One of the primary ways a YouTube filmmaker can distinguish himself or herself from other filmmakers is the look of the films they create. Think about some of your favorite filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, or Guillermo Del Toro. Each of these filmmakers has a particular style in how their films look. Part of that style is dictated by the cinematography, like composition and movement. 

Another way they distinguish their style is in the color grading of their films. Color grading is a significant way to set your work apart from other filmmakers. It can help set the mood and feeling of your film or video. What I would like to do today is to take a look at five common looks you might want to utilize for your YouTube channel.

The five looks I’d like to discuss are:

  • Natural
  • Sunny/warm
  • Coo/Winter
  • Noir
  • Nostalgic

But before I start, I’m going to cover some basics. This article is not meant to be an exhaustive look at color grading or the science behind it. Instead, I want to look at it from the viewpoint of a layperson without a lot of experience who wants to know how to color grade videos to take their production value up to another level.

Lights, Colors, Action!

The Tools of the Trade

When creating a “look,” there are a number of factors that affect the image. The brightness (Luma) and color (Chroma) among the various parts of the image are particularly important—specifically in the Highs (Gain), Midtones (Gamma), and Lows (Lift). Making changes in the Red, Green, and Blue channels, and the overall saturation (amount of color) are key parts of creating a “look.”

Various color grading tools have different ways to make the adjustments needed for your looks. Adobe Premiere has Lumetri. Final Cut Pro X has a suite of powerful color grading tools. Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve is both a powerful color grading software and an NLE. Color Grading Central’s Cinema Grade and Color Trix’s Color Color Finale are plugins that both have adjustment tools and pre-made looks.

In practice, I know that many of you will jump right to using pre-made looks and filters. But I want to make a case for why I think you should be familiar with making manual adjustments to traditional curves as opposed to “pre-baked” looks. So let’s jump right in.

Creating your “Look” by hand

The basic premise is the same: 

  1. import a video clip or still image that has the look you want into your NLE of choice. 
  2. Place this source clip and the clip you want to affect, onscreen.
  3. Enable the video scopes for each clip (in the example below, I’m using Final Cut Pro X, so I turned on View > Show in Viewer > Video Scopes, and View > Show in Event Viewer, Video Scopes.
  4. Make adjustments to the Luma, Red, Blue, and Green channels accordingly, to match the source clip.

In my example here, I’m using a clip from Corridor Digital’s PUBG Movie as a model. The clip I will change is taken from Olivier Sautet‘s Alpinist Ski Touring story. It’s one of the many Raw and Log files available on Artgrid. The cool thing about Raw and Log files is that you can color grade them any way you’d like, as you will see shortly.

The source clip
The Artgrid clip before grading
2 clips with different types of color grading
Model clip and my Artgrid clip before the adjustment in Viewers
Luma and RGB adjustments
RGB parades for both after the adjustments. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty close with regards to distribution of the color channels. The idea is to get close, then tweak based on the unique characteristics of the clip you’re working on.
Artgrid clip: after adjustment
Artgrid clip: before and after.

Why create the looks by hand

Your immediate response may be “Why should I create the look by hand instead of just dropping a plugin or filter?” That is a good question. There are a few reasons why:

  1. Less render time and render space: many color grading filters take time to render and generate larger render files. Manually adjusting curves will reduce both.
  2. More “realistic” look: many filters and plugins are over-done. They are not subtle at all. When you get used to using curves, you can make subtle changes that will have a more realistic look.
  3. Become a better filmmaker: as a video creator, the more you learn about how color and light works, the better a filmmaker you will be. It’s like understanding what happens under the proverbial “hood.” When you know how filters work to manipulate color, light and gamma curves, the better decisions you will make when planning your shoot and the directorial choices you make. 

5 Color Grade looks You’ll Love

Now that we’ve seen how to manipulate color and light to create your own “look,” let’s quickly look at five different looks you might consider when making your YouTube videos.

Natural

As the name suggests, this is a look that emulates exactly what your eye sees. Nothing “fancy.” This could be a good look for a travel YouTube video that shows a lot of beautiful outdoor locations.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

Assuming you shoot your videos with a flat or neutral profile, this look is usually achieved by boosting contrast and saturation.

how to color grade natural look
The extremely popular (and enviously beautiful) “Bucket List Family” in Chile

Sunny/Warm

Creating a warm or even “hot” look can evoke various moods or emotions. On one hand, it can evoke a sense of dreamy love, comfort or passion. It can also be effectively used to convey feelings of stress, anger or hostility. Psychology writer Kendra Cherry wrote on the Very Well Mind:

In color psychology, red provokes the strongest emotions of any color. While cool colors like green and blue are generally considered peaceful and calming, red is considered the warmest and most contradictory of the colors. In fact, this fiery hue has more opposing emotional associations than any other color: Red is linked to passion and love as well as power and anger.

The PUBG movie from Corridor Digital uses this look to great effect.

Cool/Winter

Cool/winter colors are usually in the range of the color blue. Like the warmer red, it too can evoke multiple feelings. It can be serene and calm. It can elicit feelings of sadness. Blue can also evoke feelings of intensity. This is why you often see this look for creating a thriller or action video. Again, turning to Kendra Cherry’s psychology of color, here are a few other attributes for the color blue:

  • Blue is described as a favorite color by many people and is the color most preferred by men.
  • It calls to mind feelings of calmness or serenity. It is often described as peaceful, tranquil, secure, and orderly.
  • Blue is often seen as a sign of stability and reliability. Businesses that want to project an image of security often utilize blue in their advertising and marketing efforts.
  • It can also create feelings of sadness or detachment. Consider how a painting that heavily features blue, such as those produced by Picasso during his “blue period,” can seem so lonely, sad, or hopeless.
  • Blue is often used to decorate offices because research has shown that people are more productive in blue rooms.
  • Consider how blue is used in language: blue moon, blue Monday, blue blood, the blues, and blue ribbon.

One other point Cherry makes is that there are cultural differences to take into consideration when looking at the psychology of color. She writes that “Feelings evoked by certain colors are not necessarily universal. Cultural differences sometimes play a role in how people perceive color.

A scene from “Video Game High School” Season 3, made famous by renowned YouTuber Freddie Wong’s RocketJump channel.

Black & White/Noir

When used effectively, black and white can be beautiful, evocative, and alluring. If you are thinking that all you have to do to create a black and white image is drag saturation to zero, then you would be mistaken. It’s not that “black and white” (no pun intended). By changing the levels of red, blue, and green in an image, you can give a “regular” black and white image various, subtle tints.

In each of the following examples, I took an image where I dropped the saturation to zero, then made slight adjustments to the red, green, and blue curves. I used another clip from Artgrid, taken from Mark Eberle‘s story Model Morning in Paris.

The black and white image with no adjustments.
Reducing the Luma curve and bumping the red gives it a slight sepia look.
Bumping the blue mids a bit, and reducing the mix to 75% gives a slight cool black and white look.
Reducing the blue curve gives a slightly yellow tint.
Adding a traditional, cinematic “S-curve” to the Luma (reducing the blacks and slightly increasing the whites) gives it a harsher, more “film noir” look.

Nostalgic

Last, but certainly not least, is what I like to call a “Nostalgic” look. This is a look that reminds you of old photographs. It’s slightly desaturated, with just a hint of red or green. If I’m being honest, I do usually use a filter (or two) when replicating this look. But just like anything else, it can be done manually just like I’ve shown.

Here’s an example of a color grade I did a few years ago when I was the editor for Frame.io where I took a clip from “La La Land” (which was brightly colored) and made it match the slightly “nostalgic” look of “Moonlight”.

“La La Land” before
“Moonlight” clip
How to color grade La La Land like Moonlight
“La La Land” clip after

Here’s the tutorial showing how to do it.

You can see additional examples of this nostalgic look in the Artgrid Vintage collection.

Share Your Color Grade Secrets

So there you have it—a relatively easy way to create any look you want for your YouTube videos without having to buy any extra filters. Let us know any tips and tricks you have for achieving different looks in your videos.

 

Author Bio

For nearly 20 years, Ron has been a professional video producer, content marketer, and influencer in the visual arts industry. Most recently was managing editor of the Frame.io blog and currently managing editor of Film Riot. He helps brands and creative artists tell their stories using video, content, and words. You can learn more about him at https://bladeronner.media.

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