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Cinematography Rant: Why All DPs Need To Understand Color Correction

I first started learning the art of color correction for one simple reason – I needed to give my DSLR footage more production value by emulating the look of higher end cinema cameras. It wasn’t long after I started learning the craft that I realized just how much value color can add to any project, and how crucial it is for all filmmakers to understand color.

Although my biggest focus day to day now is directing, I came up in the business through post-production (with a heavy emphasis on color grading) and still handle lots of color correction work, either on my own personal projects or on client projects. As such, I’ve had the chance to run countless color sessions with DPs of all types  – ranging from amateurs just starting out in the business, all the way up to very well established cinematographers who shoot major national television shows and feature films.

One of the things I picked up on after many years of working with such a wide variety of DPs, was that the best cinematographers I worked with also seemed to have the best understanding of color, regardless of what level they were working at.

When I say this, keep in mind I’m not necessarily stating that the best DPs all know how to operate a DaVinci system. But rather that they understand the value of color correction and the technical principles behind it, far greater than the average budding DP. This is obviously the case for two reasons:

1. They have had more experience in the color suite and therefore have picked up more working knowledge from colorists they’ve collaborated with.

2. They were able to excel in their field by understanding or in some cases even mastering an aspect of the craft that many of their peers didn’t focus on at all.

For the sake of this article, it’s the second point that really matters.

It may sound cliche, but the notion that the cinematographer makes the image, not the camera couldn’t be more true. A great cinematographer will be able to pick up an iPhone and still capture a beautiful shot with the right mix of lighting, framing, camera movement, and color. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the shot wouldn’t look even better if it were shot on an Alexa, but it does mean that cameras like the Alexa shouldn’t be used as a crutch.

One of the things that frustrates me the most when working with certain inexperienced DPs is their inability to understand the potential of their own skill set, and their over-reliance on camera choice… And that’s coming from me, who is pretty obsessed with cameras!

There is no question that every camera has it’s own look, and therefore it’s own strengths and weaknesses. An Alexa will always look different than a RED or a 5D or a Blackmagic, but that doesn’t mean they all can’t look amazing in their own ways, or that they can’t be color graded to match very closely.

Take the Sony A7S II for instance. I personally don’t love the look of the colors straight out of the camera as they don’t look very organic or natural, in my opinion at least. Does that prevent me from using the camera at all? Definitely not. It just means I need to approach the color process with a bit more care than if I was shooting on a camera like the Arri Alexa (which has near perfect color science), and develop my own techniques for handling the footage such as my custom A7S II LUT.

I’ve often heard amateur cinematographers state that they only want to shoot on such-and-such camera, because they don’t like the “look” of the other cameras they have available to them. That’s all well and good, and you should absolutely be picky about your camera choice… But when you are just starting out you need to learn to work with what you have. You need to understand that an old Lumix GH2 can look as good as an Alexa if a better DP is lighting the GH2 footage, operating the camera, and directing the color session. And that it’s completely possible to match two very different cameras in the color suite if you know what you’re doing.

It’s this issue that holds back a lot of talented filmmakers that want to break into the business as DPs. They haven’t yet learned to appreciate the color process and rely far too heavily on their camera choice as a means to capture the best image possible.

In an ideal world you want to have the best of both – the best camera to shoot on and the best working knowledge of cinematography and color correction. In reality though, you can’t always have everything, especially when you’re just starting out. The more you can pick up the slack on the side of your craft, the less you will need to rely on camera choice and therefore budget.

Digital cinema cameras today are incredibly powerful and capable of producing gorgeous images – even the lower cost prosumer models. So if you’re struggling to get the right look with your 5D, Blackmagic, GH3, or whatever camera you might be using… Don’t go looking for another camera. Look to yourself and try to see where the gap in your own skill set may be, and you might just find that your knowledge of color is lacking.

If that’s the case, do yourself a favor and start to learn at least the basics of the craft. You don’t need to learn enough to be a professional colorist, but you do need to learn enough to be condifent in your decisions on set, and to understand what any camera is capable of under the right conditions.

Remember that it’s common for even the largest Hollywood feature films to shoot on a mix of formats. Some major features are shot in part on 35mm film, Alexa, RED, and so on. The DPs behind these films aren’t afraid to mix and match formats because they understand the color process. They understand that they can get them to match in post, and that any camera can look great when treated properly.

So if you’re listening – I don’t want to hear why your RED Scarlet is not good enough for your next project or why your C100 doesn’t have a filmic enough look. Anything can look good with the right color, so work on your craft and then graduate to the more elaborate cinema cameras when your projects allow you to.

There are countless resources online that will help you learn at least the basics of color correction, so if you want to step up your game there’s really no excuse.

That’s about it for now! Check back soon for more articles like this, filmmaking tips, gear reviews, and much more.

About Author

Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!

24 Comments

  • Flaaandeeers
    February 11, 2016 at 6:42 pm

    Wise words, man.
    That’s why I now want to Start from scratch, get one single camera, stay some time with it and try to learn how to get the best possible image.
    If I suck, I will suck with a T2i or a Red Dragon.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      February 16, 2016 at 7:09 pm

      Exactly! And I bet you don’t suck! Haha, but great point.

      Reply
  • Liam
    February 12, 2016 at 5:40 pm

    True dude. Just thought I’d share…

    I was listening to a podcast discussion with DP’s from various large BBC productions a couple of days ago. The podcast was supposed to be specifically about working with UHD and 4K, but they all segued into how unimportant resolution is compared to colour and dynamic range. One of them even said (I’m paraphrasing): “beyond anything else, the most important thing for the viewer is skin tones. Get that wrong and you can forget everything else.”

    As an aside, they were actually very negative about working with 4k for at least another 2 or 3 years. For broadcast at least. But they acknowledged it’ll happen eventually.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      February 16, 2016 at 8:38 pm

      Good points Liam, and it’s very true that 4K really isn’t a viable option for broadcast at the moment. We still barely have proper 1080p delivery from most major broadcasters! That said, 4K acquisition has it’s benefits for oversampling 1080 footage on certain cameras…

      Reply
  • Simone
    February 12, 2016 at 6:14 pm

    Dear Noam,

    great article!

    But – as an happy customer of “Capturing cinematic images with your DSLR” – I need a new guide that help me to learn how to correct, prepare and grade footage from my humble GH4 (or from any camera I will use).

    I’m not talking about giving the right contrast to the image or the right skin tone – things that I can do quite easily -, but I need to learn how to make a great postproduction to a nice footage in order to achieve “that” cinematic, organic style.

    I look forward to buy a guide like that!

    All the best,
    Simo 🙂

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      February 16, 2016 at 8:39 pm

      Thanks Simone! Your timing is perfect as I am in the midst of recording 3 new video guides, including one on color grading. Please stay tuned and check back soon for more updates on this.

      Reply
  • LarryT
    February 18, 2016 at 7:55 am

    What an interesting time to come across this post. I just finished watching roughly 10 Vimeo staff picks, and I couldn’t tell whether it was my mood- just being picky- or if the color in most of these videos was really was too exaggerated and/or plain out of whack.

    It really felt like everyone had just finished watching their first YouTube color correction video. Some of the really extreme grades (aside from being really extreme) didn’t fit the story and ruined what could age been good images. There was Hollywood orange & teal everywhere and it was both distracting and a reminder that I wasn’t watching a professional production.

    I know Vimeo is Vimeo, but staff picks are normally really impressive. I think your point is spot on and perfectly in sync with thee times. It doesn’t take a colorist to know when the language of color is being poorly used.

    If nothing, know how to correct your footage. Don’t try and go for a “look” before you’re shots are color matched and accurate. If you’re scene wasn’t lit well, it’s hard to make it look authentic and dynamic in post. And there’s nothing wrong with a natural documentary style look if that’s what you shot. Not everything needs to have the soaring emotional soundtrack, a super stylized look and drone footage, for that matter. Haha. Your rant got me going too. Good post though. The basic concepts of color correction aren’t hard and the info is out there. It just takes a bit of time, practice, and discipline.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      February 18, 2016 at 11:41 pm

      Glad you agree Larry! And you’re completely right – sometimes simple is better and less is more. There’s something to be said about a beautifully lit & directed shot that has organic looking colors. Color can be used to match shots, enhance looks, or create dynamic environments… But it really is a skill that can take a long time to master, so hopefully more filmmakers come around to understanding that in the future, and put in the time to really understand the art form.

      Reply
  • Ed David
    February 26, 2016 at 2:46 pm

    Love this so much. I found the same things!!!

    Reply
  • Alvin Lu
    February 27, 2016 at 11:45 pm

    you took the words out of my mouth. the time to create the look is more than just “fixing in post”. the only thing ive been investing in is audio, lighting, and lenses. over the years of hearing greats like, bloom, you, and honestly, photographers, is that you need to visualize what you want and make it happen and the end result will look great. i know there are many articles on how to color correct footage before grading, mind to make a video of how you approach color correction in your respective nle?

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      March 6, 2016 at 5:49 pm

      Thanks Alvin – glad to hear this speaks to you as well. I will certainly do a color tutorial in the near future, thanks for the idea!

      Reply
  • J.W.
    March 9, 2016 at 3:31 pm

    A million times yes. A milli milli times yes.
    It seems like the small act of adjusting WB before shooting has been somehow lost during the transition into shooting 4K+. I can count on one hand the number of DPs with whom I’ve worked that have taken the few extra seconds to even touch it before rolling.
    The majority of footage I work with is indeed RAW/4kRAW, so of course it’s a relatively simple fix, but starting a project with properly balanced footage from the get-go? Dude it feels like that happy little moment after being given a thoughtful surprise gift. Has anyone else been experiencing this?

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      March 10, 2016 at 6:14 pm

      Totally agree with you. It’s funny when a DP will say “I don’t need to white balance, I am shooting in RAW”. Obviously they don’t care much about leaving their mark on the final image!

      Reply
  • rich
    March 18, 2016 at 1:18 am

    would you mind sharing some summarized and proper color correction articles/videos?

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      March 19, 2016 at 12:26 am

      I’m actually working on a very in depth color tutorial right now, and will be sure to let you know when it’s posted on the site.

      Reply
  • Stephane Carcopino
    March 18, 2016 at 9:26 am

    Damn, exactly what I am killing myself to explain to each DP I work with. It is so much more powerfull in post when you use a camera exactly the way we chose celluloid before for its look and according to its values for each field of shooting in each project. It used to be the prior preocupation for dps before, but now, it is like most of the dp leave the color to colorists and their work tends to unify in a certain flat/raw look.
    The reality is that all digital cameras are powerfull color stations that we need to use at their best on each field to be able to have a personal project, a look that stands for itslef to tell your story.
    But I can feel that the possibilities they offer are so wide that most people fall behind the “raw” attitude thinking of their cameras as “processors”.
    That is not the way I am used to practice Raw digital for photography, so it is quite normal for me to do so when I am shooting too.
    It feels like digital filming is not yet really understood in its tools potential.

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      March 19, 2016 at 12:27 am

      Thanks for the note Stephane! Glad to hear you agree, and I appreciate you sharing this.

      Reply
  • Cecilia
    April 7, 2016 at 7:10 pm

    Your blog is amazing and super helpful!! Thanks for putting out content like this for aspiring and already settled filmmakers

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      April 17, 2016 at 4:31 pm

      Thanks so much! Really appreciate the feedback.

      Reply
  • Raphael
    September 1, 2016 at 1:05 am

    One good reason to hold back on upgrading. I’m still shooting on a GH2, which has its faults, but is still capable of some amazingly beautiful stuff. I use other people’s URSA Minis and the like, but I’m waiting until I outgrow my current setup.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      September 1, 2016 at 7:06 pm

      Absolutely. The GH2 is still an incredible camera, and color-wise, I think it is better than any other camera in the GH lineup. The GH4 is great for 4K, but even with V-Log it doesn’t produce the same natural image the GH2 was able to all those years ago.

      Reply

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