Photography Color Theory

Color Correction vs. Color Grading

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Written By Nate Torres

You’ve just finished editing a photo or video and you’re happy with the content, but something doesn’t quite look right.

The colors don’t seem to pop like you expected, and the overall tone just feels off.

You’ve heard of color correction and color grading, but you’re not quite sure what the difference is.

In this article, we’ll dive into the nuances of each technique to help you achieve the perfect look for your next video project.

We’ll be covering the following topics (click on a bullet point to jump to that section):

Color Correction vs. Color Grading

The main difference between color correction vs. color grading is their function. For the definitions of each term, you will find them below.

For an overview, check out the comparison chart table here:

Color CorrectionColor Grading
Corrects and adjusts colors to achieve a natural and balanced look.Enhances and stylizes colors to achieve a specific mood, style, or creative effect.
Achieve technical accuracy and consistency in color and exposure.Create a distinctive and artistic visual style.
Fixes issues such as exposure, white balance, and color consistency.Focuses on creative choices, including color enhancements, contrast, and stylistic effects.
Typically performed early in the post-production process.Usually done after color correction, as the final step in post-production.
Typically involves adjustments to exposure, white balance, saturation, contrast, and overall color balance.Involves adjustments to individual color hues, tones, shadows, highlights, and creative color effects.
Uses color correction tools like levels, curves, and color balance in software like Adobe Premiere Pro, Photoshop, or DaVinci Resolve.Utilizes color grading tools such as color wheels, color curves, and LUTs (Look-Up Tables) in specialized software or color grading suites.
Aims to maintain or restore natural colors and correct issues like color cast, overexposure, or underexposure.Aims to create a unique visual style, evoke emotions, and enhance storytelling through color choices.
Fixing skin tones, correcting overexposed highlights, removing color cast from a scene.Adding a warm, nostalgic look to a video, creating a futuristic or sci-fi ambiance, or emulating a specific film genre.
Requires precise adjustments to ensure accurate color reproduction.Allows for more creative freedom and may involve intentional deviations from natural colors.
Typically requires less time compared to color grading.Can be a more time-consuming and iterative process due to its creative nature.
Critical for maintaining visual consistency in news, documentary, and commercial work.Highly valued in filmmaking, music videos, advertising, and creative projects where visual aesthetics play a significant role.

Color correction mainly fixes black-and-white levels, contrast, along with exposure.

color correction lightroom
adjust black and white levels, contrast, exposure

Color correction software enables you to adjust intent with precision.

Color grading is used for more complex changes in the overall colors for a shoot to create a consistent mood or ambiance for a scene.

color grading lightroom slider
adjust colors

What is Color Correction?

Color correction is the act of adjusting the white and black levels, the photo’s exposure, white balance, and contrast.

Color correction software helps return the image to an accurate depiction of what the photographer/videographer could see.

This act adjusts colors to precision without any unwanted results.

Besides, it also makes your product more consistent. The more matching your footage and photos are, the better your flow.

There are many options for color correction software. Even professionals are recommending free options as the better color correction software, most notably DaVinci Resolve.

Because of its purpose, you do not need an intricate understanding of the color grading theory.

This allows beginners and non-tech-savvy people to deliver quality photos and videos.

Why Color Correct Your Photos or Video?

Photos taken outdoors will not consistently look the same.

Time flies, and so does the natural lighting.

If your photo sessions last for hours or the brightness does not look quite right, fix it using color correct.

Your photos will look more natural to the human eye while becoming more consistent.

We guarantee that the results will be significantly better.

We still encourage photographers to take the best possible photos without relying on post-production.

Yet, the unpredictable future will prove that post-production comes in handy.

color correction example

Is Color Correction Necessary?

Well, not necessarily, but you will miss out on many positives if you do not.

Color correction is not necessary by default.

But color correction certainly does make your picture and videos prettier than ever!

Some color correction software is completely free and brings out a notable change.

Lighting outside can change unexpectedly, causing pictures to look inconsistent.

If you were making an album of photos, wouldn’t you want the images to be consistent?

before after color correction
before and after

Color correcting can also help adjust the colors to the intended “mood or tone.”

They make colors appear more flattering and prominent, just as they should be.

Before diving into color grading, let us talk about how it was achieved in the past.

What is Color Grading?

Color grading has become the more advanced version of color correcting. While color correcting makes things appear as “they should be,” color grading is used when things are adjusted for aesthetic purposes.

When people think of color correction vs. color grading, they are seen as two opposites.

For example, you could make an average picture look as if it were taken on Mars.

You could also make a shot appear more post-apocalyptic too.

Color Grading can be quite tricky when compared to color correction.

The process takes time to acquire a perfect balance.

color correction girl

Software may speed up or slow down your process, giving you less time to work.

There are also many concepts and new tools to master.

It raises the “is it worth it” question when people consider using color correction vs. color grading.

Why Color Grade Your Photos or Video?

Color grading your photos and videos will give them an extra “oomph.”

Not only does it change the atmosphere of a shot, but it also enables you to get creative and create your own recognizable style.

Many movies use color grading to enhance the emotion in a scene because colors affect us psychologically even when we are unconscious.

It changes how you perceive a photo and also affects your mood.

Warmer colors are associated with a more comfortable, cozy atmosphere, while cooler colors represent calmness or even grief.

This theory relating to color is just a guideline and can still be broken, as there are no cinematography rules.

Some films use grading to differentiate locations, most notably “The Matrix.”

The film uses a different colored tint to determine different worlds—Blue for reality and green for the other.

To answer the “is it worth it question,” well, it certainly is.

To further explore why you should color grade and the art behind it, we also recommend this video by DSLRguide:

The Art of Color Grading

Is Color Grading Necessary?

The next question about the difference between color correction vs. color grading is how necessary it becomes.

Depending on the intention of your photo/video, the necessity will vary.

If they are personal memories in massive quantities, it probably isn’t going to be necessary.

Unless you plan to upload the photo/video on photo media for professional purposes, you should color grade it.

Applying the color grading theory will help you achieve better results and a slight advantage.

We will expand on the color grading theory shortly, but in a nutshell, it will make your scenes come alive.

What is Color Timing?

Color timing either made your whole film/shot lighter or darker.

Before color correction vs. color grading was cool, there was color timing.

This could lead to scenes looking better overall. The primary method was using a machine called a Hazeltine; it reversed the negatives and displayed the image on a TV-style screen.

The operator could then adjust the red, green, and blue elements using a dial.

These dials ranged from 0 to 50. The higher the number was, the darker the film would get, and vice versa.

Sadly, the color timing method is now considered dead.

More recently color grading was used, which is the better alternative.

What is Color Theory?

Color theory is a generalization of how specific colors work independently or together to invoke a certain mood, atmosphere, or feeling in an object.

It is used worldwide and is scientifically proven to work in most circumstances.

Everyone recognizes the primary warm and cold colors.

Warm colors tend to look more comforting, while cold colors seem more serious, calm, or sad.

warm vs cool colors
warm vs cool colors

This theory has made sense as to why people seem to be so relaxed in natural scenery, because of the abundance of calming colors.

There is also a neutral group of colors. This includes grey, bottle green, black, white, and other colors that are not eye-catching.

Commonly used as background colors to an otherwise overpowering hue, these colors let the other flashier ones take the highlight.

Each color will also be perceived differently depending on the person’s cultural background.

As an exciting example, people in the West commonly use the color black when mourning.

While in Java, the color black is widely associated with wisdom.

Always keep in mind that the meaning of each color may change depending on the scene and context.

To further explore the subject of color theory, we also recommend checking out our analogous colors and complementary colors guide, as well as this video by Flow Studio:

Color Theory for Noobs | Beginner Guide

Tips to Improve Color Correction and Grading

Color correction vs. color grading is commonly seen as a rivalry.

It is quite the contrary since you need a good color correction to create a magnificent grading.

Improving your color correction skills will make or break your grading.

That said, let us head to the first tip.

1. Plan Your Coloring in Advance

A common mistake made by beginners is using a default color profile.

Photographers and cinematographers recommend using a flat profile.

It gives you a hefty amount of latitude to work with.

Remember to take your photo with enough amount of exposure beforehand. Although color correction can help, it can only do so much.

Better shots lead to better results in color correction and grading.

First, you need to understand the color wheel to see what colors you are playing with. My favorite reference is Adobe Colorwheel.

I open up my photo in one tab, and right next to it in another tab, I have the color wheel open.

color wheel
color wheel

Ideally, before you even begin your photo shoot, you should know what color harmony/scheme you want to follow as that will help you decide what clothing the model should be wearing or what light gels you will want to use.

The most common color harmonies/schemes are as follows:

color wheel schemes
common color harmonies

For example, this photo of this fish has a complementary color scheme of blue and orange:

complementary colors of orange and blue

2. Adjust Shadows, Highlights, and What is In-Between

You can typically tweak three factors in your color correction software – shadows, highlights, and mid-tones.

Shadows are the darkest part of your shoot, highlights are the brightest, and the mid-tones lie in between.

Changing one of these settings will change others.

Some prefer to change the shadows first. Some colorists prefer adjusting the highlight first.

Try getting some contrast in by lowering the shadow and see where it goes.

Proceed by adjusting the other two settings. Try looking up Ansel Adam’s “Zone System” for shadow and highlight reference.

Mid-tones are usually skin tones. In that case, the zone system will come in handy.

Balance them out, and make it look natural.

Do not forget to increase saturation for a delightful pop of colors! You will not need a crazy amount of it, make small adjustments, and see what works best.

zone system
Ansel Adams

3. Knowing Your Colors and Tools

Colors can be quite tricky to spot at times. Experienced colorists have experienced this in their careers.

This made them invest in a coloring suite that they painted grey, with a certain level of reflectiveness.

There are also other expensive technologies that they use but, that is a topic for another day.

Although this may seem unnecessary to a beginner, it shows that your eye and brain can play tricks on you.

This led our fellow colorists to depend on tools such as LUMA waveforms, Look-Up Tables, and Vector Scopes.

Luma Waveform

Luma Waveform explains how much exposure your shot has.

Zero represents solid black with no detail, scaling to 100, which makes your highlights blinding white.

To further explore the Luma Waveform, we also recommend this video by ZY Productions:

Explained! - How to Read and Use Waveforms

Look-Up Tables

This tool helps you adjust exposure to your subjects or scenery. Then there is LUT, which is a Look-Up Table.

It is pretty similar to Adobe Lightroom, a preset filled with colors, saturation, contrast, and brightness.

This process is usually done before finishing the grading process.

But it should never become the final look.

Most colorists still edit it again. To make sure that everything is always accurate and intended.

To further explore LUTs, we also recommend this video by Harv Video:

What Are Look Up Tables (LUTS)?


Finally, the vectorscope – this tool allows you to see if a particular part of your shot is too green, but you cannot see it.

The vectorscope enables you to scan and fix your whole photo. When using the vectorscope, the colors should gravitate to the middle point.

Unless you are working on face/skin tones, then it should be more orange.

Since I mainly focus on photography and use Lightroom and Photoshop.

I tweak most of my colors in Lightroom by adjusting the “hue” sliders then make final adjustments in Photoshop with adjustment layers.

To further explore vectorscopes, we also recommend this video by LensProToGo:

How to read a Vectorscope

4. Recognizing Technical Terms

Before setting foot in the color correction vs. color grading industry, you should know these three terms.

These terms are Log, Raw, and Rec-709. Log refers to a video using a flatter profile.

This method requires a LUT while color correcting to bring it back to its former look.


The log allows you to easily tamper with contrasts, exposure, and color tone via color correction software.

Yet that method has a restriction, and it has already been recorded in a standard video format.


Another format is RAW. It is log but with much more freedom in editing because it is raw.

You can add more brightness to the photo, editing the highlights, mid-tones, and shadows.


But these two formats will mostly end up as the Rec-709 format because it is commonly used to display your work of art, such as your TVs, cinemas, and non-cinematography cameras.

This post by does a great job at explaining them in detail, and we also recommend this video by Casey Faris in which he dives into these subjects using Premiere CC:

Grading RAW, LOG, and 709 Footage in Lumetri - Premiere CC 2015 Tutorial

If you focus primarily on photography, then it may not be as important to know these 3 terms, however, it is important to have a deep understanding of highlights, shadows, whites, blacks, hue, saturation, and luminance and how they tie into one another.

5. Experiment and Have Fun!

Some factors play into your best interest, while others may not affect your shot at all.

Color correction vs. color grading takes a lot of time to nail correctly.

There is plenty of software out there, and even the free ones are quite reliable too.

Set up a trial with your chosen software and see if your workflow gets faster or slower.

Do note that although you can color grade every photo in the same ways as your previous ones, avoid this trap and continue to use color grading that suits the occasion befitting with its meaning and overall ambiance.

Always have fun and enjoy the process!

I hope you enjoyed this guide.

The main difference between color correction vs. color grading stems from its purpose.

Color correction aims to “correct” all the possible factors to make your existing picture look more natural.

In comparison, the purpose of color grading is to add color to your shot to give it a specific mood or ambiance.

These two processes work hand in hand, meaning that an excellent color correction serves as a good base for your grading.

Everyone has their preferences on how to edit, use which tools, and specific steps different from others.

Now is the perfect time to start studying color correction.

What comes first color grading or color correction?

Color correction typically comes before color grading. Color correction is the process of fixing any color imbalances or issues in the footage, while color grading involves creating a specific look or mood through color adjustments.

Do you sharpen before or after color correction?

It’s recommended to sharpen an image after color correction, as the color correction process can affect the perceived sharpness of the image. Sharpening after color correction ensures that the final result is consistent and accurate.