Color is fundamental in design and visual storytelling, as it conveys meaning beyond what we see on screen. We use it to describe objects, express emotion, and evoke responses among audiences. In the post production process of a video production, perfection of color is done through color grading or color correction. Once a job only for color professionals, color grading and color correction tools today are found in most video editing programs and is accessible to anyone. Often used interchangeably and mistaken for one another, color correction and color grading are in fact different. Here’s what you need to know about each of them.

Color Correction

Color correction refers to the process where every individual clip of a video footage is altered to match color temperature of multiple shots to a consistent technical standard of appearance. It’s about balancing out your colors, making the whites actually appear white, and the blacks actually appear black, and that everything in between is nice and even.

The goal is to match the video footage to a standard that would be an accurate portrayal of how it would look if viewed from the human eye. With the human eye, under a warm light or cool light, a white object will always appear white. But with cameras, if you don’t set it to the proper white balance, it can appear either blueish white, yellowish white or actual white.

Also, if you’re shooting outside over the course of a day, the quality of the sun is going to change and your video will not look quite right, as certain shots of your video will not match up. That’s why color correction is so important, as it will make your shots seamless and make your video look like they were all shot at the same time. Color correction can be done using primary and secondary tools, as well as masks and mattes.

Color correction is used in many Hollywood blockbusters, from action movies like Transformers and Black Hawk Down, to horror movies like The Ring and Saw; to make scenes from a movie look as natural and as close to the way the human eye views something. To view more examples of color correction profiles used in Hollywood, click here.

Primary and secondary color correction

Primary color correction is done across the entire image, utilizing controls over the intensities of the red, blue, green, gamma (mid tones), shadows (blacks) and highlights (whites) of the entire picture. Usually, altering the intensity of one color can completely change the look of the image.

Secondary color correction is based on the same idea behind chroma keying, where the saturation, luminance and hue of only the yellows, magentas, cyans, blues, greens and reds are altered; and other colors in the spectrum are minimally affected.

Masks and Mattes

Besides the primary and secondary color correction, geometric shapes like mattes or masks can also be used to isolate color adjustments to specific areas of an image. This means that you can highlight and change the color of a particular section, or change the color on everything else except what was selected.

Color Grading

Color grading is taking what you have done in color correction one step further, by altering an image for aesthetic and communicative purposes. So once everything is looking nice and normal in your video, you are now empowered with the ability to further enhance your story by manipulating colors to create a new visual tone.

All videos utilize an additive color system, and the primary colors of this system are red, blue and green; and different colors are created through varying combinations of these three primary colors, though not necessarily in equal proportions. Color grading is performed by manipulating ranges of thresholds and tolerances within these three channels.

So, if you want to give your video that afternoon sun feel, you may then push your colors a little towards the red spectrum. And if you want to give your video a cooler atmosphere, then you’ll push those colors towards the blue spectrum.

To emphasize on certain types of moods or to achieve a certain look to tell the story, cinematographers make use of color grading. Some examples of color grading in television shows include History Channel’s Top Gear and movies like Resident Evil: Afterlife, The Matrix. To view more examples of color correction profiles used in Hollywood, click here.

Substance Over Style

With all the creative opportunities now being presented by all these color correction and color grading tools available with video editing software, it’s very easy to get carried away, especially for color grading. Great color grade is not one that just looks good, but is also motivated by the video’s subjects, themes and most importantly, narrative. Don’t be afraid of subtlety and simplicity.