πŸ“· 🎬 What is Good Color?

For both video and photo work, knowing how to develop an eye for pleasing color choice is a skill worth honing. When we talk about color in post, we’re talking about taking the existing color and contrast in the image captured from the camera and tweaking it in some way. Sometimes that’s simply to normalize a shot by removing color casts and restoring contrast as in this example.

Other times it’s for the creation of a more extreme look. Here’s an example where I push that fairly far.


The first thing to know about color is that it follows the same paradigm as every other aspect of media production: garbage in garbage out. As a colorist, I’ve met far too many people expecting me to perfect poor quality footage. To a large extent the truism remains: there’s only so far you can polish a turd.

Color’s Toolset Is Limited

To underscore the point that post color is about accentuating pre-production and production choices more than “creating” a look from scratch, historical context is helpful. Many people don’t realize the limited extent to which the colorist could affect the look of many of their favorite pre-digital films. In the world of printer lights and optical corrections, where the change was made physically rather than on a computer, it was little more than basic R,G,B adjustments, extremely crude by today’s standards. Yet the films for the most part look great. If that was the extent to which the color phase of the process could modify the image historically it should help inform expectations of what the modern colorist should do.

“Good color” is not something you create in post production. Just as much as you consider what the lead actress or model is wearing (not a decision you’d decide to ‘fix in post’) you need to put forth some effort in production design and conscious decision making before the shoot.

Good Color = Good Design

My favorite way to discuss good design is to start with this.

I’m not sure if that’s a real site, but it serves my point well. Variety seems liberating at first, but just as I’ve mentioned previously, “creativity craves constraint” and the more limited your options the more ‘designed’ your result ends up looking.

YOU determine colors’ meaning

5,573 Happy Orange Background Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images  - iStock
Image courtesy of iStock

At this point I should also mention that I don’t put a lot of stock in the philosophy that you can choose specific colors to elicit specific responses in the audience. There’s a bit of evidence that certain colors can trigger consistent physiological responses, but I advise against assigning inherent ‘meaning’ to colors. The above two images are strongly “orange” but their “meaning” or artistic intent is quite different.

Associating discrete connotative “values” to color is counterproductive, and I’ll underscore my opinion with an example. Take the color red for example. We all know red symbolizes love and sensuality. And danger. And good luck. Or a funeral color depending on where you’re from. So when I see red in a film I get thoughts of love/sensuality/danger/good luck/funerals.

It’s definitely important in filmmaking to set up the audience with intentional associations around a given color, but that’s a very different thing than expecting a prescribed audience behavior by your use of a color. Red can be used to signify danger, but teach the audience that association by cleverly inserting red into set design, wardrobe, props and post color techniques that support the story and the association.

Color Schemes

We can’t talk color theory without paying tribute to the various ‘color schemes’. These are ways of picking a color palette based on the color wheel.

  • Complementary: Colors opposite each other on the color wheel.
  • Triadic: Colors equidistant on the color wheel.
  • Split Complementary: Colors adjacent to the complement.
  • Analogous: Colors next to each other on the color wheel.

Like my associative color opinion expressed above, I offer a similar caution on choosing “harmonious” colors for your color scheme based on these ‘rules’. Don’t be overly worried about choosing which colors “go together” based on abstract formulas or systems. Trust your eye. Let me illustrate.

O’Connor’s Color Research and Application says it best with this formula:

Color harmony = f (Col1,2,3,…,n) β€’ (ID+CE+CX+P+T)

Translation: Mix a variety of very personalized factors together (individual differences (ID) like age or gender; Cultural Experience (CE), Context (CX) which is your environment when seeing the color; Perceptual effects (P); and Time (social stigma of a given era could influence your interpretation of red for example). All of those factors combined with a given color (the first part of the formula) show us that positive reaction to color, or an interpretation of “good” color, or color harmony is a function of all those completely uncontrollable parameters. In short, you can’t quantify what makes good color so trust your own instinct and hope that it mirrors your demographic’s. Just choosing colors that look good together and then intentionally building a color palette around that will give you a major leg up.

Your own visual sense will tell you what looks right and wrong. Also remember that on a bigger shoot there’s a reason production designers and teams of visual people centralize around a color scheme. Without that work on the production side, your ability to do much in the color correction side is quite limited. So after all that, here’s my advice:

Limit your options. It’s a tried and true piece of design advice, and for a professional result, very often it’s less about which colors you pick, and more about being selective and consistent with a determined color palette.

Humans Love Complementary Color

As we’ll get to in a moment, our eyes and brains are great adaptors. They are ‘subjective’. In discussing white balance, we learned that we can see a piece of paper as ‘white’ indoors under tungsten lighting as well as outdoors under daylight, even though the color of light hitting the white paper is drastically different. This compensatory function of our visual system lets us see relative color differences despite strong global color casts. But it sometimes works to our disadvantage when trying to color something. You might have the brilliant idea to color a moody scene blue to convey emotional depth in a character. In an effort to create a vivid blue, you might saturate the frame with strong blue hues. In a short space of time, the viewer’s brain will successfully remove the blue you’ve added by balancing that blue with it’s complement: a warmish yellow tone not at all similar to your creative intent.

But what if we used this to our advantage? If we wanted a scene to feel very blue, rather than just adding blue to it’s first shot, we could actually add orange to the shots before it. The extra orange would cause our eyes to seek balance, accentuating blues and when suddenly the blue appears it will come with maximum punch. You can slowly add a color cast to your scene so that when you reveal something of the complementary color it will look even more saturated due to the viewers’ eyes having compensated. This doesn’t have to only happen across time however. One way of keeping the blues vivid in a single shot (photography or video) is to balance the blue with that yellow orange complementary color in the frame. The blue will be more vivid due to the presence of the yellow.

In short, using complementary colors against each other is a great way to create visual contrast, either within a single shot or between scenes.

“Good Color” is Trendy

Color is subjective. Hopefully we’ve established that by now. Trends change over time.


So in short, I advocate these principles

  • Determine your color palette and create a ‘look’ before you shoot. Determine your contrast range as well.
  • Utilize complementary color to create depth and visual impact when desired.
  • Accentuate your palette in post by combining similar-but-not-quite-there hues and limiting hues outside the palette.
  • Know current trends, know your client, and make whoever ultimately pays you happy.


Here are some underutilized resources for applying some of these concepts of color theory:

  • “Ex-Kuler” from Adobe. (This panel is available in Photoshop as an extension and in InDesign and Illustrator as well).
  • What Every Guy Should Know (makeup and color theory)
  • Study old masters and their paintings. There’s a fair amount to be learned about their color palette choices (more limited than our modern palettes). I love this Tenebrism/chiaroscuro style.
  • Film-Grab is a great place to get some visual inspiration and quickly compare a variety of looks across well know feature films.
  • Take it a step further and instead of just using FilmGrab for reference, compare BTS content to footage from the finished film:

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