Some photos and videos have subjects that just POP out of the screen at you. Those are the ones you remember and talk about, and so does everyone else, so that’s what we want our own images to be like. We want those rich, deep colours, the clear definition between the main subject and its surroundings and the amazing, Caravaggio light cascading through the scene.
Of course, the best way to get that is to use a camera with actual film in it, then perfectly set up and expose your shot, but even then it would probably need some careful light treatment in the development. Even the most skilled photographers, with National Geographic covers to their name and the most Oscar laden cinematographers have always needed to treat their pictures to bring out the best results – us mere mortals are no different!
Happily, we don’t have to worry about chemicals and light processing, as we have the most incredible array of digital tools, at any level of complexity to suit. Even the most basic video or image editing software, be it on a mobile phone or a maxed-out desktop workstation, has the tools built-in to craft the most out of our work. Whilst they vary a bit in their makeup, all the colour and image processing tools on computers and devices work along the same principles, so the basic techniques we’ll look at in this post will apply across the board.
Starting out right
There are certain things you can do to ensure you have the best possible base from which to start. Obviously, the better exposed and composed your original footage is, the easier it will be to get good results in post, but how you set the actual technical side of things before taking your shot can make a big difference too.
Always use the best possible shooting settings for your video – if you have a drone that can shoot at high bitrates, use them. Likewise, if you can use a Log colour setting, use it. If you can shoot in 4K, use it. All of these will give you more latitude to work in post production. The bottom line is that the more information your video file starts with, the more scope there will be to manipulate that file later. The 10bit camera in the DJI Mavic 2 Pro gives an enormous advantage when it comes to working with the colour of your video, as it uses over 1 BILLION colours, whereas 8bit cameras (ie everything other than Mavic 2 Pro below Inspire level) use only 16 million colours. Those extra colours allow you to really get deep into the look of an image – they are worth it!
There is a lot of discussion about what resolution to shoot (eg 1080 vs 4K vs 2.7K), which is largely based on how easy or otherwise it may be to edit. I would argue that using a lower resolution is a false economy, as you can easily edit in a lower resolution with proxy files and the amount of flexibility you lose could prove critical.
Enough preamble! Here are a few points that will immediately make a difference to your images and set you on the way to building unique looks and awesome colour grades. I’ll explain them in a moment, but first I’m just going to tell you what I do to make my images ‘pop’, using the Lumetri colour panel in Adobe Premiere Pro (there is a similar tool – maybe not as advanced – in every editing package, so it’s the basic principles which matter):
1 – Balance the colours
2 – Increase the contrast
3 – Adjust the saturation
4 – Fine adjustments using curves and colour wheels (these tools are usually only available in the more advanced apps)
These actions, if carried out with care, will improve the look of almost any image, whether video or still. This is especially the case with logarithmic (log) footage, like that shot by the DJI Mavic 2 Pro (DLog-M).
It’s all very well me telling you what I do, but it may not mean much, so let me go through in more detail!
1 – Balance the colours.
The setting that does this is usually referred to as ‘white balance’, but can also be called ‘colour temperature’. What it does, when set correctly, is make whites look white. Once that is done, everything else is creativity! This is necessary because light is multi-coloured.
WARNING! TECHNICAL BIT ABOUT COLOUR SCIENCE COMING UP (SKIP TO NEXT RED BIT IF YOU WANT) …
Light is made up of every shade of Red, Blue and Green, which can be seen when it refracts through a prism – most commonly displayed in a rainbow. Pure white is when the maximum amount of R, G & B channels are mixed together and black is when they are all taken away. Standard, 8bit video has 255 shades in each colour channel and 10bit has 1000 shades per channel, but the basic rules apply the same.
When you take a picture or shoot some video, the image will come out either blueish or orangeish, if you haven’t already told the camera which colour is white. It’s weird, but it’s also quit useful if you are being creative. Daylight is blue and lightbulb light is orange (this is changing with more and more LED and fluorescent lights, which do look different, but still not white). If you tell the camera what is actually white under the light you are shooting in, then the picture or video will look natural and as you saw it in the first place. Our brains interpret the colour of light for us, on the fly, but the machines need our help.
As well as being different colours, light works at different temperatures (which is always expressed on the Kelvin scale for some reason), with artificial, tungsten light at about 3,200K and daylight at noon being about 5,600K. There are variances, depending on diffusion (cloud cover) and height of the Sun, etc. For interest, a standard computer monitor operates with white at about 6,500K.
TECHY BIT OVER!
Adjusting white balance in a NLE is usually fairly easy, but you may find that even a tiny adjustment makes a big difference, so work carefully.
Often there will be an eyedropper tool, which will allow you to select a white bit in your image and then the computer will make the white balance adjustment for you. There may even be a completely automatic tool that does it for you, which is frequently the best place to start and then make your adjustments from there.
In Premiere, there is a simple eyedropper and there is also a slider, which shows blue at one end and orange at the other, representing the colour temperature. It’s very easy to just move this from side to side until you are happy with the image. Just about every NLE offers this particular tool. There are various other tools which can do the same thing, but they usually do various other things too and may make unexpected changes until you are more familiar with what’s going on. I’ll cover the most important of these tools a bit later.
2 – Increase the contrast.
This is the bit that starts to make the image stand out. The basic mechanics are that the dark bits get darker and the light bits get lighter. You want to find a spot where you can still see all the required details, but the definition of the subject is clearer.
There are a few tools which can adjust the contrast, but the primary one, which is both easy and obvious, is called “contrast/brightness”. This is usually a slider, but can be numerical too. Contrast and Brightness complement each other, so you may find that a bit of both is what’s needed to really bring out the differing elements of the image.
Contrast is where the quality of the video image really makes all the difference. A high bitrate, bit depth and colour space can allow you a huge latitude to make your shadows really dark, whilst maintaining details and allow you to keep details in all the brightest bits (which is particularly hard with low quality video).
If you pay no attention to any other part of colour correction and grading, do make sure you try some contrast adjustment. Don’t expect it to look great if you just whack it up, but approach it very gently and with a little patience and you will find that sweet spot, which is the very essence of making a picture ‘pop’.
Other common facilities which make contrast adjustments and you may find suit your workflow are the ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’, ‘shadows’ and ‘highlights’, ‘colour wheels’ and the ‘curves’ tools. They work subtly differently, often look dramatically different and can all be used together. As you get to know the tools available in your particular software, you will find which you like to use most and the differences in their effect.
3 – Adjust saturation
Saturation affects how much colour there is in an image. This is very much a subjective area and everyone has a different view on what they see as the right amount of saturation. Assuming you are not working to meet broadcast standards, saturation levels really are all up to you, but it’s worth seeking out other opinions if you want your work to be a hit!
Saturation is almost always adjusted with a slider, though more advanced colour tools may contain adjustable wheels to select specific colours to adjust. It works in both directions, with the midpoint being where you start. Higher numbers add more colour and lower numbers reduce the amount of colour.
Frequently, you may find it’s not necessary to adjust saturation at all, but under many other circumstances a saturation boost or reduction can make a good image into an awesome image. The saturation of a video can have a big effect on how it is perceived by an audience. This is something that is used in professional productions all the time. A lot of movies and TV use saturation adjustments to really make their look stand out: Saving Private Ryan is famously desaturated to make it seem more gritty, whilst TV situation comedies are often more saturated to make them seem lighter and more open to joking. Both looks can look great in isolation, but if saturation is adjusted to match or build the mood of your video it can really change the effect of your work.
4 – Fine adjustments
If you are using one of the more advanced editing packages, like Adobe Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro X or Avid Media Composer, then you will have a whole host of extra colour tools at your disposal. The main, built-in tools will be ‘curves’ and colour wheels (which I briefly mentioned in the contrast section). These complement and augment the more simple tools I have already discussed and are usually used in addition to the other tools.
Whilst I won’t go into a load of detail here, I will say that if you have access to these tools, they are well worth getting to know. The adjustments possible with curves and colour wheels are infinite, so as they become more familiar you will find that you can refine your colouring to a level that makes all the difference between ‘great’ and ‘WOW!’.
What’s most important to remember when you are working on your own videos is that you are in charge of your own looks! No matter what your video turns out like, you will get different views from different people, but the creative decisions are ultimately yours. This is certainly not the case if you are working for a client, so make the most of the liberty of being a hobbyist!
Do post your own work onto the DVA Facebook page and I’ll happily share my feedback with you.
Tell me what you would like me to talk about next time, in the comments section!