What is color correction and why is it important?

So you lit your scenes correctly, shot your footage and put the edit together. But somehow it doesn’t quite look like the pros, yet. Well, that is because you are missing one important factor: color correction.

Color correction is when you dial in the colors of each shot to make the final image look amazing. It goes from balancing the image to dialing in specific looks, to creating a specific artistic style to the frames. There’s only so much you can do on-set. Color correction takes it to that next level and it is an essential part of video editing. Quality matters in this day and age. And even though the average viewer may not know what color correction is or when it is missing, they know something is off. In film and video, it’s all about controlling where the eyes go. Color correction controls which parts of the frame the eyes look at and what appears pleasing to the eye.

Know what you’re shooting

It is crucial to be aware of what you put into your camera and what you deliver to the colorist to get the best results. Make sure you shoot in “log” or what we call “flat”. This means that the image at first looks dull, desaturated and low contrast. But this is good because you retain a lot of information for when it is time to color.

If you already have high contrast baked in, and the details in the blacks are crushed or the whites are blown out, you can’t get that information back in color. So make sure you shoot in log, you expose things properly or pretty close, and you are aware of the colors your talent wears and the colors in the scene. 

Using scopes

When you color correct, you essentially create a look and feel of the footage. But you need to make sure that the colors you adjust are applied properly. This is where scopes come in handy. With scopes, you read what the colors in your image do. Different monitors and the lighting in the room you correct affect how the color comes across. But the data in the scopes are accurate.

If there is a black shirt on the screen, you can use the scopes to see if you adjusted that particular black correctly and lower it to read as true black. The same with the whites. You also see if your colors land in the middle, which would put you at the ideal exposure for that group. The scopes are a good way to check the balance between red, green and blue. You can look and say, for instance, this shot has too much red, let’s dial it back. Or you can say, let’s bring some blue in. Scopes also gauge how saturated your image is. The more you color and read the scopes, the more you start to gauge what numbers you like some of your values to fall between.

Primary color correction

When you have your shots together, you want to correct the overall image. You want to do what is called primary color correction. This is where you handle things like white balance, contrast, saturations, lift, gamma and gain. The goal is to get a nice-looking image. Check out our free lesson, “What is Primary Color Correction?”

In this step, you make sure the overall image is exposed where you would like. This is also where you adjust the blacks (lift), shadows, highlights and whites (gain). You want to find that perfect balance. You also control the general white balance. If it is outside, you usually want to balance for daylight. If there’s a lot of tungsten lights inside, and your footage looks more yellow, this is where you compensate for that as well with the white balance. You need to balance the overall look of the image so that you can come in and crush the next step.

Secondary color correction

In this step, you make more specific tweaks inside of the frame. Let’s say you have a shot of the talent’s face: The overall shot looks good, but you would like her eyes to pop a little more, meaning you would like her eyes to stand out slightly. Well, what you can do is create a power window, or a mask, and apply it just around the eyes. Now, you adjust the exposure or brightness of just the eyes. Add a feather to the mask and now the eyes pop! 

Look at some of the top films. Go online and look at the screen grabs. You may notice something interesting. Pay attention to how on target or faithful they are to the color palette. One of the best examples is the movie, “Up in the Air.” You’ll notice that the colors match so perfectly and harmoniously that this can’t be an accident.

The first step is art direction and choosing the right colors to put into the shot. But, even those need to be adjusted to make it perfect. So in comes color correction. Also, if you don’t have the budget to buy everything that matches, you can still use color correction to help achieve this look. 

“Up in the Air ” Paramount Pictures

In the last image, notice how the color of the car outside matches the reds in the scene. In a movie like this, they probably got a red car. But if you can’t get the right color, you can adjust it yourself. If you have a shot, and that car is green, you can isolate that color and shift it to be red. Or let’s say, in the picture with the paintings, the green in the trees was a little too yellow. You can isolate that as well and shift it to be more green, matching the salad on the plate. 

You have so much control, and it really comes in handy. If you shoot on a fairly dull-looking day, but it is supposed to feel like summer, by adjusting the colors, you can make the sky blue and make all of the colors more vibrant.

Color correction for continuity

So many conditions change when shooting. Let’s say you’re outside and the sun is setting. Well, that affects the colors you see and the exposures. Same with if you’re shooting with two different cameras or on the same camera but with two different settings. It will be pretty jarring to go from one shot to the next and the colors don’t match. It takes you out of it immediately. So what you need to match colors between shots match the continuity you want.

Color correction for the artistic approach

Now, everything is balanced and looking good. But there’s one more step to making it look cinematic, and that is making artistic choices.  Waqas Qazi, whose Instagram is theqazman, is a colorist and he does a fantastic job of showing you how to adjust the colors in the same shot to have a different vibe. Here is an example of a woman diving into water.


As you can see, stylistically, adjusting the color of the water creates a totally different mood. Here’s another example he uses that shows the difference between horror, drama and action.


Now that you understand the basics of coloring, get in there and start experimenting or hire someone to do it for you, and watch your quality shoot up. Whether it’s a narrative or an interview, keep color in mind when you shoot and run it through color before you deliver. And don’t just settle for a preset. Use what you learned in this article and start adjusting. Every project and every shot is different, so the more you understand these terms and start to dial in, the better your specific image will look.

Common terminology

Luma – represents the brightness in an image

Contrast ratio – the ratio of luminance of the brightest shade to the darkest shade

Chroma – the color information of an image regarding hue and saturation

Hue – refers to the specific color on the spectrum

Saturation – the intensity of a specific hue in a shot

Color cast – a visible color tint on an image

Primary correction – the process of manipulating the luma and chroma in your footage to make it look natural

Secondary correction – the process of color correcting a selected portion of your footage versus the entire shot

Artistic correction – color correcting to achieve a specific, artistic look