Color Grading, Color Correction and Color Timing: What You Need to Know

What is color grading, and how is it different from color correction? And what about color timing?

It’s understandable that new filmmakers might have trouble figuring out the differences. The approach and language of color correction has changed as film technology has changed.

Essentially, color grading and color correction both refer to digitally altering the color of the images in a film. According to professional colorist Patrick Inhofer, Wikipedia refers to digital color grading as “color correcting” and photochemical color grading as “color timing,” but he says that photochemical color timing is nearly dead. It’s rare for a filmmaker not to start with a digital color grade. Today, colorists generally use the term “color correction” to mean any change that’s being made to fix the original image.

What does color correction do?

Your first pass of color correction might address problems with exposure, contrast, white balance and excessive noise. Then, you can move into the more advanced color grading: shot matching, removing distractions, concentrating on the focal point, and creating a stylized look or feel.

You can make a variety of changes when you are color grading your film, but there’s no substitute for good footage. Make sure your shots are correctly exposed. Don’t expect to be able to work miracles in post-production.

Avoiding color grading mistakes

YouTuber Matti Haapoja says that there are a variety of color grading mistakes that new filmmakers make. First, don’t use unnatural colors. For example, don’t use magenta for shadows and midtones, especially for people’s skin. He recommends that you use oranges and teals instead.

Another common mistake filmmakers make in color grading is to overuse a LUT. A LUT is a Look Up Table, or a mathematical formula that your software or hardware will use to change the image’s color. Some LUTs are camera-specific, while others are generated within software. You can use an LUT to change saturation, contrast and/or entire input colors. But if you keep tweaking your LUT to make the colors vibrant, you might go too far. Haapoja says the solution to this problem is to add saturation before you use a LUT, before you put on a preset. Many people will fix contrast before using a LUT but forget to add saturation.

Also, don’t jump right to using a LUT without doing any color correction first. Haapoja says you need to go through each clip and color correct the shots before you stick on the LUT.

Next, don’t color grade so much that you lose detail. The term “crushing the blacks” (a term people misuse, according to PhotoFocus) refers to the process of taking dark areas in your image and making them even darker by increasing the contrast. This can help you reduce noise, but it can also result in detail loss. You can also “lift” the blacks, which does just the opposite, making all the dark grey and black areas lighter.

Also, be careful that your grades match from shot to shot. Aim for the same saturation and contrast throughout.

Color grading is a very difficult area of filmmaking/editing and may take you years to master. Don’t be so hard on yourself if you don’t get it perfect right away. You might also consider hiring a colorist!

Lessons and Tips

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