Color grading is a critical tool involved in the production of a truly impressive image. Through the use of grading a photographer can completely shift the impression a given photograph leaves on its audience. Learning color grading, however, is quite difficult as it is one of the most ethereal aspects of a post-processing workflow that can vary radically from photographer to photographer. The best method, in my opinion, for learning to master grading is by learning as much theory and as many techniques as possible so that you can leverage that knowledge to create the workflow that works for you.
If you would like to learn more about "why" color grading has such a powerful impact on the quality of your photography be sure to check out my previous article: "Why Color Grading Should Be the Most Important Part of Your Post Processing Workflow." For the purpose of this particular resource, we will assume that you agree that color grading is monstrously important and now want to learn how to supercharge your grading.
It Begins With Color Theory
Forget about fancy software, LUTs, presets, actions, or any other sort of color grading tools for a moment. Instead, focus your first step on actually learning color theory. Color theory empowers you with an understanding of how the human eye and mind reacts to color so that you can base your color grading on creating something designed to maximize the effect of each tone on the overall composition of the image. Back in college, when I was studying graphic design, I had an entire textbook dedicated to color theory. It was awesome in a daunting sort of way. I tried my damnedest to find that very textbook to link you to but it appears to have been out of print for a while. Instead, the book "Color: A Course in Mastering the Art of Mixing Colors" by Betty Edwards seems like an excellent alternative. For those looking for a quick video to watch, unfortunately, this topic is one that goes well beyond the scope of any short form content. If you wish to truly gain a strong grasp of color you need to put in the time to study it in its full breadth.
How Do the Pros Grade Their Images?
The only answer I can really offer to this question is “differently.” Nearly everyone I have encountered leverages variations on similar techniques to achieve their particular goal. The best way to learn is by immersing yourself in the workflows of other photographers. Below you will find a cavalcade of free video tutorials that I feel are a great starting point.
What Software to Use
Color grading tools can be broken down into two distinct categories: tools for creating color grading and tools for applying already created color grading. Most editing software contains tools designed for both of these categories, however some shine at one or the other. Finding the software that works best for you is really the key. If you were expecting a proclamation that one application is truly the king of color grading, I'm sorry to disappoint. Personally, my workflow involves a combination of Photoshop, 3D LUT Creator, and Color Cone but that's because those tools work best for me. If you find that you are able to better connect with Capture 1 Pro, ON1 Photo RAW, Alien Skin, Topaz Adjust, or another grading tool on the market then absolutely use them. There is no wrong choice other than MS Paint.
Every great photographer learns to leverage color theory in order to maximize the impression of their work. Color grading can become the staple of your brand as a visual storyteller. By mastering color grading and harnessing it to optimally communicate your creative vision you empower your work to be the best version of itself.