Color Grading

By Dietmar Temps


Color-grading is a classic movie topic. The colorist is responsible for processing color corrections and for matching the final movie in terms of brightness, color, and gradation to achieve the mood desired by the director.


Creating the “look & feel”


The significance of the colorist has increased in the digital era. Advertising, music videos and cinema movies on a digital basis are often processed by colorists to a very large extent. On the one hand it is necessary to adjust the colors and moods of individual scenes which have been shot at different times and places. But color-grading also has an important creative and artistic aspect: the creation of a unique style or a distinctive “look & feel”. Up-to-date color-grading goes far beyond the classical task of pure color correction.



Color grading in photography


In analogue photography color-grading played a rather insignificant role. Professional photo productions were usually realized on diamaterial and the artistic colors of an image were the responsibility of the photographer. Necessary color corrections for a complete image series, for example catalogs, were mostly carried out by traditional typescript editors. Digital photography has greatly changed this approach. Color-grading is an important part of the post-processing workflow. Either the color-grading is processed by the photographer himself or by other media designers. Thanks to the very popular Instagram filters, color-grading has also gained great popularity in amateur photography.



Professional color-grading


If color-grading is used in professional photo productions, it should always be embedded in a standardized color management process. For the production of an advertisment campaign it is important that the look & feel of the image material is reproducible. It is therefore recommended to carry out a correct white balance during the shooting and to work with calibrated monitors in the post-processing workflow. The artistic manipulation of the colors in the context of the color-grading depends often on the target group, e.g. poppy colors for children, cool colors for sports themes or coloring for retro effects. Manipulation can also be very subtle. Sometimes only the shadow areas or the lights of an image are manipulated. To get consistent results for a photos series, the best approach is to save the steps for the color manipulation by using Photoshop actions.


Creative amateurs will certainly put a little less effort on a self-developed look & feel. For them Lightroom or Photoshop plugins are probably a good choice. Using these plugins, the images can be manipulated with preset filters, for example with “vintage” or “retro” filters, a sepia tone or a “warm sunset” filter. It is possible to combine the basic filters and store them as compilations. This is a good alternative to the self-developed Photoshop actions, since the filters of the Photoshop plugins are easy and intuitive to use.



Visual perception in the era of social media platforms


Color-grading is also very popular on Youtube. Even simple-produced Vlogs show an amazingly good quality these days. Artistic Youtubers and Vloggers choose color-grading to give their Youtube clips a personal style. The visual perception of consumers is of course influenced by the large-scale usage of color-grading in advertising, movies, Instagram and many Youtube clips, especially as these images and clips are spread very quickly on social media platforms.


In digital photography, amateurs often are a bit disappointed when they purchase an  expensive ILC camera, but the resulting RAW files look a bit dull. However, good photography doesn’t require color-grading to a large extent, at least bad photography doesn’t become necessarily better. For this reason experienced photographers use color-grading as part of the post-processing workflow only very subtly. Based on this approach the captured photographic moods can be optimized very well. Many ambitious photographers are deliberately ignoring the mentality of publishing arbitrary snapshots combined with Instagram filters on social media platforms on a daily basis.