What is color grading and why is it important?

In days not far gone, color grading was a separate post-production process altogether. As editing software began catching up to dedicated machines, however, the lines between video editor and grader have blurred.

These days editors are expected to know, and implement, color grading when hired for projects. It’s more important than ever to understand what color grading is and why you’ll come to rely on it.

The simple answer is it’s a post-production process centered entirely on altering the color qualities of an image you’ve captured. This includes contrast, sharpness, blackness depth, white balancing, color overlays/spotlights and overall saturation. This may sound clinical, but when used properly, color grading has a drastic effect on your project’s overall tone, emotional impact and storytelling. Therefore, it is an essential part of video editing.

Color grading vs. color correction

Most people tend to use the terms color correction and color grading synonymously, but there is a distinction. Correction refers more to ‘fixing’ the image presented and is traditionally the first step in the process. It’s about making sure the footage captured looks the way it’s intended. Thus, through balancing out the whites and ensuring things aren’t washed out or oversaturated you can achieve a better look.

Color grading user interface
Before you start the color grading process, you’ll want to spend time color correcting your footage. Aim for accuracy and consistency across your entire edit.

Grading is the next step. Grading allows you to take that corrected footage and establish an overall mood or aesthetic for your scenes. You can also make visual effects changes, such as day for night. While most of the tools used in both processes are the same, it’s important to know the difference. Plus, knowing when to implement them, will always serve you.

When to use color grading

There are a number of reasons to implement color grading into a project. Much like with all the video production tools at your disposal, however, it’s crucial to know when to utilize it. A heavy hand or overuse can be as detrimental to a project as doing nothing at all.

Using colors to represent moods isn’t a new concept. Take a look at the prevalence of mood rings from decades past. There’s a wealth of color theory about which hues elicit certain responses. You, however, will need to figure out when and how to use them on your audiences.

This isn’t always easy to do, but you’ll get a better feel for implementing specific grading techniques the more projects you do it. You have to think about your video and the story you’re telling. As you watch cuts of the project, think about the emotions you want viewers to feel during specific sequences.

Once your footage is corrected, you can adjust the tone or mood of the shot through color grading. Here, a scene shot in a Log profile has been graded for a richer, more saturated look.

Say you have a sequence where your main character received bad news. There are a couple of ways you can use color grading to affect the dynamics of the scene. You could push the sadness aspect by adding in darker shades of blue or show a more violent/angry reaction by kicking up the reds. Both deliver drastically different reactions from your audience, so it’s important to know what you want to achieve.

There are no hard and fast rules on when to implement your color grading options. For the most part, learning the ideal times to use them will come from practice and instinct. Studying up on color theories will go a long way towards making these decisions easier for you.


Aside from spotlighting, VFX changes and setting the mood for specific scenes, one of the most recognizable uses of color grading is establishing an overall tone. Take “The Matrix” for example, which essentially uses two monochromatic color schemes. All scenes set within the Matrix use a pale green hue. Constrastly, the ‘real world’ sequences have a more dramatic blue overlay. Aside from the practical use of preventing audience confusion when the film jumps back and forth between the two settings, these colors keep the tone consistent throughout.

Aside from spotlighting, VFX changes and setting the mood for specific scenes, one of the most recognizable uses of color grading is establishing an overall tone.

The sickly greens reflect its a false, dreamlike world. This harkens back to the old-school computer monitors. Keeping the real world blue emphasizes the grim, cold future as a stark contrast. Similarly, “Game of Thrones” uses blue to show the cold, isolation of the Wall in the North.

Conversely, Peter Jackson’s “Fellowship of the Ring” uses lighter greens early on to showcase the youth and naivety of Frodo and darker greens near the end to show the growing corruption of the world as he continues his journey.

The effect works on other projects as well. Corporate videos, for instance, utilize lighter oranges and yellows to give off a warm, welcoming vibe. These elicit feelings of happiness and friendliness, moods that would definitely help employees feel more positive about what they’re watching.

Don’t fear it

There’s no denying the importance color grading has on your videos. From putting the spotlight on emotional performances, to influencing your audience’s thoughts, it’s an invaluable storytelling tool. While diving into color grading may feel daunting at first, the results will elevate your videos and make the effort worthwhile.

Jordan Maison
Jordan Maisonhttp://www.cinelinx.com
Jordan Maison is a writer and journalist, having studied film in college and covered all aspects of film for the past 15 years.

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