Color Correction vs. Color Grading: What Is The Difference?

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Color correction means fixing colors to represent reality more accurately, while color grading changes colors according to aesthetic preference.

Let’s take a closer look at both.

A short introduction to the origins of color grading and color correction

Like most tools in the arsenal of the ‘cinematic look,’ color correction and color grading originate with the video’s analog original: celluloid.

Back when movies were still shot on celluloid – mainly because there were no alternatives – color correction took place in the film material processing stages after development.

When shooting on film, it became common practice (starting in the ‘90s) to scan the celluloid (via a telecine) to an adequately high-resolution ‘digital intermediate’ for doing post-production work, from editing through any visual effects and color work.

Once the post was finished on the digital intermediate, the final film would be printed back to 35mm for posterity and distribution.

Since the digital revolution of the early 2000s, digital video has dominated the field and, in the process, made consumer-grade cameras more ‘cinematic’ than ever.

This availability of video and filmmaking tools has led to a democratization of easy access to more powerful tools, and in this respect, color grading is no exception.

Before discussing the many differences between color grading and color correction in-depth, let’s look at each separately.

What is color correction?

Lumetri color basic correction lut
The Lumetri Panel in Adobe Premiere Pro is used for color correction and grading.

As the name suggests, color correction means fixing your footage.

Maybe you’ve over- or underexposed a shot.

Maybe the colors don’t match from one cut to the next.

Maybe you used a multi-cam setup and shot on multiple cameras simultaneously. Different cameras register different color information.

Color correction is responsible for fixing these errors within shots and between cuts so the final film can flow seamlessly in playback.

If a shot is recorded with an incorrect white balance, color correction can fix the color temperature so that everything from skin tones to the light of the surroundings looks as it should.

That said, it is far more challenging to correct the white balance in post than while shooting, so always make an effort to pay attention to capturing the correct white balance while you are still on set!

What is color grading?

BlackMagic Davinci Resolve Free Color grading tool
Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve

Color grading means enhancing your footage.

Maybe you’ve shot a dystopian sci-fi, gritty thriller, or an absurd comedy.

Whatever the case, each film will need its color profile or identity so that you can amplify the story via appropriate visuals.

Sometimes, looking at existing films of a similar genre can give a good idea of how you might want your film to look.

In the color grading, you might want to bring out one specific hue or increase the intensity of a couple of complementary colors.

Why you should color-correct your footage

The answer here is pretty simple: uncorrected footage looks amateurish.

Color correction is an easy way to bring your film a step above many other amateur projects out there, and by smoothing errors between cuts, you will improve the visual flow of the project.

For example, suppose the white balance of a shot is incorrect. In that case, the color scheme changes drastically between two shots of the same sequence, or objects do not reflect their real-life colors.

This is something professionals watching your footage will take note of and consider an oversight or missed opportunity.

Color correcting your footage lets you fix color, exposure, or white balance errors made during shooting to a certain degree.

Why you should color grade your footage

Whether you aim to be taken seriously as a professional videographer or editor, are chasing that ‘cinematic look’, or want to bring out the best possible version of your project, you should always take the time to grade and revise your footage.

As is the case with virtually all aspects of filmmaking, the more practice put into the process, the better the results you will achieve over time. Every project is an opportunity and a learning experience!

Color grading your footage lets your visual creativity shine.

It can breathe life into the images, illuminate dimensional depth, and highlight key details. The color grade of a film has a significant impact on its atmosphere.

When you should color correct or color grade your footage

If you have edited the footage together and plan to show it to an audience, color correction is an absolute must!

Because coloring can be intensive, and there would be no point in changing the color of a shot that might end up on the cutting room floor, no work should be done on the color until the film’s edit has been finalized and locked.

Once you’ve finished color correcting, you can consider how the video looks and take some time to decide what kind of color scheme might best suit the work. Then, it’s time for a color grade.

As mentioned in the previous sections, the grade is when you have the opportunity to be creative.

Just be sure always to keep the cohesion of the overall project in mind while you work; if one scene relies on saturated neon light, don’t arbitrarily de-saturate everything in the next scene (unless you deliberately want to shock your audience’s eyes).

How to improve at color correction and color grading

As with everything, if you want to get good color correction and color grading, it takes practice, practice, practice!

Every assignment or personal project is a new opportunity to improve.

But even before starting on your color work, spend a little time paying attention to color!

Sit down with some of your favorite films and focus on the color. Do they look as if you had remembered them? What kind of creative color grading do you appreciate most? What type of color work turns you away from an image (if any)?

Look at some stills from those films removed from the context of their movement.

Then, please return to your work and analyze the colors and how you’ve portrayed them.

Open a spare copy of the project and try to grade your work to look like it came from some of those favorite films.

Now what?

Now that you know the basics, get out there and try this stuff for yourself!

Shoot some test footage for the express purpose of working on the color correction and grade.

Try shooting some material slightly wrong and see if you can correct it. Practice, practice, practice!


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  • Maximilien Luc Proctor

    About the author Maximilien Luc Proctor (+MLP+) is a French-American filmmaker, musician & writer living in Berlin. He holds a B.A. in Film and Media Studies from the University of Oklahoma, where he graduated with honors. He is an Eagle Scout and National Merit Scholar. He has been a contributing writer for Photogénie (photogenie.be) since participating in their Young Critics Workshop in 2015, has been running Ultra Dogme (ultradogme.com) since its inception, and his short films have played in festivals around the world. Photo by: Alex DePew

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