What Is Color Grading? A Guide to Perfecting the Color In Your Videos

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From the astounding shift to Technicolor in “The Wizard of Oz” to the blockbuster teal-and-orange color scheme made famous by “Transformers,” color grading is used to improve the visual aesthetic of film and other forms of video production. Keep reading to learn more about this video editing technique and how exactly the color grading process works, with examples of color grading in film.


What is color grading?

Video editor performing color grading workDC Studio/Shutterstock

Color grading is a postproduction video editing process that adjusts color to create more interesting, stylized, atmospheric images. In the past, filmmakers used lab film tints and filters to change the color schemes in videos. Today, video editors use color grading software to digitally alter video color and create stylized palettes. 

When color grading, editors consider color components including hue (or the film’s actual color), saturation (or the intensity of the color), and brightness (or how dark or light the color is).

Why color grading is important

Color grading softwareOmar Tomaino/Shutterstock

The manipulation of color adds to the comprehensive visual experience of a film. “Color is the place where our brain and the universe meet,” writes Paul Klee, an artist and color theorist. In film, color plays with this intersection by setting the (literal) tone and evoking emotions in audiences. 

Although early films relied on black-and-white color schemes, the advent of color cinematography demonstrated that a film’s color palette and overall aesthetic tells a story just as much as its content. Film color is now seen as a component of “mise en scène”: how everything onscreen comes together as a cohesive whole to affect viewers.

The most common associations for different colors are:

  • Red: passion, anger, power, love
  • Orange: sociability, joy, success, courage
  • Yellow: youth, illness, poverty
  • Green: greed, evil, nature, unease
  • Blue: sadness, calm, intellectualism, loneliness
  • Pink: femininity, naivety, beauty, sweetness
  • Purple: power, fantasy, other-worldliness, desire

In “The Godfather,” for instance, a sepia palette desaturates vibrant colors and adds a warm monochrome tint to most scenes. This color palette is punctuated with occasional bright, broad slashes of red, such as in Vito Corleone’s first scene. The Don wears a bright red rose in his lapel, foreshadowing his later shooting.

The juxtaposition of warm sepia overlay with the red rose and blood lulls viewers into a comfortable feeling of nostalgia, only to jarringly disrupt it to demonstrate the core of violence at the heart of the Corleone family.

The monochromatic desaturated green that imbues “The Matrix” produces a sense of discomfort, imprisonment, and artificiality. 

Since colors have multiple associations, some might feel paradoxical—but it’s all about how color fits into the film’s overarching narrative. “Moonrise Kingdom” relies on a yellow color scheme to emphasize the youth and innocence of the film’s young protagonists. To contrast with the warm nostalgia of yellow, director Wes Anderson occasionally uses a dark blue to indicate danger (a storm) or adulthood (Tilda Swinton’s wardrobe). 

In “Extraction,” however, yellow color grading is used—to the dismay of many who feel it pushes stereotypes—to create a dusty, impoverished feel. 

Color correction vs. color grading

Color gradingDC Studio/Shutterstock

Color correction is done before color grading to ensure that footage is balanced and appears realistic. Then, video editors do color grading to create the desired aesthetic of a video.

  • Color correction: Color correction is the process of adjusting an image to fix any issues. It is a singular process used to make an image fit certain standards. For example, if an image is overexposed, color correction will reduce the exposure so that it no longer diverges from standard appearance. Colors are corrected to appear as they do in real life, so that editors can then go in and color grade.
  • Color grading: Alternatively, color grading is a process containing multiple components that impact the tone and mood of a film as a whole. Color grading takes place after the color is corrected so that any alterations in atmosphere and emotion are made to an image fitting standard quality.

How to color grade

While color grading takes place in postproduction, many cinematographers and directors take their desired color palette into consideration while filming. Cameras, lenses, lighting, and sensors all impact the ultimate color gamut—the full range of colors captured by the camera and available in the footage. 

Video editors often use one or several of the following popular color grading techniques to achieve specific effects in a film:

Color wheelaekikuis/Shutterstock

  • Complementary: Complementary colors across from each other on the color wheel create high contrast and impact. Certain pairs, such as blue and orange, are often used in blockbuster films.
  • Analogous: Colors that are close to each other on the color wheel create a sense of cohesion.
  • Triadic: For triadic color grading, choose one primary color and two accent colors evenly spaced on the color wheel. 
  • Monochromatic: Films with a monochromatic color scheme use one color as overlay and then tint it lighter and shade it darker.
  • Sepia: The yellowish-brown sepia color implies nostalgia and warmth.
  • Bleach bypass: This high-contrast, desaturated look is often used in war films to represent the hopeless vividness of battle.

How to color grade a video

To try color grading your own project in postproduction:

  1. Choose your color grading software: To color grade a film or video, you must choose and familiarize yourself with color grading software. See a list of the best options below. 
  2. Set your picture profile: Before shooting, set the picture profile with the characteristics you want all your footage to have. The picture profile allows you to adjust and change footage characteristics. These include contrast and color tone, gradation, coloring, and emphasizing image edges. 
  3. Color correct: Then, get your footage to a standard baseline by adjusting white balance, reducing highlights and noise, increasing midtones, and equalizing exposure.
  4. Figure out your color space: Color space is the name for the range of colors that can be acquired on camera and displayed onscreen. They are categorized into gamuts, or a subgroup of viewable color space as represented by hue, saturation, and lightness. More gamuts means more color possibilities.
  5. Fix tones: Balance dark tones and highlights, and make the midtone fall smack-dab in the middle.
  6. Apply scopes: Scopes provide highly detailed insight into color information, including chrominance values (hue and saturation). The scope can show you important visual elements such as luminance and RGB (red green blue) values, which can help you create better balance.
  7. Color match: Lookup tables, or LUTs, allow you to automatically match colors to images in postproduction, much like a filter.
  8. Color correct round two: Although you initially color corrected to create a standard image pre-color grading, you should also do it post-color grading to fix any issues that came up during the process.
  9. Finalize images: After the second round of color correcting, do any final adjustments that enhance the filmic narrative.

Color grading software

Color grading software on a computer screenGau zohchair/Shutterstock

According to experts, some of the best color grading software options for video editors are:

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