colour grading fcpx

Basic Colour Grading in Final Cut Pro X

Reading Time: 5 minutes

One of the noticeable differences between amateur and professional video is in the colour grading. If your films lack colour balancing, or if the colours of shots within a scene don’t match, it will be noticeable.

Colour grading can be done to achieve technical harmony across visuals, or for applying a particular artistic finish to a piece.  

If that all sounds a touch intimidating, the good news is that all pro-level editing software will come with essential tools to get started with colour grading.

Once you become comfortable with those, you can experiment with the more advanced features. When working in Final Cut Pro X, you can even have the first step of colour correction done automatically.  

Within the Final Cut Pro X Import window, there’s the Analyze and Fix pane. Here, you’ll find the option to Analyze video for balance color. Essentially, this corresponds to how the footage was originally filmed and if your camera was correctly white balanced.

This means how your camera sees white objects under different lighting conditions and how it subsequently presents all other colours on the spectrum. Broadly speaking, incorrect white balancing can lead to video looking too blue (cool) or too orange (warm.)  

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Ticking this option means Final Cut Pro X will look at each clip you import and attempt to fix any unbalanced colours. This will also include issues of exposure (the brightest parts of an image) and contrast (how they compare to the darkest regions). This is a useful feature but by no means an exact science. If you want to try it, perhaps try a couple of clips, as it will slow down the overall import time.  

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This is a process that can be done after import, on a clip-by-clip basis. Whether a clip is in the Browser or being used on the Timeline, clicking on the enhancement button will show the Balance Color menu option. Immediately, the clip will take on a new look, depending on the level of adjustment required. How well this works does depend on the overall lighting and general quality of your footage.  

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If you’re unsure of what the difference is, you can turn off the automatic balance under the Inspector. The Effects pane will list the Balance Color application, where it can be disabled, or have the Method adjusted. Playing with these settings can show an immediate before and after comparison of colour balancing’s influence.  

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Another option under the enhancements menu is Match Color. This feature will attempt to replicate the look of one clip with another. First, select the clip you want to change, choose Match Color, then click on the clip with the desired look. When you are more confident with manual grading, you can still use these options as shortcuts before making finer adjustments yourself.  

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Indeed, it’s worth noting that when colour grading in Final Cut Pro X effects can be layered upon each other. No one tool or setting is necessarily going to fix a problem or achieve a certain look, but rather a combination of efforts might be needed. As with other visual effects in Final Cut Pro X, all layers you add to a clip can be toggled off and on inside the Inspector window.  

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There is the option under the View menu, to display Video Scopes. HistogramVectorscope and Waveform monitors are visual presentations of analytical colour data. As you make corrections, they update in real-time, which is a great way to learn more about the scientific nature of colour, and its application in the grading process. 

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For manual adjustments, the current 10.4 version of Final Cut Pro X comes with a new roster of tools. Once a clip is on the Timeline the ‘Show the Color Inspector’ option becomes available. Let’s look at each of the four types of color correction in turn.  

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The Color Board displays a vertical colour spectrum, dissected by a horizontal line, with four node points. These represent the HighlightsMidtones, Shadows and Master ranges of the clip. Moving a node to a different colour space directly effects that portion of the image, in real time. Going above the horizontal line towards a colour, increases the amount of it. Repositioning a mode below the line reduces that colour, with the simultaneous knock-on of adding more of the contrasting colour.  

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The analogue position of the node is also expressed in digital numeric values, which can be typed-in for maximum precision. This format is replicated for Saturation and Exposure, which are great for bringing better contrast to your shots, and making certain colours either more vibrant or muted.  

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The first recent edition is Color Wheels. These offer the combined features of the Color Board, but with subtler levels of control. The digital option also allows for setting overall colour temperature, on the same degrees Kelvin scale your camera will reference (from 2500-10000K). 

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Color Curves are great if you’re familiar with advanced image editing software, like Abode Photoshop. The Luma (whitest areas) and primary composite colours – red, blue, green – can be independently adjusted across the entire breadth of the clip’s image range.  

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If you’re feeling especially confident, there are even brand new Hue/Saturation curves, each of which offers detailed control of specific colour points within an image. The level of adjustments on offer reveals the depth and complexity of not just colour grading for technical purposes, but expanding into choices for artistic expression.  

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Each of these different effects can be applied to specific areas of your clips using Shape Masks.  Also, you can change a particular colour itself using a Color Mask, which is represented as an eyedropper icon. Colour grading can also be specifically timed using keyframes.

Multiple versions of each color correction can be added to a clip and under the Effect listing (whichever one is on top has the dominant influence). Dragging and dropping changes the order and each can be disabled/enabled for easy comparison.  

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Remember that the overall level to which you can manipulate the colour within a video frame depends on the resolution and colour sampling depth of the material itself. As your taste in video formats grows, so might your colour grading requirements.  

There are numerous plugins available for grading in Final Cut Pro X, ranging from inexpensive sites like FCPeffects, all the way up to Magic Bullet Looks for feature film style grades.

There are also dedicated colour grading applications, the most well-known are DaVinci Resolve and FilmConvert (we now get 10% off). You might be familiar with their cameras and hardware, but their industry level colour suite also features some pretty advanced editing features.   

The best way to understand colour grading in Final Cut Pro X is start testing out all of features and see what works best for you. If you don’t have a project to work on then try downloading some stock footage and have a play.  

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