This is a complete guide covering the difference between color correction and color grading.
In this all-new guide you’ll learn about:
- Color correction and color grading fundamentals
- Difference between the two
- Appropriate software to use
- How to improve at color correction or color grading
- Lots more
Whether you are a beginner or experienced colorist, you should get a lot of value from today’s guide.
In this section, we will cover the
- Definition of color correction
- Why you should color correct
- Color timing definition
- Color grading definition
- Why you should color grade
- If color grading is necessary
- Color theory definition
- Difference between color correction and color grading
Let’s dive in.
What is Color Correction?
Color correction is the act of adjusting the white and black levels, the photos 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 corrections software. Even the 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.
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?
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 Timing?
Before color correction vs. color grading was cool, there was color timing.
Color timing either made your whole film/shot lighter or darker.
This could lead to scenes look 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 Grading?
When people think of color correction vs. color grading, they are seen as two opposites.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Is Color Grading Necessary?
The next question for 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 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.
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.
What is the Difference Between Color Correction and Color Grading?
The main difference between color correction vs. color grading is their function.
Color correction mainly fixes black and white levels, contrast, along with exposure.
Color correction software enables you to adjust intent with precision.
Color grading theory is also used for more complex changes in the overall colors for a shoot to create a consistent mood or ambiance for a scene.
Should You Use One Over the Other?
Using color grading requires you to fix the fundamental color problems via color correction, followed by a couple more steps.
We highly recommend using a color grade to achieve better results and look more professional in your shoots.
Color grading allows you to add an individualized touch to your footage or photograph, making it more meaningful and flattering.
We would say that the result should be considered on your needs.
Color correction software allows you to navigate through the shot and edit easily.
On the other side, many cinematographers explain that color grading is more difficult because of the abundance of information.
This information allows cinematographers to edit accurately based on their needs.
In a world where your creation will inevitably get lost in the sea of content, you should at least make it unique and eye-catching.
Either by making it consistently crisp or telling a story with just a glance.
However, in color correction versus color grading, it will all be for nothing if you do not make it look natural and professional.
Here are a few handy tips to improve at it.
Tips to Improve
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.
With 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 colorwheel 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 colorwheel open.
Ideally, before you even begin your photoshoot, 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:
For example, in the image posted above by Daria, you can see she went with a complementary color scheme of blue and purple.
2. Adjust shadows, highlight, 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 tone. 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 in 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 have painted grey, with a certain level of reflectiveness.
There 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 a tools such as LUMA waveforms, Look-Up Tables, and Vector Scopes.
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.
This tool helps you adjusting exposure on 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.
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 finals 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.
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 of 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 motionfactory.io does a great job at explaining them in detail.
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.
Setup 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.
With many lockdown’s and restrictions in place, there is plenty of free time, so why not use it for something productive!
Now I want to hear from you!
If you found any of these tips/techniques to be helpful, or you have a tip that works for you —
be sure to let me know by leaving a comment down below!
Nate Joaquin Torres is a portrait photographer based in Southern California. As a photographer, Nate loves testing different photography styles and gear to expand his skill set. Outside of photography, Nate enjoys learning about new digital marketing strategy and new ways to think creatively. Nate is also the founder of Imaginated.com, a media company dedicated to inspiring digital-age artists and creators in business, artistry, and mind. Connect with him on Instagram.