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.