DaVinci Resolve Color Grading 101: How to Achieve Cinematic Color Grades

cinematic color grading

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Highlights

How to achieve an accurate color correction to provide a blank canvas for your creative grade
Color grading tips for a cinematic look
Learn how to use just some of DaVinci Resolve’s powerful color tools to create your own grade

Table of Contents

Beginner filmmakers may not think twice about tones and hues. However, a master knows the power that color grading a scene in the right way can have on a viewer’s emotions. As you progress and finetune your personal filmmaking style, you will inevitably want to start playing with color at some point. Or maybe you’re already there and want to start making more ambitious color grades. This guide will help you get one step closer to creating a cinematic grade on your own.

Color is an evocative part of visual style. The good news? Color grading isn’t as intimidating as it seems. If you’ve clicked on this article, you probably already know that one of the best industry standard color adjustment tools – DaVinci Resolve 18 – is free. In fact, if you’re considering whether to commit to the DaVinci Resolve free vs. studio version, this guide will illustrate just some of the tools you can access without paying a cent. DaVinci Resolve color grading can be accessible and exciting if you approach it with the right attitude. Keep reading to get some of the basic principles and techniques under your belt.

Nodes in DaVinci Resolve Color Grading

If you’re used to color grading in Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro, you may be new to the node-based workflow in DaVinci Resolve color grading. At this stage, just think of the node system as a different way of visualizing how you incorporate your different sets of instructions to get a final result. Note that in the examples, the changes we are implementing are almost always done to a new node. The node window is in the top right-hand corner of your DaVinci color workspace.

Mastering your color correction

Once you’ve imported your footage and added it to the timeline, make your way over to the DaVinci Resolve color workspace. Before anything else, you need to color-correct your clips. This can be the most fiddly part: ensuring that all of your clips from the same scene or look are somewhat uniform and standardized. Don’t worry – we’ll get to the cinematic color grading. Think of color correcting as the priming of your canvas. When done right, it will make the stylistic work more fun and easier to achieve coherence across the board.

Converting LOG clips to Rec 709

When you’ve shot in LOG or a similarly flat format – recommended to get the best results with your grade – then you first need to convert your footage into Rec 709. This is the standard or “neutral” color space you want to have before you start any color work. It should look fairly natural in terms of saturation (how vivid your colors are), hue (the tone of your colors) and lightness (how light or dark your colors are).

DaVinci Resolve has a selection of Lookup Tables (LUTs) to convert your footage to Rec709, depending on the camera you are using and the format you have chosen to record in. To simplify this process, the LUT essentially takes the data from your footage file and “translates” it into something much more true to life to look at in terms of color. This will get you closer to properly color-corrected footage, but you need to follow the rest of our color grading tips to get all the way there.

Checking your white balance

You need to ensure your colors are accurate to complete a convincing color correction. So, making sure your white balance is precise is essential, and there are several tools to help you.

Right-click on your preview window and select “Show Picker RGB Value” to see the red, green and blue color input values in the individual pixel your mouse is resting on. The best way to use this tool is to rest your mouse on a section of the frame that falls on the grayscale. This way, you can refer to both the color scopes in the lower right-hand corner and these values to help you. 

Remember that the scopes will give you more detailed clues on properly balancing your red, blue, and green channels. They can be a powerful tool when used correctly; you can find out more about color scopes here if they are new to you.

Adjusting your white balance

There are multiple ways to achieve a better white balance and actually target the red, green and blue channels. In this guide, we will use the primaries’ color wheels. The 4 tonal ranges featured in this panel are lift (which corresponds to the frame’s shadows), gamma (the midtones), gain (the highlights), and offset (the frame’s overall color values). 

Choose which tonal range you want to target, and adjust the corresponding value. This is done by clicking on the color value you want to alter and dragging to the right (to increase the value) or left (to decrease the value). You can see that the example has a yellow tinge until we increase the blue offset, which counteracts this.

Perfecting your exposure

The primaries’ color wheels can also help you to adjust your exposure. You can adjust the overall offset, lift, gamma, or gain by using the small dial underneath the individual values. Adjusting the offset dial will increase or decrease the overall frame’s waveform and exposure. However, using the dial to modify a specific tonal range will concentrate the changes to only that part. For instance, gain will target the highlights, and so on.

Adding your cinematic grade

Now that you have the color grading tips to correct your footage, it’s time for the fun part. First, let’s look at some of the main features you can use in DaVinci Resolve’s color workspace to create your desired look. While there are limitless color grading tips to create a cinematic grade, we will cover some simple and adaptable techniques. This leaves room for you to inject some of your own style.

Creating a teal tinge

Go back to the primaries’ color wheels. Click on the center of the offset color wheel. Drag your cursor up, down, left, and right to see how you can adjust the overall color of your footage. The color wheel itself is a visual reference to the tones you can add. For example, we will drag our cursor slightly down and right to increase the teal. Of course, you could use this same technique on the lift, gamma, or gain if you only wanted to target the color in a specific tonal range.

Adjusting the saturation levels

Depending on the look you are aiming for, you may choose to have more or less vivid colors. We will do this by modifying the footage’s saturation, just underneath the color wheels. Increase the saturation of your new node by clicking and dragging the value further to the right.

Targeting your saturation

Now refer to your Hue vs. Luminosity curve workspace. The x-axis of this graph corresponds to luminance, while the y-axis corresponds to saturation. By taking the left point of this curve and dragging it to the bottom, you are decreasing the saturation in the shadows. 

Click on the small dot just underneath the graph to add another point to your curve, and drag it up to create a curve. This means you can add some of the saturation back into the midtones. Keep adjusting until you are happy with the levels. In this example, we have left the curve quite smooth for a gradual transition of saturation but restricted the desaturation to the shadows only.

Amplifying or decreasing the intensity

You might find it useful to adjust the intensity of your changes. This allows you to treat a change like a filter: you can increase or decrease how visible it is. Simply click on the Key icon in the panel below your footage preview. Now increase or decrease the Gain value of the Key Output.

BONUS TIP – Matching your grade to a reference photo

If you have a reference photo that you want to match the grade on, DaVinci Resolve has a handy tool that can help you to get part of the way there. While it’s not perfect, planning your shoot carefully could give you some impressive results. If not, it’s fun to play with as you’re learning to make the most of the range of tools on offer with DaVinci Resolve color grading!

Add your reference photo to your editing timeline. If you cannot see the clips from your timeline while in the color workspace, you may need to select the “clips” button in the top right of your screen. Once in the color workspace, select the clip you want to color grade. Now press the Shift key and click on the reference photo. Next, right-click on your selected clip and click “Shot Match to this Clip“. Instant results at your fingertips!

Key Takeaways

DaVinci Resolve is a powerful software with a multitude of tools and techniques at your disposal. There is more than one way to execute any single task when it comes to DaVinci Resolve color grading! However, having read this guide, you should feel confident enough to practice and adapt some of the basic principles you have learned. Now all that’s left to do is continue your color grading journey and carry out your own cinematic color grading. We can’t wait to see the results!

Frequently asked questions

About Emily Stoker

Emily is a London-based female filmmaker. After working abroad in digital communications, she built her production company. Today she has worked on projects with clients, commissioners and funders including National Geographic, BBC, and the European Commission.

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