Color Grading Video to Match a Photo

Ever see a cool photo and think “I wish I could color my films look like that?” Well, for the most part, you can. I want to quickly show you how I used a photograph from a recently family photo shoot to be the base for a film I made for my wife as an anniversary gift. Here’s the film:

Photo vs. Video

Before we get started there are two things I want to point out. First, keep in mind that photos and videos are inherently different. A photo is a moment in time, as such, luminance and color values are static. Video on the other hand is always moving. Luminance values could be changing throughout the shot as you and/or your subject(s) move, clouds move, time of day changes, etc. So be under no illusion this will give you a consistent set of values throughout your entire film. But it can most definitely give you a great starting point and keep you in the general area.

Secondly, and most important, I am NOT a professional colorist, nor do I play one on TV. I know just enough to be dangerous and to make my work look the way I want.

The Photo and the RGB Parade

As I mentioned before, the photo I wanted to match was from a series of photos taken when my family had a photo shoot done late July by Atil Inc. Photography. Here’s the photo I used to match the film.


The basics for making this work are simple. I use Final Cut Pro X, but this can work for any NLE you’re using.

  1. Import the image into your NLE
  2. Open your waveform scope and turn on RGB parade
  3. Adjust RGB values in your highs, mids and blacks to match the photo’s values
  4. Add filters to tweak

Whenever you do any kind of color correction or grading, you should be using scopes. The RGB parade setting of your waveform scope will show you luminance values of the reds, greens and blues as they appear on an IRE scale.

Once you import the photo, look at the RGB parade to see where the values lie. Here they are for the photo:

RGB parade values for photograph.We can see that the reds and greens are hovering around 80 IRE in the highs and about right in between 25 and 50 IRE for the shadows. The blues range from just below 50 in the shadows up to about 70 or so in highs. So my goal is to tweak the values of my outdoor video shots to match this.

Here’s a shot from the video’s raw footage showing its RGB parade:

RGB parade for raw footage.

As you can see this is a huge difference from where I want to be. The highs are all clipping (in the water and sky) and all the shadows are hovering around zero.

You can approach this from one of two ways. You can adjust the color values for each (using the color board in FCPX or your color wheel in whichever other NLE you use); and/or you can add a curves filters and adjust that. To get this video where I wanted, I actually did both.

Color Grading

First I started with curves. (I’m using Natress Levels and Curves RGB Curves filter available via FxFactory). Curves allow you to make finer adjustments in each of the color channels. Using this filter I can adjust highs (aka whites), mids, blacks, as well the areas in between (the “toe” which is between blacks and mids, and the “knee” which is between whites and mids). Making my adjustments I get this:


It’s also worth pointing out that the RGB tweaks from the Levels and Curves filter was enough to adjust my exposure. Here are my exposure adjustments. All I tweaked was the shadows:


With these adjustments, we’re starting to get a little bit closer, but there’s still too much blue and green in the highs of the shot. Now, if I were a professional colorist, I probably could get to where I want using just this filter (well, actually, if I were a pro, I’d be doing this in Da Vinci Resolve or some other pro tool). But, I’m not. So, next I turned to the color board.

FCPX’s color board is one of those things you hate at first, then you learn to love (or continue to hate). I’ve actually learned to love it. It’s essentially the same thing as the traditional color wheel, except the wheel has been unraveled. Moving horizontally along the board would be equivalent to moving around the circumference of a wheel. It changes your color values along the spectrum. Moving up and down reduces the amount of any individual value. If you want to reduce or increase a color in the highs, mids or shadows, you just click on the appropriate puck, move it over to the appropriate color, then drag up or down accordingly. Here are the adjustments I made and the results:


I’m still close, but not perfect. Visually speaking, without looking at the RGB parade, the image is pretty darn close to the photo’s look. I probably could’ve stopped here. But there was a certain “je ne sais quois” that was missing. So I experimented with some nostalgic looks filters and landed on Aged Film:


The highs are closer to where I want them, but as you can see, the mids and shadows aren’t perfect. However, overall, the video is pretty much where I want. And as I mentioned earlier, “always in motion is video.” (That’s my Yoda impression.) Visually this shot looks a lot like what I was going for. So I copied and pasted the filters and color settings to other clips (where lighting is different). As you’ll see, on other shots (where the lighting is closer to what the photo was like), the RGB values are more in line. Here’s one shot:


And another:


Each of these shots has the same filters and color board settings as the shot I worked on. There RGB values are much closer to the photo because the overall lighting in these shots are closer to the photo than the shot I used to adjust. (In truth, I don’t remember exactly which shot I used to make the original adjustments as I edited this video almost two months ago. I probably did start with one of these. But you get the idea. 🙂 )

What I learned from this exercise is that one of the most important aspects is not only the IRE values, but the relative distribution of the color values shot to shot. In other words, the relationship of the red, green and blue values to one another are similar, even if the overall IRE values are higher and lower than my original photo. [Edit: Jay in the comments made a good point about keeping values consistent. I didn’t go into detail about that here, but in this video (and others) I will tweak color and filter values and various shots to try to keep the look consistent. For instance, there are some shots in this video where I did not have to use the aged film filter. Or I tweaked the color board settings a little differently.]

Color Grading Resources

Color grading plays a huge role in the look of any film or video. There are whole companies dedicated to JUST color grading video and films. If you’re a small company like mine, you and your clients probably don’t have the money to invest in professional grading (although, for larger jobs I always try to work it into my budget proposal if I can). It’s worth it to learn as much about it as you can to take your work to a whole ‘nutha level. Trial and error is always a good place to start. Other good resources are:

Needless to say, you can use this technique if you want to match the color from a film or video you like. Experiment. Download a video whose look you like, bring it into your NLE, and see how closely you can match. Happy grading!

6 thoughts on “Color Grading Video to Match a Photo

    1. Very true Jay. Great point. I didn’t go into detail, but in this video (and others), I’ll adjust and tweak color and filters settings accordingly to try to keep the look consistent.

  1. Never thought of that! I’m pretty good at coloring photos but with video I haven’t been able to be so creative because I’m so afraid of burning the whites and blacks (in film school they teach you that’s a no no no) so I’m glad to see how you did this! Thanks Ron

    1. Glad you found it helpful. One way you can practice on video is to duplicate your clip and place it above. That way you can make all the changes to the clip on top, and if it doesn’t work out, delete the clip. If if does work out, delete the original clip on the bottom. Does that make sense?

  2. Colour grading of video always looks like magic for me. It’s something way more cool than just photoshopping an image.

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