter.

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