Color grading for beginners

What is color grading?

Color grading is the process of manipulating the color and contrast of images or video to achieve a stylistic ‘look’ or ‘feel’. It combines technical and creative skills and is important in achieving both tone and clarity in a film.


What’s the difference between color grading and color correction?

Color correction is corrective. The aim being to achieve a naturalistic appearance to the footage (i.e. make it look how it did in real life).

Color grading is creative. The aim being to achieve a ‘look’ or ‘feel’ that reflects the tone of your film, or use color to dramatic effect.

Color correction can in some ways be considered a part of the color grading process because it’s necessary to provide you with a ‘base’ to work from when grading.

Key terms

Before we delve deeper into how to achieve a cinematic grade to your footage, you’ll need to learn a few basic terms.


HSB

HSB stands for Hue, Saturation and Brightness. When we’re working with color, these three qualities are the main things we’re adjusting to achieve the desired effect.

Hue is the difference between red and green. It affects where your color sits along the spectrum of the rainbow and is usually measured as a value between 0° and 360°.

Saturation is the difference between red and gray, i.e. how vivid the color is. Reducing the saturation of a color will make it more muted and move it toward grayscale. Saturation is measured as a value between 0% and 100%.

Brightness is the difference between light red and dark red. If you increase brightness you move closer to white (100%), decrease it and you move towards black (0%).


RGB

Each pixel in a screen is made up of three lights – one red, one green and one blue (RGB). Combine these three colors at varying intensities and you can make any color.

When color grading, you can manipulate these channels independently for more control over the color in your footage.


Exposure

Exposure is how much light a camera picks up to get the resulting image. If too low, the image will be pitch black, too high and it will be pure white. It’s usually set in-camera, but it’s possible to affect exposure in post (HitFilm Pro‘s Exposure Pro tool is great for this).

Generally, the goal is to find a good balance where there are no areas of flat black or white. But you can sometimes use blown out or underexposed areas to creative effect.


White Balance

You may have heard people refer to footage as ‘warm’ or ‘cool’. This refers to the ‘orangeness’ or ‘blueness’ of the colors in your video. The goal when adjusting white balance is to render neutral colors (like gray) as naturally as possible.

White balance should always be set in-camera to avoid problems down the line (it can be difficult to fix in post). Most cameras have a pretty reliable ‘automatic’ setting that will monitor the scene and set this for you.


What’s the best process to follow?

Before you dive right in, we’ll quickly go over the best process to make sure you come out with a clean grade that looks good. Then we’ll show you how to get a cinematic grade on your own videos.

  1. Color correction
  2. Shot-to-shot matching
  3. Create your ‘look’
  4. Apply the look across the scene
  5. Apply a final grade

1. Color correction

Color correction is all about making your footage look as natural as possible. To do this, we need to ignore any creative preference we have, and just make sure it’s correctly exposed, the right white balance and all of the colors look true-to-life.

  • Make sure it’s correctly exposed (no areas of flat black or white)
  • Adjust the white balance if necessary (neutral colors like grey should appear neutral)
  • Is there enough detail? (adjust contrast with the curves tool for clarity)


2. Shot-to-shot matching

Once we’ve corrected the color of our pilot clip, we then need to apply that same correction to the other clips in the scene. You can do this by saving your color correction effects as a preset and adding it to the other clips.


3. Create your ‘look’

This is where you get to decide how to adjust your contrast, color balance and really finetune the mood you want to give off. Keep reading to learn how to get that cinematic grade and make your scenes pop.


4. Apply the look across the scene

As with step two, apply your new grade across each of the clips in the scene.


5. Apply a final grade

The final step is to polish the finish by tweaking any last parameters to make sure your final grade looks good on each of your shots.


How to get a cinematic color grade

There’s no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to grading, but here’s a few tips on things to bare in mind.


Keep it subtle

If you change too much, the grade will be too distracting and unnatural-looking, which will shatter the immersiveness of the film.


Consider skin tones

Try and keep skin-tones in their natural hues to stop your actors looking sickly or unnatural-looking. This is something we’re programmed to pick up on quite easily.


Think about mood

Color has a strong connection to emotion. Using colors in the right way can help to evoke mood and will have a huge effect on the cinematic character of your film.


Think about palettes

Professional colorists will usually take an existing image as a ‘reference’. They’ll then color pick some of the important tones in the image to guide their grading process.

Using complementary colors (colors that are opposite eachother on the color-wheel) can be a good way to introduce contrast. Or you can use analogous colors (colors that are next to each other on the color-wheel) to achieve a strong mood.


Grading footage in HitFilm with the Curves tool

The Curves tool is a colorist’s most powerful instrument. In this tutorial, Javert shows you just how easy it is to get a cinematic grade in HitFilm.

Start grading today by downloading the latest version of HitFilm Express – the free video editing and VFX software (it’s perfect for beginners).

Interested in learning more about filmmaking and VFX? Subscribe to our official YouTube channel.