The Power Of Color Grading And The Benefit It Can Have On Your Work Summarized In Two Minutes

If you aren't applying any color grading to either your photographs or motion work, you are potentially missing a vital part of the process of finalizing your image. Color grading can be one of the most impactful tweaks you can make to your work once it’s been shot. It has the potential to elevate a good image to great, or a great image to outstanding. This short video and article highlights why it's so important and the powerful impact it can have on your work.


This little-over-two-minute-long video shows excerpts of the independent movie, 'The House On Pine Street'. The film was graded by Taylre Jones at Grade, and he's demonstrated brilliantly how the original footage stacks up against the color graded footage looks compared to it. If you're in any doubt over the power that properly grading your work can have, you have to check this out.

Color grading in motion is nothing new. For years, DSLR videographers have been 'shooting flat'. By 'flat', we mean we shoot with a profile type that tries to avoid 'baking in' too much information into the compressed video file. Aspects like sharpness, contrast and color saturation are typically elements we don’t want to define too strongly ‘in camera’ and there is a good reason for this, but let’s look at color specifically.

Color is so important because, like lighting, it affects a mood and feel of a piece, and therefore how we interpret the final image. This is just as true for a still image as for a moving one. Often, a 'flat' image that comes out of the camera looks lifeless - but this is the intent.

Why do we want to start with a lifeless image? We want to spend time really being able to affect a particular look in post production, where we have dedicated tools (hardware and software) that allows us to do so much more (an analogy might be playing with a Raw file, compared to just accepting what your JPEG looks like, straight out of camera).

Original footage from House On Pine Street, purposefully shot flat. This is what it looks like straight out of camera


The same shot, nicely graded by Taylre Jones, at Grade Kansas City

Colorists for the motion picture industry have been around since the early days of film production. Now, we have the advent of the ‘DI’ or Digital Intermediate who has the power of Photoshop-like digital manipulation but within the realm of motion pictures. If you’ve seen the recent film ‘Birdman’ with Michael Keaton, you’ll appreciate just how important the role of the DI was during the grading of this feature film.

This directly crosses over into the world of stills photography too. Last year, my most read article with almost 90,000 views, was looking at the process to make your photographs more cinematic by using a color grading process similar to what the motion colorists have been using for years.

Nicely color graded still photo, shot by Dennis Cacho, a cinematic stills specialist (

Another beautifully graded cinematic photograph, this one by Andrew Mohrer (

Whether you are shooting stills, motion or both, hopefully this has shed a little light on the importance and impact that grading your work can have. If you have any questions about the process, be sure to leave a comment below and also please feel free to share what tools you're using to grade you work so I can get a feel for what you guys are doing out there.

Log in or register to post comments


Previous comments
Chris Smart's picture

Why would it be any different than adjusting for color, contrast, and exposure in photography? The software would be different but the results and values you are working with are still the same, are they not?

Chris Smart's picture

I'm not a videographer.

Jason Hudson's picture

Really great video example!

David Geffin's picture

Right Jason? Those dudes did a great job of showing the process and steps through grading - simple yet highly effective

Alexander Francesco's picture

Are there any "colorist" in the photography industry? (I'm new to the community)

Chris Smart's picture

Color grading and colorists are not photographic terms. That comes from the moving picture industry. A photographer edits their photos. A similar person in photography would simply be an image editor or a photo retoucher. The former would actually make more sense than colorist in videography since clearly more than color is being adjusted. My guess is that it is simply an archaic term that has hung around in the video industry when only so much could have been done in the past with moving film and analog video, with perhaps an emphasis on just color.

Dan Ostergren's picture

The definition of color grading: Color grading is the process of altering and enhancing the color of a motion picture, video image, or still image either electronically, photo-chemically or digitally.

Chris Smart's picture

You are now the second person quoting from Wikipedia, and without any credit. As with many things in Wikipedia, you have facts mixed up with non-facts, and misinformation. If you read further after the opening paragraph you will see clearly that the term comes from the video/movie industry, assuming you want to stick to using Wikipedia.

As I told the other person, I've been in photography long enough to know that color grading is not a photographic term. This article is actually the first time I have seen anyone use the term color grading in regards to photography.

Christian WAKE's picture

Chris, I've read your comments on here, and I'm wondering why your generally negative about the term Color-grading. I think the term "editing" is very broad and there are obvious processes involved in editing. Let's take sharpening for example. To simply say sharpening can refer to a whole range of different processes that may achieve the same result.

So if you're uncomfortable with the term "color grading" being used in modern photography, perhaps the problem is not photography. Certainly there are new terms used in photography since photography was invented and I'm sure new terms will be used in the future.

And what's your problem with Joey L? You have to be old and industry weary to make money from photography or teach it?

Chris Smart's picture

Even if we stick to videography, so-called color grading is obviously a faulty term since color isn't the only thing being adjusted. When the terms color grading and colorists came about perhaps that was the only thing being addressed, but clearly that is no longer the case.

As it relates to photography, it is simply not a photographic term. As I said in another post, I have an issue when terms are introduced to photography that either make no sense, based on pretense, and that ignores established photographic terminology.

I have never heard a photographer say I am going to go color grade my photos, as opposed to simply saying edit my photos.

What makes you think I have a problem with that Joey guy? All I said was that he was young and accounted for his profession in regards to his likely use of the term color grading in regards to photography.

Joe Schmitt's picture

My opinion is that the term color grading, when used by a photographer, is only done to make themselves seem smarter or more advanced than the next guy. Ok then...when I was a teenager, I was a hydro-ceramic technician. In other words, I washed dishes. Hydro-ceramic technician sounds like a 6-figure job, eh? So as the teenagers would say, stop trying to make "color grading" a thing in photography.

Chris Smart's picture

Hydro-ceramic technician? LOL. It's the kind of pretentious nonsense that I was referring to.

I once got into a debate with some pretentious Photoshop snobs in another forum that said that Lightroom wasn't an image editor. LOL.

Joe Schmitt's picture

Some people try to be different in this way and it's just not professional. The newbie and fresh amateurs may think color grading in photography is a real thing because they read it in a post at Fstoppers, but it's kind of insulting to the rest of us.

Dan Ostergren's picture

Insulting? Really? Oh that's outrageous.

Chris Smart's picture

Yes, it is insulting. Posers don't benefit any profession.

Dan Ostergren's picture

I'm starting to understand that arguing with you is pointless, regardless of who is right or wrong.

Chris Smart's picture

From my point of view, we were not arguing. Discussing and debating an issue doesn't require someone having to change their view or opinion on something, or in the end for there to be a consensus.

Alexander Francesco's picture

Yeah that make sense. I was hoping if there was color specialist just for photographers, but then I guess it falls into the same category as a photo retoucher / image editor.

Though, colorist sound more "specialized" than an Image Editor in my opinion. I sense that colorist have it down to the science and know A LOT about color and mood. Maybe I am just attracted to the title "colorist" lol.

In the end, I think it would be cool to outsource photos to a "colorist", people who specialize in color just for photography.

Chris Smart's picture

Of course it sounds more specialized, but no one is simply just adjusting the color in their images, still or moving. They are adjusting many things, such as exposure, levels, curves, shadows, highlights, color balance, filtration, sharpness, contrast, etc, etc, etc.

Andrew Feller's picture

Wow. Just wow. I'm still trying to learn a little more of the technical of video, but would anyone shed light on what plays the biggest role in color grading as far as codec, resolution, file type, etc? I'm shooting on DSLRs and I am debating getting something like an Atomos to gain 10 bit 4:2:2. but not sure if it will be that much of a difference. Using Adobe Premiere CC 2014 for editing... Thanks!

Taylre Jones's picture

Bit Depth and Dynamic range are your key elements in the camera that play the big roles. I am the colorist of this example shown above. Nothing can replace a good composition and well placed lighting.

At some point I would like to get some Directors of Photography together to shoot a scene on a wide variety of cameras and show just what difference they make in terms of coloring.

Henrik Bengtsson's picture

As a photographer and filmmaker, that would be very interesting to see =)

Jason Ranalli's picture

Thanks for the article David..the examples speak for themselves. Color grading (or whatever you want to call it) is huge IMO and something for stills that I am admittedly FAR FAR from mastering.

It's generally working out like when I started with skin retouching...I was far too heavy-handed at first. There's a certain balance between having enough to invoke mood but still be subtle.

David Geffin's picture

Glad you enjoyed the article Jason, thanks. Agree - less is definitely more.

Taylre Jones's picture

I appreciate the discussion! Glad I was able shed some light!

Chris Ingram's picture

I see a lot of people talking up Davinci at the moment, and given that there is a free version available (that sounds like it is very powerful) it does seem attractive. I have access to do my very occasional video edit on a colleagues Premier Pro license with Magic Bullet Colorista II. I have found that to be very easy to use from a workflow and usability perspective. Can any knowledgeable person educate me on the benefits/differences between DaVinci Resolve (and what else is needed to go from DSLR footage to completed video for online consumption) and Premier Pro with Colorista II?

More comments