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What is Color Grading in Photography? A Simple Guide for Creating Unforgettable Photos

What is Color Grading in Photography? A Simple Guide for Creating Unforgettable Photos

Have you ever recognized a film not based on its actors or its setting, but its color scheme? You’ve witnessed the magic of color grading in photography: one of the most striking visual signatures for creating unforgettable works of art.

Your photography portfolio has several elements that make it uniquely yours. Alongside your preferred subjects and favorite angles, color grading is one more individual signature in your toolkit. If you’re not sure how to color grade or what it means for your personal style, I’ll show you the ropes.

What is color grading in photography and how do you use it? My simple guide will explain what this skill is, how it works, and why you should add it to your developing skillset.

Source Image: Pixabay

Table of Contents:

  1. Introduction
  2. What is Color Grading?
  3. What is Color Grading in Photography and Why Is It Important?
  4. Examples of Color Grading in Photography
  5. How is Color Grading Done?
  6. What Skills Do You Need to Become a Color Grader?
  7. Conclusion: Color Grading is a Symbolic and Stylistic Visual Fingerprint for Photography

an example of color grading in photography showcasing several deer in a moody, low lit shot of a forest

Source Image: Pixabay

What is Color Grading?

If a balanced composition and strong lighting is the meat of a good photo, then color grading would be the marinade. Color grading in photography is the act of tweaking hue, value, and saturation to add extra flavor to your work. 

Without color grading, your photography can appear visually unbalanced or lifeless. While cameras have come a long way in terms of capturing snippets of our everyday life, the human eye can still crave more. Color grading can be as simple as hitting the Auto Color feature in Photoshop or as meticulous as shifting tones for hours. 

Not only is color grading a useful tool for creating more atmospheric and interesting scenes, you can save certain color grades for future use. Reusing color grades is frequently utilized in film and television to create visual signatures for a creative work. In fact, color is one of the most recognizable elements in advertisements – at least 85% of buyers use color as their primary buying decision.

You can use color grading to craft visual signatures for your portfolio so viewers can recognize you instantly. 

What’s the Difference Between Color Grading and Color Correction?

These two disciplines are very similar, so I don’t blame you if you get confused. While color grading involves color correction, color correction doesn’t necessarily use color grading. 

Color grading is more artistically focused, primarily centered on establishing a visual style to create a stronger mood. Viewers can instantly recognize this visual signature.

Color correction has more technical roots, usually centered on touch ups or quick fixes to create a more natural result. Think lowering the saturation on a mellow sunset or bringing out the rosy pink in someone’s cheeks.

Do You Color Grade Before or After You Edit a Photo? 

Color grading is done after a photo, but some of the greatest photography comes from experimentation. You can still consider color grading ideas as you seek out settings for your next photoshoot. 

Some environments lend themselves to easier color grading sessions if they already have a lot of vibrancy. For example, a vivid skyline or a forest in fall might be helpful for beginner color graders. 

an example of color grading with a soft and warm snapshot of a duck splashing in water

Source Image: Pixabay

What is Color Grading in Photography and Why Is It Important?

Color grading is an essential part of a photographer’s visual vocabulary. Without it, you’re missing out on chances to tap into the most impactful and personal aspects of your work. 

Establish a Mesmerizing Atmosphere

When you learn how to color grade, you gain the ability to express yourself with more artistic nuance. You can make a moody scene even more dramatic or a cheerful snapshot more whimsical. 

Create a Visual Signature for Viewers to Recognize You

Just like you might recognize the brushstrokes of your favorite painter, so too do viewers of your portfolio recognize your color signature.

Skillfully Apply Color Symbolism

Color symbolism is another way to inject depth into your photography. Color grading allows you to shift hue, value, and saturation around until certain colors pop and others recede.

For example, if you take a photo where your preferred colors aren’t properly captured, color grading can pick up the slack. 

an example of color grading in photography showing the inside of a rosy mosque

Source Image: Pixabay

Examples of Color Grading in Photography 

You likely already understand color grading simply by interacting with your favorite media. Every time you turn on a movie or watch a commercial, you’re witnessing color grading in action. 

Below are a few mainstream examples of how color grading works and what it means in terms of mood, setting, and the artist’s personal style.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

I have a pretty powerful example of how color grading can affect one’s recognition of a work – I actually forgot the name of this film when researching it! Since I hadn’t seen the movie in nearly a decade, I typed in ‘the pastel hotel movie’ to find it again.

Therein lies the power of color grading. I couldn’t remember the title, but I easily remembered the way it looked.

This critically acclaimed comedy-drama by Wes Anderson is immediately striking for its washed out, pastel color scheme. The entire movie is desaturated, but not necessarily subdued – indeed, its most consistent coloration is of rosy pinks and minty greens. 

Mad Max: Fury Road

Another stellar example of how powerful color grading can be is Mad Max: Fury Road. This Academy Award-winning film has a vivid and pungent color scheme that immediately grabs your attention.  

Believe it or not, the color grading here is extremely subtle. Despite the intense yellows, oranges, and reds of the film, the overall lean toward warm colors means nuance is key. What little grays and blues are used have to be fine tuned in order to keep the viewer from getting lost in all the visual heat. 

Black Panther

Color grading can sometimes include highly conflicting elements. Marvel’s smash hit Black Panther shows just how delicate the color grading process can be when working with radically different settings.

This film regularly shifts between gritty realism and high-tech neon. Many of the characters and environments are also awash in vibrant colors and complex patterns. 

a laptop on a brown table with a mug of coffee

Source Image: Pixabay

How is Color Grading Done?

Color grading is easier than ever to do thanks to the accessibility of digital art programs, apps, and phone updates. If you’ve ever done a little color correction and found yourself tweaking the photo for stylistic purposes, you’re already on the right track.

Photographers often achieve color grading with:

Photo Editing Programs

When you want to do everything from minor color correction to fullblown color grading, use a photo editing program. While you can always turn to an industry standard like Adobe Suite, there are also freeware programs with robust toolsets. 

Popular photo editing programs you can use are:

  • Photoshop CC 
  • Photoshop Elements
  • Da Vinci Resolve
  • GIMP
  • Canva 

Color Correction Tools on Your Phone

Not every photo editing session has to be done in the studio. You can do a little color grading to improve your iPhone photography using the phone’s built-in filters and color sliders. Other smartphone models have similar toolkits that can expose you to the basics and get you comfortable with this new skill. 

a palette of used cool and warm paints with a few used aluminum tools

Source Image: Pixabay

What Skills Do You Need to Become a Color Grader?

If you want to consider color grading as a hobby or passion, there are a few disciplines you need to know first.

Color Theory to Understand Color Scientifically

Color theory ensures you understand how colors interact with each other on a scientific level. This means learning essential terminology about primary, secondary, and tertiary colors.

Utilizing color theory in photography will improve your ability to select the most appropriate hue, value, and saturation for your work.

Color Symbolism to Tap Into Historical and Cultural Nuance

Since color grading involves artistic expression, color symbolism is the next logical conclusion. This field will teach you which colors tend to evoke certain emotions or reactions and why. 

Photo Editing Skills to Push Your Photography to the Limit

Naturally, you’ll need basic photo editing skills to learn color grading. Simply experimenting with a program will expose you to simple toolsets for adjusting saturation, tweaking value, or changing lighting. 

an example of color grading showcasing strands of grass stalks with a hazy lavender and yellow color scheme

Source Image: Pixabay

Conclusion: Color Grading is a Symbolic, Stylistic Visual Fingerprint for Photography

Just like your fingerprint is one of the most unique aspects about you, color grading is the visual signature of your work. Even if a viewer can’t remember your name or website, they’ll likely be able to remember how you use color. 

Color grading involves changing hue, value, and saturation for artistic effect. You can enhance the mood and atmosphere for a more dramatic effect. You can even create a unique color scheme for easy recognition. These color schemes can be applied to multiple aspects of your work to link them together naturally, even if you photograph wildly different subjects or settings.

Color theory and color symbolism are necessary fundamentals in order to learn color grading. You can start practicing at home with a photo editing program or by playing around with your smartphone filters. 

If you feel your photography work is a little stale and generic, color grading will breathe new life into your creation. 

Curious to learn more about photography fundamentals? Check out the following posts below: