I'm a looking for a good reference on how to color grade footage for a "cinematic" or "filmic" look. The best I have found are scattered YouTube videos; I'm looking more for general principles and ideas. I do not need any instruction on how to use grading software like Resolve, and I can get to color-correct grade using a Color Checker chart and gray card; I'm interested purely in the creative and artistic aspect of grading.

(Actually, I care more about grading still photography, but it's largely the same, and the video community seems much more advanced and organized in this area, which is why I ask here.)

Are any good references available? I have Alexis Van Hurkman's Color Correction Handbook, but this was mostly about use of Resolve and getting a color correct grade. I also looked briefly at the sequel, Color Correction Look Book, but most of the material was about imitating the flaws of film (e.g. light leaks and grain). I don't want the flaws, just the colors.

Thank you!

2 Answers 2


I am sorry that I do not have an exact answer to the question on the title.

But here is the core of the question

I'm looking more for general principles and ideas.

So here are my two cents:

1. Focal length and aperture

Yes, I know. I started with something is not controlled by color grading, but it needs to be said.

2. Color correction

This is the first step, define what was the white balance and exposure and make them coherent.

On programs like Resolve, one node should be for temperature correction and another for exposure.

2.1. Shadows

Here is probably the first manipulation we need to make, Do we have a correct exposure of the shadows? Do we need to actually change a curve to show detail? This is, for now, more than a creative manipulation but about Information. Does the shadowy part of the face of an actor need to be viewed clearly? Does he have a scar that does not show good enough and needs to be brightened?

3. Dynamic range, overall contrast

We are limited by the capabilities of the camera, but we can work around this, using illumination techniques, both positive and negative illumination.

Positive illumination is where you add light on dark zones where you have little light. One case is where you have a sunset behind the subject and you add a reflector to reduce the contrast.

Negative illumination is reducing the light of the bright part, either controlled by a filter or by shutter speed or something.

But when referring to color grading this element is more noticeable on one particular characteristic: Contrast.

So, you can play with the contrast. Sometimes reducing the blackness makes the image a bit more "filmish" or with a film substrate.

It is funny that you mentioned "Still Photography" because I will reference a post I made on that forum, no spam intended :o) https://photo.stackexchange.com/questions/110840/whats-the-biggest-difference-between-these-two-photos-of-large-animals/110884#110884

See how reducing the contrast, by graying the black point, make the image look with a higher dynamic range... This is funny because it is the opposite.

4. Middle tones

You probably want to maintain the middle tones accurate to the color corrections you made in the first place. But this rule can be broken of course. See point 7.

Play with the saturation.

5. Color on the shadows

So we actually need to start creative somewhere. A typical teal and orange look starts here, change the temperature of the shadows. Normally a shadow is a bit cooler than the highlights.

6. Now the light

Change the temperature on the highlights, blow them on a desert scenario, gray them and cool them on a moody swamp.

7. Middle tones again

To change the overall mood, you know the typical matrix example with green tones overall...

8. Forget everything

I or somebody say and play.

9. A side note about "cliches"

Especially for region-based, or country-based color recipes, this is a country that has some deserts... Oh, All the countries should be painted orange!

The US has some pretty big deserts, and you should not grade all movies orange.

The UK, London has some foggy days, not every scene should be desaturated... (or should they? Lol, sorry... I could not resist)

Some red alert scenario... Dam, we need the best light to work on a red alert scenario, not a red light!

Sometimes the cliche is annoying if overdone. Forget cliches, or use them, it is your call.


The true source of a "cinematic" or "filmic" look comes from a well-executed lighting plan, which usually includes a concept of white, black, and mid-tone points within the scene, logical contrast ratios and illumination for key elements, elimination of extraneous details that distract from the filmic elements you really want people to pay attention to, color palette, motivated lighting, and potentially atmospherics (haze, fog, dust, rain, snow, etc).

With that in mind, think of 20 films that YOU think are cinematic. Select a few screenshots from each of those films. Look at both the aesthetics of each shot, but also look at each shot using a variety of video scopes, such as a waveform monitor, RGB parade, histogram, vector scope, video false color, etc. Notice the relationships between what draws your eye aesthetically and the ways in which those elements relate to each other in terms of exposure, contrast, color, color complementarity. Notice also the values of those things that don't specifically draw your eye--the background, the framing devices, etc., that point to, but are not themselves, the key points of interest.

As you begin to see the patterns of what makes images "pop" or not, you will begin to see the elements that work for you and the elements that work against you. When you find yourself shooting a scene which has an interesting subject, but which is lit or cluttered in a way that it will never stand out, you'll know its time to use the ultimate photographer's tool--the feet--to move yourself or move your subject to a better vantage point. When you find yourself shooting a scene which has a subject nicely contextualized by the background, lit in a way that makes it pop, etc., then you have something worth trying to grade. And then you can creatively decide just how much you want to accentuate all the good things that made the image work in the first place.

Three books by Ansel Adams are worth reading: The Camera, The Negative, and The Print. His techniques that range from visualization to final display remain valid in a world of video and color grading.

  • This is a good answer, but probably what the user wants to avoid. Trial and error.
    – Rafael
    Oct 3, 2019 at 13:00

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.