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.

David Geffin's picture

David is a full time photographer, videographer and video editor based in New York City. Fashion, portraiture and street photography are his areas of focus. He enjoys stills and motion work in equal measure, with a firm belief that a strong photographic eye will continue to help inform and drive the world of motion work.

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Davinci Resolve is THE standard at the moment, comes as free version as well...with some limitations but still an extremely powerful grading tool.

Not to mention it's a fairly decent editor these days also ;)

And Adobe have excellent integration with their Speedgrade system, also a very powerful grading tool.

All grading systems however do require some learningcurves to be applied ;) There are excellent tutorials out there however, and once you start getting the idea behind it, it becomes intuitive.

Henrik what resources do you know of you'd like to share with others for tuts on grading? Got any in mind? Please feel free to share and link here

As the colorist from this video I can tell you I learned a vast amount of basics for DaVinci from online tutorials. DaVinci Resolve is a powerful tool in that, like photoshop, there is always a good 3+ ways to approach the same problem/situation.

As time permits, I may design some break down discussions about what you saw in the video I created.

Also, for those if you who despise "teal and orange," I've posted a reel from an Indie WW2 film called Adira. You can find that video here:

Taylre sterling work, this video is brilliant. Will drop you a quick email now as i would love to follow up with you on the break down you mention in your post.

As Mr. Jones mentioned, there are quite a lot of tutorials to be found on Youtube, Vimeo, and both BlackMagic and Adobe's pages.

For me i started with Speedgrade and which got me started in thinking in color grading theory.

Then when i switched to Resolve i went through a few youtube tutorials to get the hang of the Resolve interface, the theory was the same.

And if you need more thorough tutorials there are courses with educational companies such as Lynda going into more detail.

One really good tutorial btw if you want links on Resolve is this one:

From Filmmakercentral.

Thanks Dom, i'm familiar with it but only used in a post house setting. How do you find using it on your home computer? Still not gotten around to working with it or seeing it in a home environment

I don't do a lot of post myself to be honest, what little I do I currently use Final Cut X for but from what I've seen so far its extremely powerful, takes a little to get used to but most people with a keen interest get the hang quite quickly. a fast machine with decent GPU acceleration is recommended though, especially if you intend working in the tasty realms of 4K and up.

This film was colored utilizing DaVinci Resolve. DaVinci Resolve Lite can easily be used on any medium level home computer for 1080p footage but when looking for more real-time playback and resolutions reaching upwards to 4k (The House On Pine Street was shot in) or 6k you'll need more of an investment.

Thanks for the article! Always glad to see an fstoppers write-up that doesn't alienate any particular group of the site members.

This is coming from the perspective of a still-shooter, not a moving film creator. I agree that color grading is very important in conveying mood and feeling, alongside lighting and composition. I think another important aspect of color grading as well is to practice restraint and subtlety; it's very easy to "over-cook" an image by applying too much of an effect on it.

When I grade my images, my usual approach is to make exposure and white balance corrections in the Camera RAW photoshop plugin, and then take the converted TIFF image file into Photoshop and use a selective color adjustment layer and make adjustments in each of the different color channels. I find that the whites, neutrals and blacks have the most effect on mood, and the red and yellow channels affect skin tones the most. I follow this by adding contrast with a curves adjustment layer, and sometimes use the different curves color channels to further manipulate the colors if I think it may be needed.


thanks for the nice feedback and comment there Daniel, appreciate it and thanks for sharing your insight and experience on how you 'grade' stills. Also, 100% (and i've been guilty of this myself) that overcooking the grading process can have a less than desirable outcome. It's kind of like playing with clarity or sharpening on the eyes - definitely better to be extremely subtle and sleep on your changes and review in the cold light of a fresh day before putting it out there. Something that looks great in the wee hours of the morning can look really over done in the cold light of day IMHO :)

As it relates to photography, you are simply talking about editing your photos, and preferably from RAW. Maybe "color grading" is a term from the video/movie industry but I don't see the point in introducing a term into photography where it is obviously not needed. What's wrong with sticking to editing your photos?

A lot of what I also see that is so-called color graded, the two last video stills are good examples, tend to still look flat. Sure that's a creative preference for the effect you may be trying to create, but it seems like more often than not that when I see articles talking about "color grading" that's the final look you see as examples, as if that is what one should be striving for. When did cinematic come to mean flat looking images?

Personally, I prefer movies, along with my photos, where there is real life contrast. I would say most people do, which would explain why nearly all movies/TV shows provide that

Chris, i don't think i'm 'introducing' anything new - over the last year i see many times more 'graded' stills files than i have ever seen previously. This will only continue as people shoot more video, at higher frame rates and pull stills from video.

And if you prefer movies with "real life contrast" than you might want to dig a little into the production process of that movie. If you watch the video i linked, you'll just how many times an image out of camera is tweaked for both color, light and contrast before it ends up anywhere near our eyes on the big or small screen.

Just saying that the term color grading is not a photographic term so I don't see the point in using that term when referring to photography. Photographers edit their images. This is the first time I have ever heard someone using the term color grading in regards to photography. Were you first a videographer?

I'm not a video guy but the term doesn't even make any sense on the video side since clearly more than just color is being adjusted.

Of course images out of movie cameras are often tweaked, but the fact remains that what we mostly end up with is natural looking contrast, unlike the last two videos stills in the article that are still quite flat in contrast, and what I have seen in every other article I've read discussing color grading.

Actually, color grading is a pretty standard term in photography. Even Joey L, currently one of the industry's top commercial photographers, offers a tutorial on it and refers to it as color grading.

Also, 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.

You just read back to me from Wikipedia, (without any credit, by the way) and it means that someone like you, or anyone else, could have wrote that. It means nothing on its own. That said, the rest of the article itself goes on to explain where the term comes from, and that's videography.

That Joey person is also quite young. Looks to me like he is simply someone that is trying to be hip to help his business by introducing a video industry term to his photography. After all, it sounds far fancier to say he is color grading than simply editing his photos. Besides, he even mentions the word "cinematic."

I've been in photography long enough to know that color grading is not a photographic term. I have an issue when people introduce things into photography that obviously make no sense, that are pretentious, that are unecessary, and that confuse amateurs.

Whatever dude. You just can't be wrong.

Did not the article explain the origin of the term? The article that you referenced?

Did not that Joey guy refer to the "cinematic?"

The vast majority of photographers do not say I am going to go color grade my photos. I'm being generous too, because this article is the first time I have seen anyone using such a term in regards to photography.

Been doing this photography thing long enough to know better.

I think there are many terms for different things especially as times progress and bring change, cinematic color grading being one of the terms for the technique the article explains. I think you share your opinions as fact, and cannot accept that your opinions could be untrue.

Unfortunately there is, to society's detriment. It is mostly due to laziness, ignorance, and political correctness.

I know what I say is true, and once again you ignore the two points I brought up about the wiki article you referenced.

You can go into any photography forum and you will not see people saying they are going to color grade their photos. I mean that is laughable. Either you are new to photography, or it is you that doesn't want to admit being wrong.

Chris Smart, I'm with you. I would NEVER even TRY, as a photographer, to tell people that I'm going home to "color grade" their photos. I can definitely see where color grading has a fit in video...but that term just sounds ridiculous for photography. It's being used as a new buzz term in photography and will most likely only lead to the increase of one's lack of credibility in your market. We're photographers...we edit photos.

Thank you, I was starting to think I had somehow entered the twilight zone. :)

When I first started reading the article I was like what the heck are these people talking about. I had seen some video related articles in the past, elsewhere, mentioning color grading when I went through a short period of interest in video, but it didn't come to me right away. Then I wondered why the term was being used in regards to photography.

It's kind of like some young Americans today saying "no worries," instead of "no problem." When did we become Australians?? LOL

David, thanks for the article and video. It was still interesting despite my comments on the use of the term color grading in regards to photography. The look and moods created in the video clips were really nice. I have to go *edit* some photos now. ;)

You're welcome Chris, glad you enjoyed the piece :)

I wish I knew how to approach grading, I haven't got a clue where to start or how to judge it etc. Black and white I'm almost there to my tastes, but colour... I'm lost. Any good sources out there?

Me too. I found this tutorial from Clay. Maybe we can start there...
And a cool one from Nace;

thanks Nick, great resources, I'd never even seen Clay's and he's a colleague! /slap my own wrist

Thanks for the link, I've seen Nace's before and it's a great video but the actual toning etc I'm really not a fan of. I can revisit it and see the process though, thanks buddy!

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?

I'm not a videographer.

Thanks for the links!

Really great video example!

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

Thanks Jason!

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

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

Insulting? Really? Oh that's outrageous.

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

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

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.

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