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Color correction vs. color grading

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 grading, but you're not quite sure what the difference is...


Color correction vs. color grading

The main difference between color correction vs. color grading is their function. You will find the definitions of each term 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.
Typically, it requires less time compared to color grading.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.
It is highly valued in filmmaking, music videos, advertising, and creative projects where visual aesthetics play a significant role.Fixing skin tones, correcting overexposed highlights, and removing the color cast from a scene.
Critical for maintaining visual consistency in news, documentary, and commercial work.Fixing skin tones, correcting overexposed highlights, and removing the color cast from a scene.

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


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 depict what the photographer/videographer could see accurately. 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.

Tip:

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.

Color correction is not necessary by default. But color correction certainly does make your pictures 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?

There are many options for color correction software. Even professionals recommend free options as the better color correction software, especially Adobe Lightroom. 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.

Girl in front of fence with green leaves around her.
Before color correction
Girl in front of fence with green leaves.
After color correction

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. 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 recognizable style.

Many movies use color grading to enhance the emotion in a scene because colors affect us psychologically. Some films use grading to differentiate locations, most notably “The Matrix.” The film uses different tints to determine different worlds—blue for reality and green for the other.

It changes how you perceive a photo and also affects your mood. This theory about color is just a guideline; it can still be broken, as there are no cinematography rules.

Tip:

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

Color Grading can be quite tricky when compared to color correction. The process takes time to acquire a perfect balance. 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.

Girl in front of fence with green leaves around her.
Before color grading
Girl in front of fence with green leaves.
After color grading

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 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 must 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.

Ideally, before you begin your photo shoot, you should know what color harmony/scheme you want to follow. 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:

Graphic of the different color harmonies.
Color harmonies

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 searching Ansel Adam’s “Zone System” for shadow and highlight references. Mid-tones are usually skin tones. In that case, the zone system will come in handy.

Balance them out and make them 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.

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.

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.

Vectorscope

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.

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.

Log

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.

RAW

Another format is RAW. It is a log but has much more freedom in editing because it is raw. You can add brightness to the photo, editing the highlights, mid-tones, and shadows.

Rec-709

However, 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-cinematic cameras.

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 relate to 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.

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

Always have fun and enjoy the process!

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