When I first got into color grading, there was no shortage of tips, tricks, and details on specific parts of the process. Amidst the self-teachings of the internet however, finding a guide to a structured workflow or a comprehensive process was a bit more difficult to find. Ultimately, this is something I had to piece together as I gathered different pieces of the puzzle.
Having a defined process and structure is the starting point for anything in my opinion. A well-defined process allows you to implement all the tools and tricks you come across on the internet. This structure is essential to being able to call up the right tool at the right time and have a consistent, cohesive method of accomplishing your goals as a colorist.
This article aims to provide an overview of my personal approach, and should not be taken as a definitive color grading tutorial. Feel free to adapt any elements that resonate with you and discard those that don’t.
Last updated April, 2023.
Setup: Import and Organization
Before diving into the process of color grading, you’ll have to import your video footage and organize it in your timeline. Once in a timeline, you can use a detect cuts feature to split the footage into individual clips automatically. From here, there’s several steps to run through for set up before you begin grading anything.
Once imported, you’ll want to think about your color management. Color management refers to organizing your camera’s input color space, transforming it to an intermediate color space where you make all your adjustments, and output the footage to your deliverable color space.
I personally use Davinci Wide Gamut Intermediate, but ACES is another popular one. Pick one, learn about it and use it a bit, but just be sure to have an intermediate color space as a go-to.
Color management is an entire topic on it’s own, and I’m working on a larger piece about the subject. Just be sure to color manage your footage, and explore all the courses and tutorials that are already out there on the topic.
Organization: Node Structure & Groups
Once you know your input and output spaces, you’ll need to begin grouping your clips. Grouping clips creates additional levels of organization and helps give you group level adjustments to easily tweak a group of shots.
I tend to default to the organization at the top of this list, and work my way down until I hit something that works for the project. The further down you go the more complex the grouping structure gets. As a general rule the simpler your organization the faster you’ll be able to work. And the faster you can work, the more passes and greater levels of refinement you can reach on a project.
A – The Simplest Option: Everything is in in one group. CST input on group pre-clip, and look is at the timeline level. This is the simplest and can typically be used for most music videos, commercials, sometimes short films, or even feature films if the scene’s aren’t in drastically different locations.
B – Grouped Scenes: Start with everything set up as Simple A, but group some scenes into their own groups. These extra groups can be used for particular scenes that need a different group level adjustment. If you start with everything done at a timeline level, you can save yourself time by not building out individual groups for scenes all at once. Build them as you go and as you determine that they need the extra group to make specific adjustments across a scene as a whole.
C – Group Level Look: In this version, you have various groups all that have the look at the end of your group post-clip instead of your timeline. Typically these are in a compound node to keep it tidy. The downside here is that if you adjust the look on one group, you’ll ideally need to adjust that across all the others. Typically this needs to happen if there’s footage you don’t want to touch with your look. Examples of this are slideshows of photography or archival footage in a documentary. You may not want to touch these, but if your look is at the timeline level, it can’t be avoided.
The Correction Pass: Balancing Your Material
Once you’ve organized your edited video footage, take a first pass balance the exposure and color before you start building the look. Transform your footage into your deliverable color space so it looks reasonably normal on your monitor. Then start running through, making adjustments to exposure. Make sure there aren’t significant jumps in exposure between shots. Aim for a consistent range of exposure on your video scopes.
If you’d like, you can make a pass to further adjust the exposure with your primaries adjustments (lift gamma and gain). It isn’t always needed though. I recommend doing one pass only touching the offset wheel first, then decide if you need to make a gain or gamma adjustment on a separate pass.
After completing a pass for exposure, move on to color balance. Adjust the colors so the white balance and tint feel correct, so they appear “natural” to your eye, however you define it. Don’t overthink this step; trust your instincts and go by feel.
The goal here is to make your look development process easier by going into it with relatively consistent and balanced material. When you’re building the look, you won’t have to worry about building a look on one image, only to switch to another that’s entirely different.
My Four Key Components of Look Development
When it comes to look development in color grading, I usually focus on four main components: tone, palette, texture, and scheme. These terms might not align with traditional definitions, I just use them as broad terms that help me organize certain tools or adjustments.
When developing your look not all four components need to be used. I just use these as a useful framework to think through my look.
I use the term “tone” to refer any contrast between highlights, shadows, and mid-tones. This balance is primarily controlled by the contrast curve, which dictates the relationship between these elements. Past just drawing a contrast curve, you can look at your primaries (lift, gamma, gain) to further refine contrast in the shadows, midtones, and highlights of your image.
I also group split toning into the tone section. Split toning is when you add color adjustments to different parts of your image. For example, adding cool blue tones to the shadows, and warm red tones to the highlights.
I use the term scheme to refer to color adjustments that affect the image globally. This includes manipulating the global balance to push your image towards a particular color scheme, adjusting the saturation curve of your image, or even making primaries balance adjustments.
For instance, if you want to cool down the gain for a specific look, that adjustment would fall under the scheme category under my process. The focus here is on global or regional adjustments to the image, rather than affecting individual colors themselves.
Individual colors is where Palette comes in. When making palette adjustments, I’m referring to adjustments made to individual colors, such as altering saturation, luminance, or color density. HSL curves, the color warper, or other tools affecting individual colors fall under this bucket.
This is where you can experiment with color harmonies, like adjusting blues to appear more cyan or tweaking reds to feel slightly more orange. You can also create color separation between colors on the color wheel, or adjust hues to create more complementary colors.
“Texture” is a catch-all term I use for certain visual elements in a video footage, like grain, sharpening, glow, halation, or other similar adjustments. These textural components can enhance the overall look and feel of your footage, giving it a unique flair or feel.
Actually Grading The Footage: Refinement
Once you’ve developed a look for your video footage, this is where you can begin actually grading your footage. For your first step pass after look development, focus on balancing the image again, this time to your look. Try to get your footage that much more consistent, this time to
After completing a pass for balance, take another pass to evaluate different scenes to see how you can further enhance their storytelling and take things to the next level. Consider making subtle shifts in skin tones for improved color separation or adjusting brightness and exposure to create a more impactful visual.
Notes on How To Color Grade With Clients
As a colorist, your main responsibility is to transform your client’s ideas into tangible, concrete adjustments that convey the intended emotions and atmosphere. Clients may not be familiar with the technical aspects of color grading, so it’s crucial to understand their vision and interpret their input effectively.
The biggest variable to control for with a client is the monitor and environment they’re viewing the video in. In a perfect world, the client should be present in the studio with you, observing a calibrated monitor together for the highest level of detail. If that’s not possible, consider shipping a calibrated display, such as a Microsoft Surface, for more accurate remote collaboration on larger projects like feature films.
A bonus tip is to encourage clients to view the video on various devices or screens to help them understand the color grading process and how different displays may affect the final result. This approach can also minimize screen calibration-related feedback or issues caused by the viewing environment.
Review Steps in the Client Post-Production Process
My typical workflow with a client breaks up into three steps. First, before I even get into any footage I get on a call to discuss the look. I run through any inspiration that they have and gather reference material, talk about the ideas and messages they want to convey with their footage, and run through other questions about look development. Once I have that I go develop the look and set up a time for a live grading session together feedback. Once we’ve worked out the look I’m able to go ahead and grade the rest of the piece, and gather any feedback as revisions from the client.
That’s really everything involved in my workflow. Past this, I’ve included some extra information you may find beneficial if you’re learning how to color grade and delving into more color grading basics.
Equipment And Software You’ll Need For Color Grading
At a a bare minimum, to get into color grading you’ll need a computer, monitor, and some software. There’s still a few extra pieces that can benefit your work.
Importance of a Calibrated Monitor
A color-calibrated monitor is essential for accurate color grading. Invest in a color calibration tool and take the time to calibrate your monitor to Rec. 709 (or whatever your display color space is). Knowing you’ve got a consistently neutral monitor helps avoid any issues if you’ve miscalibrated something.
The Benefits of Investing in a Panel
If you’re serious about color grading, I definitely recommend investing in a panel. The Blackmagic Design color panel is designed to work directly with Davinci Resolve, and saves you a ton of time in your workflow. It also gives you a bit extra control over certain elements as well. While not required, it’s definitely nice to have.
When it comes to color grading, DaVinci Resolve is considered the gold standard by many filmmakers and colorists. The free version offers really everything you may need, making it an excellent starting point for beginners. Plus a quick google search will result in a number of results for a color grading tutorial or course on the software.
Another option to consider is Baselight, which is also specifically designed for color grading. I’m just not as familiar with Baselight so I can’t speak to it.
Other video editing tools, such as Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro, etc, also offer color grading and color correcting features. While these may work for basic color correction tasks, they might not be the best choice for dedicated colorists. If your primary focus is on becoming an expert in color grading, DaVinci Resolve or Baselight will provide a more robust and capable solution for your really expand your craft.
Learning: Exploring Resources and Building Your Skillset
When it comes to learning how to color grade, there are countless resources available, including YouTube tutorials on how to do color grading techniques, various “color grading how to” courses, and plenty of information on how to do color grading.
To begin, I recommend focusing on understanding the fundamentals of color management and establish a framework for look development and your color grading process. Starting with a structure makes all of the other information about how to color grade make more sense, and gives them a place to fit in your process.
As you explore various techniques and color grading basics, treat them like tools for your toolbox. Gather a list of tools you want to use, and save them as power grades. A good toolset paired with a framework to employ it is really all you need to get going.