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 (http://instagram.com/denn_ice)

Another beautifully graded cinematic photograph, this one by Andrew Mohrer (http://instagram.com/deejaypoe/)

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.

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Geoff Captain's picture

Topics like this (and amazing lighting) remind me of how much I need to go to art school.

BTW, color grading video is wildly frustrating when you first jump in from the stills/photoshop world.
And love that second link to Adira.

Pete rock's picture

I knew that first photo was a Denn_Ice shot without seeing the caption. Have yet to see anyone pull off this look as well as him.

David Geffin's picture

@Denn_ice kills it on IG with that style of shot. He's a super nice guy too (was on a little Bronx mission with him last month checking out some spots)

David Johnson's picture

Video is a bit deceiving TBH. The initial footage is extremely well lit and shot, not to mention the camera equipment used provide you with fantastic depth to color grade to this extent. These sort of results are much more difficult to achieve on a consistent basis with pro-sumer equipment.

Styron Pennywell's picture

Another great resource on color grading is The Art of Color Correction series (lynda: http://bit.ly/1xASVmS) by Simon Wallace. It's for video, but the methods translate very well to Photoshop.

The color balance adjustment (CBA) layer in Photoshop is similar to what he uses in Premier/Final Cut (colorista 3-way), but curves allow for a little more finesse. The Highlight, Midtone, Shadow options in the CBA layer is the easiest way to translate his practices. Highlight controls the color of your light source (yellow or blue), Midtone controls the mood of the image (warm or cool), Shadow tend to remain neutral or compliment the highlights (slightly desaturating the shadows works well too).

What I like best is how he answers the "why"? Do you want to convey a certain mood (warm or cool)? Do you want high drama or something more ambiguous (high or low contrast)? Do you want to change the time of day (early morning: warm highlights, cool midtones, desaturated shadows, darker midtones)? Do you want to "borrow" color themes from classic paintings?

If anything it's definitely made me more aware of the color of light throughout the day and given me a way of evaluating how other artist use color in their work.