Color Grading vs. Color Correction: What's the Difference?

May 1, 2016

In the history of the Indianapolis 500, Al Unser is in the top three of career Starts, Front Row Starts, Pole Position, Laps Led, and Wins. But do we refer to him as a driver—or a racer?

As a professional colorist and colorist coach, the question of which term to use—color correction or color grading—feels to me like the Al Unser question.

Over the past few years, the answer to the color-grading-vs.color-correction question has changed among professional colorists. I’ll show you what each term means—and how to color grade like a colorist.

Understanding ‘color grading’

Wikipedia describes color grading as “the process of altering and enhancing the color of a film, video . . . photochemically or digitally.” It uses color grading to describe the overall process, referring to digital color grading as “color correcting”and photochemical color grading as “color timing.”

I used to agree with Wikipedia—but not anymore. Photochemical color timing is nearly dead. Except for the rare film auteur who chooses to shoot on film and color time old-school, modern film-outs always start with a digital color grade. The job of the few remaining photochemical color timers is usually to compensate for variability in chemical baths.

Shot-by-shot and scene-by-scene, color decisions happen digitally before the timer sees the film. Professional colorists know this and our language has changed over the past decade.

Today, the term “color correction” doesn’t differentiate the digital and photochemical pipelines. More often, professional colorists use “color correction” to define the task they are performing. They use the term to literally mean, “Correcting problems of the underlying image.” Some examples:

  • Fixing exposure problems
  • Fixing white balance problems
  • Repairing excessive noise from aggressive ISO settings
  • “Developing” the image from RAW recordings
  • Setting the initial black-, white- and gamma points

Almost every shot needs one of these corrective actions applied to it.

When I teach, I call color correction the “first pass” in a color grading workflow. These are the first things a colorist needs to look at before doing anything else while color grading. Another term often used for this stage of a color grade is “Primary color correction.”

What else is color grading?

After correcting the initial image problems, colorists move into the realm of the color grade. Some examples include:

  • Shot matching: Ensuring the editor”s “invisible edit” isn’t revealed by shots that look different as the timeline plays down
  • Removing distractions: Isolating and manipulating annoying elements that prevent shots from matching each other
  • Creating looks: Stylizing an image to indicate a flashback, dream sequence, or re-creation—or simply to give the entire project a unique feel
Not all jobs require full color grade

Usually, quick turnarounds or extremely tight budgets prevent us from doing a full color grade. Or what if it’s a live shoot with a professional shader on-site matching the cameras together? Then there’s little for the colorist to do than some basic color correction tweaks.

But every color grade requires the colorist to begin with the intent of doing a color correction pass on each shot.

Basically? Terms are interchangeable

In everyday usage, the term color correction is interchangeable with color grading.

Color correction is the term our clients and peers use when talking about the larger craft of color grading. Just as racing is much more than steering, accelerating, and braking, color grading is much more than correcting problems.

No matter which words you use, as long as you know the proper order of things (correct problems first, then shot match, then stylize and control the eye), you’ll make it to the finish line.

Want to learn more? Watch the course Introduction to Video Color Correction.