I am wondering if our group has a consensus on what is
meant by color grading as opposed to color
correction or retouching. The term has
become more and more popular in the last decade and there
seems to be enormous user interest in learning how to color
grade. We are likely to be asked whether we
ourselves are capable of doing color grading. It's hard to
answer that question if we don't know what the term means.
My limited research suggests that the term is much more
likely to be applied to movie or video production than to
still photography but whether it can be applied to still
photography at all is undecided, as is the question of
whether color correction and color grading
mean the same thing.
Until this week, my understanding was that color
grading refers to the application of a constant visual
effect that some might find bizarre to one or more scenes
in a video, with the objective of setting mood. Right now,
a lot of work involving movies of people is being done in
a “teal and orange” style, usually with an approach that
usually involves forcing coolness into the shadow and
possibly orange into the highlight. This is a very
Chevreulish approach, because the teal is more or less the
complementary of human skin and may make it seem more
Teal and orange has become a cliché, yet it is an
example of color grading, in my understanding. But that
definition has a few holes. If we do the same thing to a
single image, is that color grading, too? What if the
effect is created by the photographer or videographer, by
use of fancy lighting during the shoot? Or, what if the
video is shot under uncontrolled lighting conditions and
we just want to apply a curve to knock out a cast in the
entire clip? Is that color grading, or color correction?
One way or another this topic has enormous interest on
youtube. Instructional videos on “color grading” are
getting incredible numbers of views, ten to a hundred
times more than seemingly equivalent tutorials on “color
correction”. In fact, if you look for color correction
you’re likely to get something about women’s makeup.
Now, the competing definitions of color grading
from some of these postings.
1) Color correction and color grading mean the same
thing. So says Wikipedia:
Various attributes of an image
such as contrast, color, saturation, detail, black
level, and white point may be enhanced whether for
motion pictures, videos, or still images. Color grading
and color correction are often used synonymously as
terms for this process and can include the generation of
artistic color effects through creative blending and
compositing of different images.
2) They’re the same, but it depends on whether
they’re repeated. A tutorial called “Premiere: Color
Grading vs. Color Correction” informs us, in a video
context, that if we do anything to a single frame, that is
a color correction, but if we create a LUT and
apply it to multiple frames, then that is color
grading. The speaker doesn’t discuss still
photography but by logical extension, if you shoot one
photo and apply curves to it, that is a color
correction, but if you have an extended shoot and
apply the same curve to each exposure, that is color
grading. I can’t buy this.
3) If it’s Unnatural, it’s Grading. In “Color
Correction vs. Color Grading explained,” we are told that
grading consists of “manipulating colors in an unnatural
way to create a certain look and feel.” The example is
applying a cool cast to the entire image but masking out a
person who is the subject.
4) If it’s Natural, it’s a Correction. “Color
Grading Basics for Beginners” opines that the function of
color correction is to make all clips look “as natural as
possible” and to “make sure that all clips match.” Color
grading, on the other hand, is to set tone or mood and to
5) Correct first, grade afterward. Half a dozen
very popular videos show the likeliest way that a
non-expert could create the popular look: a Gradient Map
adjustment layer set to Overlay or similar mode. This way,
we can impart an orange cast to the highlights and a teal
one to the shadows. Someone who knows how to tweak the
tools can alter the break points, the intensities, and the
colors. In “Color Toning in Photoshop with Gradient Map”
(yes, another term) the speaker stresses the need to
color-correct first before plunging into the Gradient Map
morass, which he refers to as color grading. Unlike most
of the others, his focus is on photos, not video, as does
the next one.
6) Correction tools are limited and non-creative.
In “Secrets of Color-Grading in Photography” the
photographer, born in Poland and working in Spain, shows
exclusively fashion work, with professional female models
and a big budget for each shoot. She therefore can spend a
lot on unusual cross-lighting for weird, yet attractive
effects, and it is clear that she considers this to be
color grading, even though no digital file yet exists. Her
Color correction refers to
adjusting white and black levels, exposure, contrast,
and white balance. To give you an image with accurate
unprocessed seeming colors, and to create visual
consistency for a series of photographs. Color
grading on the other hand is a creative process.
It allows you to add a mood, atmosphere and above all
emotions to your photos. This effect can be super
extreme or very subtle.
In the latter category, in her images of brunettes she
tends to move the shadows, including the subject’s hair,
toward purple. In the former, she often introduces
strongly blue backgrounds against blond models, or puts in
an overall cool cast to emphasize the subtleties of their
coloring. She has studied painting and color theory a la
Chevreul, and is getting good results from it, unlike the
others, who parrot the theories without really
She is not a Photoshop expert and does most of her work
in Camera Raw. Having established some basic parameters
she basically twiddles sliders back and forth until she
accidentally hits something. Watching her gave me two new
ideas about what, perhaps, distinguishes what is known as
grading from correcting.
*Color correction can be creative, but it’s rare to do
experimentation without knowing the likely result, as when
you try to see what happens when all reds are lightened
vs. when they are all darkened.
*Color grading, as she uses the term, always produces
something that certain people might violently dislike.
Color correction, if done properly, doesn’t do that. The
viewer may prefer one version over another but is unlikely
to be repulsed.
If this is so, then the problem of where color
correction ends and color grading begins may be insoluble.
Referring back to our last case studies:
1) In Monument Valley, which featured very dull reds,
many of us pepped them up, understanding that the colors
are no longer “natural.” I would still call it a color
correction, but it is clear that if applied to a
video, many would consider it color grading.
2) And this one is the clincher: the case study Seated
in Grass featured a woman with somewhat red hair. The
green background, though clearly grass in context, was
totally out of focus. Several of us, including me, took
advantage of this and made it a brilliant chartreuse, or
in some cases a brilliant emerald color. It set off the
hair very well, which was the idea, but it couldn’t
possibly be accepted as “natural”. So, unless you
subscribe to the view that color grading is only for
video, it would seem you have to call these versions of
Seated in Grass color grading, yet more conservative
renditions would be color correction.
Color grading may well be taking over as the
general term for what we do. Does anyone else have an
understanding of what the term means?