Why Your Video Needs To Be Graded

Screen capture from Davinci Resolve
Julia Cowell

The art of color

It’s rare that an image comes to me in my edit suite that couldn’t be improved with a little color grading. Color grading is kind of like the icing on the cake. It’s the final pass that an editor will do on your video, going through shot by shot to tweak, correct, enhance or stylize your footage. You may think this process isn’t an important one. If the footage was shot correctly, why bother with a color grade? Is it really necessary to spend that extra time in editing to grade each shot, especially if my video is long? The answer is a resounding yes. Color grading is a vital part of the editing process, as vital as the icing is on a cake. And who eats cake without icing?

Cameras, even high-end professional grade cameras, are nowhere near as good as the human eye is for capturing an image. We see a wider range of color and light with our eyeballs than the lenses and sensors on a camera are capable of capturing. If you’ve ever tried to take a picture outside on a sunny day, you’ll know what I’m talking about. More often than not, the brightness of the sun will turn the sky and any reflective surface a bright, blurry white. Try to adjust your camera for the bright spots and you’ll end up with a dark and shadowy subject.

Working With LOG Footage

Modern cameras can adjust for this by using a setting called LOG (short for logarithmic). This setting allows the camera to capture a wider range of color and contrast between the brightest and darkest parts of the image. However, the LOG clips that come out of a camera need to be processed.Without any color grading, these images appear washed out, almost black and white, and may even appear out of focus. With LOG footage, the editor has to grade each shot, but with the greater dynamic range of color and light, they can more easily balance between, say, a bright window and the interviewee who is sitting in front of it.

Fine Adjustments

But what if I don’t have to worry about dynamic range? What if I shot my video with complete control of the light and the color information baked in? Well, color grading can still be useful. A key component of grading is directing the viewer’s eye. By brightening one section of the screen and darkening others, the editor can make the subject of a shot more prominent, helping the viewer to ignore any distractions in the back or foreground. An editor can punch the saturation on an object or a specific color in a scene to make it more noticeable, or; alternately, they can decrease the saturation of an objector color to make it less distracting.

Creating A Style

Finally, color grading can be used to create style and mood. This is most evident in your favorite genre films. This can be as simple as using color to evoke the time of day or the season. Warmer colors (yellows, oranges and reds) connote afternoon sun and summer, while cooler colors (blues, purples and greens) convey night time and winter. More saturated colors convey a more vibrant and lively mood while muted colors can impart a more subdued mood, or even let the viewers know that they are watching something from the past (think sepia). In fiction films, specific colors can also be used to represent themes, characters or even events. While many corporate and marketing videos do not have to go that deep into production design, even subtle tweaks to saturation and brightness can change the feeling that viewers are left with at the end of a video.

Can your video still work without a color grade? In most cases, yes. Although video shot in LOG won’t work without it, most cameras shoot in a color profile that can viewers can watch without being taken out of the story. However, when you use a color grade to not only enhance the composition of a shot but to also reinforce the story, you’ll elevate your video to a more polished, professional level.

About the Author

Julia Cowell is a producer at Creative Liquid and post production manager. She works with clients from start to finish on new projects and manages the entire post production process including color grading.