July 4, 2016

Colour Grading vs Filter

Colour Grading by itself has some misinterpretation. We should put this into perspective first; Colour Grading is a specialisation in its core, if we talk about its principle intention.

If you ever wonder why movies never look like home-made videos and vice-versa (let us omit the technicalities of equipment, file rate and digitisation for a moment), it is precisely due to the work behind colour grading. Colour Grading first came into prominence from movies. It moves onto Photography practice when digital cameras became the norm. In the subsequent context, ‘visuals’ are referring to both filmic and photographic imageries.

Colour Grading corrects the visuals and allows moods that are associative to colours to be rendered in them. They then give hues to tonalities with dedicated and meticulous adjustments. The specialisation comes from this ability to tweak the lights and darks of colours that we almost never see in real life into something so natural, balanced and believable.

Now, in most straight forward understanding of Colour Grading is that colours are often enhanced, tweaked or added, hence it was mentioned above that a colour graded visual is not what we will typically see with our own eyes. But it is important to know this; Colour Grading is not a step, but a process. Colouring (or grading as come called it) is the step within the process that most people only concerned about. It was mentioned right in the beginning that Colour Grading is a specialisation and it is not difficult to understand why credit rolls for movies can be so long. The departments and personnel involved in doing this critical process span across a couple to dozens in professional productions such as film making.

The fact that we need to understand true Colour Grading is never a step is because Filter, the most convenient and simplistic approach to alter the look of any visual hoping to turn it into something ‘cinematic’ and ‘professional’, is exactly doing that if that is the only step applied. Apply and done.

On the contrary, the process of Colour Grading will always involve balancing out the colours of the visuals. What was supposed to be Whites at the moment we saw it should be similarly represented in the visual captured. Brightness, contrast, highlights and shadows are next to be adjusted before they are primed to be coloured accurately. These multiple adjustments only specified primarily what are to be done, there could be more, before colouring has even begun. And comes the stage of colouring is another whole series of adjustments to be made to conclude the process.

While filters are a collective set of actions similar to the colouring step compiled into one, no doubt, they are often too simply applied without first considering the colour balance and exposure of the visuals. This can result in inaccurate and unnatural tones throughout the visuals.

Furthermore, there can never be one-size-fits-all solutions as far as filters are concerned when comes to professional production of film and photographs. Every filters are normally created with drastic differences from one to the next. There needs to be adjustments within these application of filters to adequately colour the visuals to appropriate measures, suiting the mood individually and as a whole when required. That way of using filters should be the way of using them. But it is often not the case.

We can easily recognise how a photograph went through the proper process of colour grading or created from simply add-and-apply filter applications. Just look at the supposedly-Whites in the visuals. They can never be too tinted with stray colours especially if daylight is present in the scene/shot. They should still retain a recognisable and natural form of Whites. If people are present in the scene/shot, an added recognisable feature is to look at the skin tones. They should be looking natural as well and not tinted with any other colours.

In summary, Colour Grading is a process of knowledge in understanding how visuals are adjusted and coloured. Filters are more like aids to be used in this process. It has just been unfortunate they are used as a shortcut apply-only method to achieve what is supposedly seen as a trivial step in visual enhancement. It is this importance enabling everyone to understand the workflow and education behind any production so as to fully appreciate the crafts applied in creating a truly professional body of work.

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