Color grading has been around for a very long time, used both in photography and cinematography. The names have changed as time and technology advance. What some refer to now as “color grading” was on once called “color timing” during the film era and was accomplished in a laboratory or darkroom by adjusting the exposure process during the developing stage of the film. Mostly used for color correction and not so much as an artistic tool. In the cinematography world it was primarily for color correction although the process was a lot more complex, requiring vast knowledge in dealing with correcting color for television tube screens. So todays “color correcting” has become a lot easier and nearly all is performed digitally making life a lot easier. I do color correcting using the X-Rite Color Checker and correct everything from camera to the monitor I use for editing. So what I now refer to as “color grading” is more of an artistic tool rather than a correcting tool.
So why color grade? Because it can lend an artistic value to your images or video work. Both photographers and videographers like to use color grading as a way to give an image or a video scene a certain vibe, feel or mood. Color grading is important because it could be what sets you apart from the crowd when it comes to editing. It is very common in movies to create a “look” for the overall movie that in-turn creates a “feel” or “mood” for the whole feature and individual scenes will vary from the main look based on the lighting, color, time of day ect… Examples are movies like Manchester by the Sea that has a rather soft and somber vibe due to the nature of the plot dealing with a lost loved one. As opposed to Hacksaw Ridge that has a very “high contrast” look do to the fact that most of the scenes take place on a battle field during intense fire fights.
So let’s step back a few years to when I was a beginning photographer and like most I was obsessed with “trying to make my images look professional” and could not figure out why I was failing. First let’s describe “professional” because a nice fashion shot certainly has a different look than say a nice sport shot. For me it was fashion photography. I would look at a magazine (remember them?) ad or editorial and fall in love with the image’s vibe. Not so much the content of the image, but more so with the way the image looked… the feel. Sure the image may contain a nice looking person in wondrous wardrobe (or lack of wardrobe) or it could be an advertisement with just a wrist watch. Either way I would sit and wonder what they did to make the image look the way it did. So when Photoshop found its way into my photography I already had several things in my mind I wanted to learn how to do. Sure basic editing comes first, along with just figuring out how to navigate through the universe that is Adobe Photoshop. But soon I was trying my hand at color grading although I had no clue what I was doing. Then I started asking other photographers their techniques and ideas on color grading. …of course as always the case with photography some photographers are more than willing to share while others are looking at you like your asking if you can sell their child on the black-market. Then of course there is the “oh just go to my website and download my tutorial” for a mere $99. So I basically continued on my own and bought a $10 automated (prerecorded) Photoshop Action or two along the way. I would analyze the layers of the action and it soon became apparent that I was doing it that way all along. But I had other ways to color grade that were sometimes so much easier than creating layer after layer in Photoshop. Adobe Lightroom has some really nice tools for creating awesome color grades and saving them as presets. This of course leads to photographers and websites selling Lightroom and Camera RAW presets, and this is fine, but I would suggest finding free downloads over paying for them.
So for my workflow I always start in Lightroom and if needed I head over to Photoshop and I finish back in Lightroom. I would say for me; 80% of the images I color grade I do in Lightroom, the rest are done in Photoshop. Also with the power of having Adobe Camera RAW as a filter in Photoshop I could technically do everything in Photoshop; however I like to save my master file without a color grade and make a separate file with the color grade.
So day we still see color grading as a strong artistic tool in both photography and cinematography. It was always said that “Instagram is for photographers” and nothing could be truer with all the filter choices IG has to offer. After all the IG filters are nothing more than preset color grades. And now that drone video is getting easier for the average person and vlogging is all the rage we start to see the color grading moving in to the mainstream. Not only do the top vloggers create trends with how they hold their camera or their scene transitions they also create trends of everybody wanting to color grade their video content to look like they’re favorite vlogger. With all this said color grading isn’t always as easy as an Instagram filter. There truly is an art to it, and in video what looks good in one scene looks horrible in another. Photos can be a lot easier to color grade, however I find that when editing a series of photos it can at times be challenging when the series contains images from different looks of light. Look for a vlog post in a few days where I will walk through a few of my techniques on color grading.
Thanks for reading.