Color correction is the subject around this website is built. It is a shady, misunderstood, and incredibly underrated field in digital imaging. A simple Google search may give us a hint that its meaning spans through different topics, gels compensation, video post-production and, yes, hair dyeing #colorcorrection on Instagram. I always envied the movie business, where “color correction” and “color grading” are distinct, established and settled terms. But, guess what, if there’s no definition it will be easier for me to write one down.

“People who are reading your books for the first time may take a while to understand what you are about. I have to explain all the time that you are not offering recipes the way other Photoshop authors do, but rather teaching people how to think about color correction.”

A Beta Reader / Professional Photoshop by Dan Margulis

Is it even possible to teach in a field where we lack a common definition, and don’t fully understand color correction’s purposes? Yes, I think, because we are driven by results. Our corrections looks better than our originals, and that’s enough to act. I say we deserve more, to define our field, to confine our roles, to understand and identify mistakes, to be able to foresee our coming goals and directions.

Wrong Definition

Color correction is to make an image looks better. No it is not. Quick example, I open my original and fix only the exposure, my result is, and looks, better, is this color correction? We failed to correct color casts, or to enhance colors, so our result, while better, is not good.

Furthermore, “good” and “better” have to very different meanings. Good calls for a threshold, where we can say the image is mostly complete, while better doesn’t really have this sort of separation.

The correct approach to color correction is a “checklist” one, not a incremental one. We need to control and fix if necessary all qualities in a photograph (exposure, contrast, detail, saturation, color balance). This is also why it is so important to have a considerate and consistent workflow. It helps repetition, discipline.

More Issues

Where does color correction purpose and goals grew? In the professional businesses where there were limitations, imposed by the state of technologies. Every time it wasn’t possible to print something right, or that something wasn’t matching, professionals worked their magic to make things better.

That’s a concept far away from what we’re doing today, but this difference is understandable, and imposed by a shift that moved the center of gravity from few professional users to a large community of diverse amateurs.

Let me first clarify that when I write “amateurs” I’m not intending someone that lacks skills, or is just messing around, quite the opposite. I’m talking about passionate users, that have no commercial commitment with their color correction works.

If we think about it, it appears so clear that goals for these two categories are so different. Professionals need the job done, fast, they need predictable results, and for the output to be always clean and bright. Amateurs, however, want to experiments, they want to improve an image over the top at the cost of failing bad, and do not always care about time.

They’re not so worried about output, but they’re (and they will) approaching near fields, like perception, to have something more to say. To obtain new tools, new ways to creativity, that were not common before. Understanding the users behaviour is mandatory, to me, to elaborate a correct definition. Because it should be clear now that a honest color correction definition spills from its own users, not the other way.

Color Correction Definition

Today, color correction refers to all the steps that improves and make an image better. Improving an image means to work (if necessary) an all its subsets, exposure, contrast, saturation, color variation and sharpening. It is a field where there are two prominent working user categories, professionals and amateurs, and they have different goals.

When a single user has both approaches we reach, I think, the true purpose of color correction, that is a blend of technique and art. Professionals works to make things possible, to make images consistent, results predictable. Amateurs pursue an impossible (although fascinating) dream, to achieve image by image perfection, with countless fails.

color correction display

A Government Publishing Office (GPO) press operators uses a touch-screen panel to adjust the color of prints from a Heidelberg sheet-fed press, during the process of printing test prints for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Office of Communication (OC) Printing Services Director Cynthia McNeill to perform her press check of the official portrait of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, in Washington, D.C., on May 31, 2017. This dryer/stacker section has a calibrated white light inside it to check the fresh prints. The press operators work with clients such as McNeill to ensure all quality standards are met and approved before starting the press run. Four corrections and test prints were made to finalize and approve the color that the operators will maintain. The run will produce 14,000 photographs to fulfill official requests from USDA facilities around the world. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

They could commit to one thing, and one thing only, to understand what make an image looks better. They could improve the whole field on a daily basis. As always, in this big and colorful world, things are not only black and white, infinite shades are allowed (and let me say welcomed!).

My final personal note

Reading this photographers may felt my same frustration. While learning photography the vast majority of educational experiences are about digital photography, or techniques. One or two days, learning exposure, how to focus, the histogram. Something, I dare to say, that is necessary.

But learning this turns a student into a photographer? Of course not! Photography is a language, is not only techniques, but also art. With several satellites disciplines.

And so is color correction, learning Photoshop doesn’t turn a user into a colorist, color, the visual system, perception, or the power of comparison, this world is not only about digital, is about art as well. Let’s start with a definition we can share, an push forward.