A vectorscope on top of a scene from
"Blade Runner 2049" (2017). Image courtesy: Warner Bros. Pictures

In a nutshell

  • Vectorscopes are a tool that filmmakers can use to evaluate and control the hue and saturation in their scenes
  • These scopes allow for easier color balancing and scene matching
  • Colorists across the industry use vectorscopes to fine-tune their work and make sure they’re meeting industry standards

Vectorscopes are an efficient way to understand the visual elements of video. Whether you’re a colorist or just want to comprehend and alter the color of your videos, understanding how to read vectorscopes will give you the insight you need to make adjustments and achieve the look you want.

In this article, we’ll discuss what vectorscopes are, why they are important, and how you can use them in your video workflow.

What is a vectorscope?

Vectorscopes allow you to analyze the chroma information of a video signal. They are a visual representation of the color information in your video, including hue and saturation. Vectorscopes are used for various reasons, such as color balance, shot matching, and color grading.

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While vectorscopes give you information solely on the colors in your videos, a histogram will also provide you with exposure information. For more information on how to read a histogram, check out this article here.

How to read vectorscopes

A vectorscope is displayed as a circle containing RGBCMY demarcations and a shape in the middle. The center of the circle represents neutral and the shape inside the circle indicates the chrominance or hue of the scene. The further the shape goes toward the letters at the edge of the circle, the more saturated the color. For example, if the shape primarily resides in the G region, the image is predominantly green. The further the shape goes toward the G from the center, the more saturated it is. The shape in the circle represents the pixels in your scene. So if the shape is largest in the R region of the scope, most pixels are red in your scene.

The importance of vectorscopes

You might be asking yourself, “Why do I need to use vectorscopes at all?” As most filmmakers have experienced, not all screens are equal. If you rely solely on your monitor when color correcting or grading, you will find yourself disappointed at some point due to color variations among screens. Vectorscopes show the hue and saturation of a scene regardless of what’s displayed on your monitor. This allows you to see if your visuals skew toward a certain hue, even if your monitor isn’t showing it. Vectorscopes can also let you know when your colors are out of gamut. Colorists use vectorscopes to ensure their colors are within the broadcast range.

It’s all about balance

Color balance plays a large role in video work, and vectorscopes can help in several ways. You can look at the vectorscope of a scene and immediately see a broad picture of the colors within it. You can tell if the scene leans cool or warm, and you can also see how saturated it is overall and the saturation level of individual colors. This is immensely useful when trying to color correct, that is, getting the most accurate colors possible.

It is also incredibly helpful when trying to match scenes shot with multiple cameras or different lighting. Using vectorscopes to compare shots will help you quickly assess the differences between them and give you insight into which tools you need to use to have them seamlessly flow together. Beyond color correction, vectorscopes can help you match your final color grade between scenes by showing you where your shots sit in terms of hue and saturation.

Showing some skin

One of the greatest features of vectorscopes is the skin tone line, located at about the 11 o’clock point between the red (R) and yellow (Y) lines. All skin, regardless of ethnicity, can be balanced on this line. Skin tones should fall equally on both sides of the line, and saturation will depend on the rest of your scene. Colorists will do a simple crop or garbage mask to isolate their subject’s skin to see where it falls on this line and adjust accordingly to get the right tone for natural-looking skin. As usual, do this step before grading so you can start with the most natural look before stylizing your video.

Where can you find vectorscopes?

You can find vectorscopes in all major editing software, such as Adobe Premiere Pro, Apple Final Cut Pro, Adobe After Effects, and Blackmagic Design Davinci Resolve. However, you will likely need to turn on vectorscopes to see them in your software of choice. In Premiere Pro, you can access scopes by opening your Lumetri color panel and clicking on Window>Lumetri Scopes. In Davinci Resolve, you can find them in the Scopes panel in the Color tab. You will need to choose which scopes you want to display. In Final Cut Pro, click View>Show In Event Viewer>Video Scopes. Each software is different, but most professional editing software will have vectorscopes. Also, they work the same across all editing software, though note that there will be some variation in features and how those features are displayed on the scope.

Vectorscope in practice

Let’s go over some examples of vectorscopes on familiar movie scenes to see how they look in use.

Take a look at this scene from “Jaws” (1975). By evaluating this vectorscope, you can see that the scene is not highly saturated, as the white shape does not extend very far out from the center. The scene has a pretty neutral and even tone of colors because the vector shape is pretty evenly dispersed, aside from the spike of saturation in the reds from his face. We can also see that the skin tone is fairly well balanced in terms of red and yellow on the skin tone line.

A vectorscope of a scene from "Jaws" (1975)
“Jaws” (1975). Image courtesy: Universal Pictures

This vectorscope from “Avatar” (2009) shows us highly saturated cyans and blues with a couple of small areas of saturation in the greens and magentas. The bulk of the vector shape is within the cyans and blues, so we would know that the scene is primarily blue, even without seeing the still image.

A vectorscope of a scene from "Avatar" (2009)
“Avatar” (2009). Image courtesy: 20th Century Fox

On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have this vectorscope from “Blade Runner 2049” (2017). The only colors present on this scope are in the reds and yellows. The vector shape is thinner because there is less range within the colors. The colors in the scene are highly saturated, which is why it extends so far from the center.

A vectorscope of a scene from "Blade Runner 2049" (2017)
“Blade Runner 2049” (2017). Image courtesy: Warner Bros. Pictures

The scope of vectorscopes

Hopefully you have a better understanding of vectorscopes and how to read and use them in your work. They are essential tools that allow colorists to see exact colors when color balancing, shot matching and color grading, regardless of the monitor they’re using. With vectorscopes, you can immediately see a broad picture of the colors within a scene. They are not only important for actually adjusting colors, but they are also useful for matching colors scene to scene. Additionally, if you use multiple cameras, you need to make sure that all the color grading matches. Editors use vectorscopes to ensure that the clips in a given sequence all match.

Vectorscopes are one more tool in a filmmaker’s belt for better understanding, evaluating, and altering color in their scenes. So, the next time you find yourself editing a video, try to utilize them in your work and see how they help you in your filmmaking.

Greyson Collins is a colorist, photographer and editor. He currently works as Imaging and Plant Manager at Paradise Pictures, LLC, where he develops and manages systems for proprietary color imaging workflows.