Color correction and color grading are the processes of adjusting the color of a video to achieve a more balanced or stylistic look. Final Cut Pro X makes this reasonably easy to do.

There are some differences between correction and grading. Color correction comes first and is where you correct over or undersaturated video to make the colors more uniform between clips. Color grading is used to give your footage a distinct look and adjust the overall mood of the clip. You’ll use the same tools for both techniques though, so the process is similar.

If you don’t have Final Cut, the same basic steps will apply to whatever editing program you are using, but the UI will look a little different.

The Basics

In Final Cut, you’ll perform color correction and grading through the Color Board, which is just an effect in Final Cut like any other. It’s so often used that Apple has given it a hotkey—Command+6. This technically opens the “Color Inspector” tool for any clip, but if you don’t have the color board effect already on your clip, Final Cut adds it automatically. Navigating Final Cut with hotkeys is much easier, and you can find a full list of them here. Alternatively, you could drag the effect on the clip and then click on it in the inspector.

Once you’ve got it pulled up, the first window you’ll see is the color tab. There are also tabs for saturation and exposure, and you can navigate between them with Control+Command+C, S, or E.

There are four sliders in each pane for master control, shadows, mid-tones, and highlights. Master control will change the look of the whole clip at once, and the other sliders will change the dark, gray, and light parts of the image individually.

In the Color pane, moving them horizontally will change the color, and moving them vertically will change the intensity of the effect. If you move them below the centerline, it will have a negative effect. The same rules apply to the other tabs as well.

Using Scopes to Master Color Grading

Color grading by eye alone can be pretty hard, as you’re making many small improvements that you might not even notice one at a time. The different scope viewers help to dial in and perfect these changes.

You can open video scopes by pressing Command+7 or from View > Show in Viewer > Video Scopes. The first interesting one is the vectorscope, which plots pixels by color (which direction they’re facing on the circle) and by intensity (how far from the center they are).

The vectorscope is pretty useful for finding the average complementary color of your footage. Just drag the master color wheel around until it lands on the opposite side:

Ideally, you’d probably want your footage to be somewhere close to the middle, but it all comes down to artistic preference.

You can change scopes with the button in the top right corner.

You can adjust the channels that each scope displays here as well, making it easy to do things like switching from viewing all colors to viewing only the red channel.

Using Exposure to Normalize Your Footage

The Luma waveform scope is useful for adjusting the exposure of your clip. Usually, you’ll want the deepest blacks of your footage to be at zero and the whites to be at 100%, but again this comes down to artistic preference.

You can adjust the shadows and highlights individually on the Exposure tab.

You can see now that the top of the clip is near 100, and the lows are near 0. Don’t go too far though, as you’ll start clipping and losing detail. Also, you’ll want to adjust this over the whole video if your footage isn’t constant.

Using Keyframes to Adapt to Your Clip

Like everything in Final Cut, you can adjust the color board using keyframes. Keyframes save your settings at a particular time and transition between them, effectively animating your clip. You can add a new keyframe with the plus button next to the color board. There’s no hotkey for doing this, but you can cut, copy, and paste keyframes with Option+Shift+X, C, or V, respectively.

You’ll want to right-click your clip and select “Show Video Animation” (or press Control+V), so you can see the keyframes you’re editing—they’re hidden by default.

When you add a new keyframe, it will copy the current settings to that keyframe. You can add a second keyframe, click on it in the timeline, and edit the settings on that one. Final Cut will automatically fade between the settings for each one.

Making Localized Adjustments with Shape and Color Masks

This one’s pretty simple, but it’s hidden behind a button menu. The rectangle shaped button next to the “Add Keyframe” button brings up the “Masking” menu. The first option is to shape masks, which lets you make adjustments with an elliptical or rectangular mask. It seems a bit restrictive, but you can add multiple masks for more complicated objects.

The other option is color masks, which you can use in combination with shape masks. You can use these to “select” a color in your footage and perform adjustments to it. You can use the softness slider or additional color masks to catch a wider range of colors. For example, you could turn a red shirt into a blue one with a couple of red color masks (and maybe some shape masks, if there’s more red in the scene).

You can also animate the positions of these masks independently of the main color board, as they have their own keyframes. Each of the masks also has controls to adjust the inside and outside of the masks independently.

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Anthony Heddings is the resident cloud engineer for LifeSavvy Media, a technical writer, programmer, and an expert at Amazon's AWS platform. He's written hundreds of articles for How-To Geek and CloudSavvy IT that have been read millions of times.
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