Video Color Grading: The Basics with Rob Adams
I’m so jealous of photo editors sometimes. They get to work with Raw formats, which allow so much latitude in correcting and manipulating the look and feel of an image. Unless you are working with the most advanced video formats that are produced by super-high-end cinema cameras like the ARRI Alexa, RED or certain Blackmagic cameras, you are limited as to what you can fix and how the moving image can ultimately look. Enter the world of color correcting and grading for video.
Most of you reading this are likely using a DSLR to do your video work. Some of you may be using a straight-up video camera that is meant for small-sensor video capture. Either way, this article will show you the ABCs of color correction and grading, including where to begin.
It all starts in the camera. To get the most out of your video images, shoot in a way that retains as much detail as possible. Default picture profiles like Standard, Faithful, Portrait and even Neutral can have too much gamma curve. That’s a fancy way of saying they have too much contrast and brightness to maintain fine detail in the highlights and shadows of your video. There are a couple of different ways to get a flatter, more workable image from your camera natively.
“Prolost Flat” is a common profile of settings that can help achieve a solid starting point for DSLR video footage. It is good in many situations where basic color correction and grading will be done. It doesn’t really matter which brand of camera you are using. You will want to edit your existing Neutral picture profile by duplicating it in your camera’s custom user settings. Next, decrease the contrast all the way down and drop the color saturation of the profile to about one notch above complete desaturation. Don’t go all the way down, or you may end up with a black-and-white image. Finally, drop the sharpness slider down all the way or almost all the way. This is a personal preference. I prefer to add my sharpness back into the video in post-production so I can more precisely control the look. This technique was developed by Prolost, a company that makes presets and effects for various software applications.
Another way to flatten out your image is by using the Technicolor CineStyle profile, which you can download at Technicolor.com. (Technicolor is the film industry’s leading creator of color information processing and digital imaging technology, and is considered the forefather of the modern motion picture industry.)
Be warned: Using Technicolor CineStyle will make your images out of the camera look terrible, but they are supposed to be that way. CineStyle removes the “S-curve” completely, allowing your DSLR maximum dynamic range to retain a greater amount of detail and more flexibility in grading later on. You will be scared by what your unaffected video looks like when you record it, but this is normal. Another warning: A fair amount of color-grading skill is required to achieve a polished, professional look using Technicolor CineStyle, and it will likely be harder to focus your image in camera without the use of a hood-loupe or external electronic viewfinder. Hopefully, this article will get you started on the right path.
It’s worth mentioning that certain digital cinema cameras and the new generation of mirrorless cameras offer very flat built-in picture profiles. The Canon C-series cameras, like the 1DC, C100, C300 and C500, have the Canon Log or C-Log; and the Sony A7S, A7Rii, FS7 and FS5 have the Sony Log or S-Log, for short. “Log” stands for logarithmic, and refers to the gamma logarithm used to capture a video image in the brand’s native codec. In simple terms, it’s the brand’s custom-defined set of parameters that create a flat, straightforward image for video producers to use without having to tinker too much with settings to get a more gradable image. What’s nice is that certain color-grading presets have been designed to work with these Log profiles. They are called LUTs (“lookup tables”), and they are instantaneous “looks” and gamma curves that make the image “viewer ready” and thereby more user-customizable. More on that in a minute.
Once you have captured a flat image in your camera, you are ready to begin serious color grading. The first thing to remember is that you are not working with Raw images. Like I stated earlier, photographers have much more latitude in their still images. If you are shooting with a DSLR, you will be working in post-production with a compressed video image that equals about a small to medium JPEG in resolution and likely only 8 bits of color information. That is not much, considering the gamut of available colors and exposure control when working with Raw still images in Lightroom. You can still produce nice looks and get some great-looking video.
Color-correcting your shots is the first step. If you misjudged your white balance in camera while trying to do it manually, or if you trusted the camera to auto-white-balance and it doesn’t look good, you will have to correct the white balance. When working with video of people’s skin tones, I always recommend white-balancing the image first back to true color so you have a standard starting point to work from. For a sunset, however, I may leave the natural red and orange hues alone and enhance them with my grading.
There are several ways to color-correct in your video editing application. Plugins can do it automatically, but I don’t recommend using the built-in white-balance features of Adobe Premiere or FCPX. They’re often too harsh, or they overestimate the amount of correction needed. A good one I use is White Balance Plugin from FCPXEffects.com. Just choose the part of the image that is supposed to be white, and the plugin will set the rest of the color gamut in relation to that point. There are a few of these out there, and they all work fairly well. Of course, you can always use your editing application’s three-way color wheels or linear curves to correct shots manually. I find this tedious on my wedding projects, where multiple cameras are being used simultaneously.
Once you have a true-to-form color image, you can start applying “looks” or a “grade” to your video. The best way to learn what you like is to grab hold of some presets and then start applying them to see what fits your style, brand or the look you are going for. The top grading applications and plugins out there right now are Red Giant Colorist, Magic Bullet Looks, Color Finale and DaVinci Resolve (a very advanced tool that will have you spending lots of time riding the learning curve). Many have built-in presets, plus give you the ability to build and save your own custom looks and white-balance your shots to match. With simple presets, you will be able to tell right away the amount of contrast, hue adjustment and mood work with your clips.
Be careful not to overeffect your video. There are certain units of measurement you want to keep an eye on to avoid surpassing technical limits. Your NLE or grading application likely has something called a waveform monitor. It is a measurement scale of exposure, color balance and saturation that shows how your video will look on other people’s monitors and TV screens. By not dropping your shadow areas (represented by the bottom part of the content on the scale) below zero, you avoid crushing your blacks or making them “too black” for a desired look on TV screens. Same thing at the top of the scale.
By not allowing the “trace” or the measurement to exceed the 100% line, you avoid overexposing or blowing out your highlight areas. Since skin tones and optimal brightness live in the midtones, you will want to keep this region around the 60% to 75% range on the waveform scale. You can always customize your looks using parameter adjustments. By shooting flat, you have given yourself the ability to decide where you want to retain detail and where you want to make colors and contrast more prevalent. The best way to adjust your overall gamma is to apply a “curve” and play with it to get the image how you want it to look. Color grading is a subjective art form. Don’t be afraid to ask your colleagues, friends and ultimately your client if the look is pleasing to the eye.
Another way to apply “looks,” or an instant grade, to your very flat footage is by using lookup tables. A LUT is a predefined set of gamma, lift, gain and color that gives footage a certain feel or mood. Pixel Film Studios (PixelFilmStudios.com) makes several great sets of LUTs that can be applied and then adjusted to suit your taste.
A LUT can also be designed from a preset look that you’ve created in Lightroom if you are more advanced. The original idea behind LUTs was that filmmakers could quickly apply a pleasing S-curve to their dailies (footage that was shot that day) to show their client or team members without having to explain why it looks so terrible coming from the camera. Most in-camera picture profiles are based on REC 709 gamma curves. This is an industry term for a universal S-curve and gamma profile that brings very flat footage from awful to viewable. Flat profiles negate the REC 709 standard. Canon and Sony both have their own ways of doing this with their proprietary C-Log and S-Log LUTs. These custom LUTs make those flat profiles close to an actual grade by reapplying the REC 709 standard. LUTs are easy to use and are usually loaded onto footage from within your video editing application using a third-party plugin.
My personal method for grading my wedding films is to shoot in the Canon C100’s “Wide DR” picture profile. I get more dynamic range than shooting on picture profiles like Standard or Faithful, but not as flat as CineStyle or C-Log. The result out of the camera is an image that I can grade with a fair degree of control or leave untouched—like when doing a same-day edit—and it still looks great.
My wedding footage doesn’t have to be that flat because I want a simple workflow. For corporate, feature or documentary film work, I like to shoot C-Log to give myself maximum control. Again, grading is subjective, so it is up to you how much work you want to do in post-production to achieve a desired look.
Some shoot DSLR Standard profiles, and just tweak them slightly to cut down on contrast and some saturation. The choice is yours. The only mistake you can make is to shoot without any thought as to what you want the final image to look like, and then not correct or grade your footage at all.
Next time you watch some film, pay attention to the color and how it “feels,” or how a scene is contrasted. Ask yourself: Is it flat or punchy? Where are the shadow areas, and are they very black or slightly “lifted”? This will teach you about color grading and how it’s used to enhance a story.
Better yet, look at a film and see if you can pick out where shots are mismatched. Seeing two shots whose color is a not a spot-on match will help you appreciate the art that much more.