6 Quick Color Grading Tips

Here goes my first listicle type posts and I’m trying not to feel awkward writing it by telling myself that these tips are actually acutely relevant.

1. Don’t Cross-Process Everything

Most creatives consume lots of material in their respective field. Colorists are no different. We always check out that latest film and try to reverse-engineer its look. Then, after a while, we garner an understanding of the standards of grading for specific genres. Many indie productions use cross processing looks, a digital approximation of an old film look that happened when you didn’t properly develop your film on purpose. These looks are distinctive and easy to pick out. It’s also really easy to create a cross process look. The combination of frequent use in the indie genre, ease of use and distinctive appearance make the cross process look an all too frequently used one.This is not saying it is an ugly look or that films that look like this are cheap or bad. It just means if you grade a cross process look, your film will look like a lot of other films. And that may or may not be what you want to achieve. Still, on your next project, maybe try something else for a change. Oh, and there are really good lookup tables that create this effect. If cross processing was all you did as a colorist, you’d quickly make yourself redundant.

2. Desaturate the Shadows for a more professional lookup

It is quite common to play with different color tints for highlights and shadows respectively. Many prominent blockbusters looks work by split toning. Yes I know the video is three years old. Still relevant, though. Blue shadows and warm highlights just are a classic. I’ve used variations of this technique plenty of times but was never quite satisfied with the results. My grades always seemed somehow cheap and cheesy. During a talk with my friend and mentor René Heß he casually mentioned that when he approaches a grade, he will slap on a node to desaturate the shadows to get “that classic analogue feel”. When you think about it, he has a point: analogue shots have almost no color saturation in their blacks and highlights. The problem with digital grading is, you can easily add color in these areas where there shouldn’t be any. To get around this problem, you do exactly what René says: slap on a node that desaturates shadows (and highlights if necessary).

3. Crush the Blacks (No! this isn’t racism) to remove picture noise

There’s this one event where a friend asked you to shoot a quick video of his garden party or wedding. You know, just run-and-gun, whatever you can get is cool, man! It’s a gloomy party location with candles and a fireplace as the only sources of light. You end up dialling in a ridiculous ISO value to just get any pictures at all, inviting image noise into your pictures. Then in grading, you just can’t get rid of the ridiculous amounts of noise in the image. Well, crush the blacks. Push the Lift or Shadows control way down, pushing the shadows down till they are underexposed. In underexposure, there shouldn’t be any color saturation unless you added it (see No. 2. above) and no gradation in brightness anymore. This way, you naturally reduce the image noise that is more likely in shadows anyways due to a godzillion technical reasons. Or you use a dedicated denoising algorithm. DaVinci Resolve doesn’t have one in the free version. Haha.

4. “And then make it really distopic.” – every director ever = Add Green or Magenta.

White skin is a kind of orangy-hue, even when it is brown skin, it is about the same hue, just a different luma value (if you are thinking in Hue-Saturation-Luma terms). If you dial in a violent green or magenta tint, you distort skin tones into a hue that almost always looks sickly. If you look on a color circle, green or magenta are almost at a 90° angle from the skin tone range. Blue is the complementary hue to orange (meaning it’s directly opposite on the circle). Thus, if you add in blue to change the skin tones, all you really do is desaturate them. And beyond that, the skin tones turn into something out of a Star Wars video game. DP Jesse Mazuch told me he found that many film people had a strong dislike of magenta and I tend to agree. Green I can deal with and in my analysis of the House of Cards grading I have to say I love what they are doing with green tints. Magenta. Urgh. Ugly. Here’s an example where I used magenta in the skintones for a dystopic look on one of my early projects.

5. Learn to see white balance actively in your daily life

Our human visual system is really good at accommodating wide ranges and differences of white balance within a picture. Proof: the Blue-Black vs. White-Gold Dress
When was the last time you saw something in real life (that is, not in a picture!) and wondered about whether white was white or blue? I’m guessing the answer is never. As colorists, we are forced to consider white balance in every single shot we work on. If you train yourself to become aware of white balance in your daily life, you will have a much better time correcting white balance and judging what is an acceptable white balance. Also, it will inform decisions about secondary correction of white balance, that is, if the white balance is different in different parts of the frame. Typically, a window with natural light and an incandescent light source inside the room will give you these types of problems. Look around you, you just might find color temperature effects right now.

6. Become aware of color and brightness gradients every day.

Just as the above point about color temperature, the same goes for color and brightness gradients. They are everywhere and basically free training for you if you become aware of them and study them. This is as easy as spotting the gradient from the top to bottom of a wall that exists almost everywhere.
This, by the way, is a key use for secondary grading: adding gradients in a picture that needs a little direction or focus. Don’t overdo it, don’t go full-on hipster vignette, but just a slight gradient that leads the eye to the brightest area of frame natural can go a long way. You really get good at pulling these slight changes off if you study them in many different situations in your everyday life.

Alright, this was six quick tips to improve your color grading skills from the top of my head. I’m curious if you have comments, ever noticed the same thing or disagree strongly. Leave a comment or drop me a line over at Twitter, I love to hear from you!

Also published on Medium.

2 thoughts on “6 Quick Color Grading Tips

  1. I like your tip to see white balance in your day to day. How we interpret white affects everything else. I heard that white balance is even a major issue in science when there isn’t a notable basis for white in an image.

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