Why Color Grading Should Be The Most Important Part of Your Post Processing Workflow

Photographers often treat color grading as a trivialized aspect of their workflow. Something that they only worry about once the image is complete and with no greater attention than flipping through a series of filter presets in whichever their flavor of the month plugin happens to be at any given time. Instead, obsessive time and attention is paid to aspects such as cloning, dodging, burning, sharpening, liquefying, etc. Colorists in the film industry have known for years powerful color grading is critical to great filmmaking. Directors know this as well, which is why colorists often enjoy a massive, expensive, personal theater filled with an impressive array of tools to grade the latest mega blockbuster. 

Color Grading Defines a Photograph's First Impression

The majority of images are first seen as they are hurtling by in one of the endless scrolls that fill the social networks or in small thumbnails in galleries. In these situations perfect skin retouching or flawless exposure mean very little. The user simply is not perceiving the image in sufficient detail to even be aware of these sorts of things. Color grading however, stands out within the context of these formats. A beautifully color graded image that appeals to the viewer will compel them to stop and take a closer look. As a photographer you need to invest in learning how to grade your images in a way that they will grab attention in the span of a fleeting second among the chaotic noise of the digital age.

Color Grading Communicates The Mood of a Scene

The communication of emotion and story through the lens is one of the most powerful tools a photographer has at their disposal. The grading of a well graded image can often augment the sense of story within a scene or even completely transform it. Without the grading an image may look flat, boring, or even disjointed. As a photographer becomes more proficient at grading he or she can leverage the power of color tone to influence emotional tone within a scene. Grading at this level can transform an unexciting frame into a moment of cinematic magic. 

Color Grading Builds a Style and Brand That Can be a Reflection of You

One of the most daunting challenges a photographer faces lies in building a unique style that can function as a brand for their work. Being able to create a visual style that viewers can recognize at a glance can be tremendously impactful in the growth of a photographer's career. Color grading plays a key role in that process. Clients will often come to you with a vast range of different photography projects. By defining a consistent color grading brand you are able to tie it all into a cohesive brand that not only reflects strongly on you but also builds a unique value that gives you something to sell that only you can offer.

How To Learn Color Grading

This is a topic far beyond the scope of a simple article but the first step begins with casting aside those preset filters which are only serve to eliminate your creative vision in the color grading process by supplanting with the pre-determined creative vision of someone else. Before you consider investing in expensive plugins or applications to aid in color grading, spend time both learning color theory from a fine art point of view but also mastering simple color grading tools within common editors. Master colorists can make magic with only a simple curves tool (though that magic expands with the addition of more advanced tools). Begin thinking of color grading as a pre-visualized destination that you are aiming to reach before even beginning instead of a set of effects that you cycle through until you find one that looks ok. Great color grading is an explicit decision made by the photographer in order to meet the creative needs of the image they create. Be the sort of photographer who has the command of your color workflow rather than depending on stumbling upon the right filter to fit your image.


Color grading shouldn't be the last, barely cared about step in a complex workflow. Rather, it should be what drives the entire process. Regardless of which color grading tool you use, learn to master it in a way that maximizes the benefit of all of the above so that you can not only create the best possible images but also so that those images can connect to the world. 

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Caleb Kerr's picture

I totally agree with this. Even over other forms of post-processing, I think color work is one of the most accessible and digestible, and will have the largest impact on an image.

Anonymous's picture

When it comes to color, I always think accuracy. Of course this isn't doing some of my photos any favors but I just can't wrap my head around the whole concept of color grading. Even looking at your two examples, the first looks more like lighting adjustments than color and the second looks more like more or less accurate and not mood changing.

Dave McDermott's picture

I'm the same. I find it difficult to edit a photo to the point where it looks nothing like the original scene, which is the way it looks in most of the tutorials I've seen on this topic. I try to get it right in camera as much as possible and then its just minor adjustments later in photoshop. It's more so color correction than color grading.

Mark Smith's picture

I have the same philosophy, especially since 90% of my photos are landscape photography. I deal in greens and blues, and I like greens and blues.

Alfie Goodrich's picture

Whilst I dont miss film, everything I know about digital grading comes from what I did with film and paper in the almost 25 years I worked in darkrooms. Learning digital processing is tough With film and paper it was, I think, much easier: you learned the aesthetic qualities of each film you shot, you learned what subjects they suited. You learned how to push and pull the film's qualities in the dev. You had to do things in a specific order or the chems wouldn't work. You could, unlike Photoshop, physically destroy something by doing too much. Hence, you learned when to stop doing stuff. These things, especially knowing when to stop doing stuff to photos, are much harder to learn with digital: there's no obvious way to start processing, no obvious order to do things in and no obvious way to know when to stop.

Processing is like cooking: you got to learn what suits the base ingredients. Then you got to learn what flavours work with them and with each other. You gotta learn what order it's best to do things in. You gotta know when to stop adding stuff and you have to preserve the base flavour of the primary ingredient.

RAW workflow is, for me, about getting in image 'sorted out' first, producing the best RAW material in the first software (which for me is Nikon's software for my Nikon files and Phocus for my Hasselblad files), then getting that into Photoshop for further corrections. When it's all 'corrected', then I start on the mood.

This is nice grading you've done here. There's a lot of sensitivity to build up about what suits which image. Tasteful processing is tough.

Kirk Darling's picture

Oh, yeah, I've screwed up my share of great prints with that last, fatal brush stroke of ferricyanide.

Mark Smith's picture

"These things, especially knowing when to stop doing stuff to photos, are much harder to learn with digital:" I agree wholeheartedly. Too many buttons to push generally leads to too much of a good thing, i.e. spoiled photos.

Geir Ertzgaard's picture

This is interesting, but it becomes useful if you could show links to resources. Google might be helpfull, but leaves me the work to find the good recourses. I don't have the competence to do that.

Robert Altman's picture

Color grading is so important in creating the look for a final image- white balance is about 'accuracy'- this is where the Art comes in..... from snapshot to editorial.

Kirk Darling's picture

"The Most Important Part of Your Post Processing Workflow?" Umm, no. The most important part is getting the image off a card to a visible form. Beyond that, I've never seen a photograph that was transformed from garbage to something sublime simply by color grading. A great photograph will be doing 99 things right before getting to color grading.

Bill Larkin's picture

YES - This is some of the truest words ever.

jeremy thomas's picture

Color Grading is important in post but it's more important to set everything up for you shoot. If you're location or set doesn't mesh with the subject or focus of the shot it doesn't matter how much color grading you do, something will be off.

Marc DeGeorge's picture

I think that understanding your workflow is as important, if not more so. Completing an image does not end with the press of a shutter, and it does not begin when it gets uploaded to a computer. Proper workflow starts before you focus, and finishes after you deliver the image, be it electronic, or printed. Great images are made through the understanding of the entire process.

Robert Altman's picture
Vincent Portais's picture

Hi, i started photography 2 years ago, and i'm very interested by colorgrading my photos, this is my weakness actually. I'm working my photos on lightroom, ajusting the colors with it but i'm not very happy with the results. Can anyone suggest me a colorgrading tool/ software to start with ? thank you

Ryan Cooper's picture

I'd suggest that you start by sticking with your existing editor such as LR or PS and learning to grade using it before complicating things. Focus on color theory to begin with. That video above by Robert is an excellent starting point. I'd also suggest taking a look at the tutorial that Erik Almas sells as it has some amazing sections on color grading and composition.