How to Pick the Right Color Grading Software, or, the Fundamental Differences in Cheap Color Correction Applications: Plugins, Built-in Tools, RAW Converters, DaVinci Resolve and Adobe Speedgrade

Choosing a color correction software is not easy if you’re a beginner. In its simplest form, the question runs like this: “Which color correction or grading software will give me the best quality for the lowest price?”.

Turns out, even the built-in tools of most NLEs are good enough to create world-class grades, as I’ve explained earlier. What a beginner needs to understand is that the important color correction algorithms are mostly “sorted out”, and only vary in its details. The more relevant question is: Which software will fit into my workflow so I can get the most done in the least amount of time and expenditure.

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This video and article will highlight the fundamental differences between ‘cheap’ color correction or color grading applications. We look at:

  • Third-party plugins like Colorista, Color Finesse, Symphony, Baselight Editions, etc.
  • The built-in tools in most NLEs – like Levels, Curves, Three-way Color Corrector, etc.
  • RAW converters like Redcine-X, Arri RAW Converter, Sony RAW Viewer, etc.
  • DaVinci Resolve
  • Adobe Speedgrade

We are not looking at which color tool which software has. That’s futile. You can get the job done with any of these applications. Moreover, these tools are constantly evolving and getting better. Just because a feature isn’t present today doesn’t mean it won’t be there tomorrow.

Comparison of color grading software

Here’s the video that goes over the fundamental differences between the cheap color correction applications:

Notes and Links:

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How to select the right color correction tool?

Here’s a quick chart for you to go over what we covered in the video (click to enlarge):

How to Choose Color Grading App

As you can clearly see, though we call all of these ‘color correction tools’, they are profoundly different in the way they approach the task. It’s like boxing. Not all boxers are equal. Strategy, skill and weight-class play a major role in the kind of events one takes part in. Boxers develop a style based on what best suits their body. Use your advantages, hide your disadvantages. That’s exactly how choosing a color correction tool is like.

I primarily began by grading in After Effects, mostly using the built-in tools, and occassionally Color Finesse. It was the only way I could get 32-bit linear grading back then (Resolve wasn’t free, and Adobe hadn’t bought Speedgrade yet). It is only this year I’ve begun using Speedgrade, after Speedgrade got decent scopes and a better integration with Premiere Pro.

Here’s my advice in a nutshell:

  • If I don’t have time to leave the NLE, or if the client isn’t paying for grading, I choose built-in tools or plugins.
  • If I’m compositing, keying, etc., and the same holds true as above, then I use the built-in tools or plugins in After Effects.
  • If the above holds true, but not all shots need to be graded, I use Color Finesse. It really is a joy to grade. Too bad I have to go back and forth for each clip.
  • If all shots need to be graded, or if I’m shooting RAW or Log footage, then I will use Speedgrade (or Resolve, if that’s what you prefer).
  • I use RAW converters only if I’m using a specific camera and I need to create looks, dailies, etc., or I need to handle metadata.

Which do I prefer: Speedgrade or Resolve? Resolve is the most powerful, but Speedgrade is the fastest workflow for me because I own Adobe Creative Clouds. If you’re looking to be a colorist, you have no choice. You must learn both.

As you progress in your career, you will start encountering these more expensive tools:

  • Autodesk Lustre (usually restricted to a Smoke/Flame environment)
  • Assimilate Scratch (rare, not as expensive compared to the rest of this list)
  • SGO Mistika
  • Quantel Pablo Rio
  • Filmlight Baselight
  • Digital Vision Nucoda

Most of these apps require high-end computer and processing hardware to perform well – but that holds true of any color grading software, doesn’t it? It would be wrong to say they are not worth their prices (we’re talking five figures or more here, US Dollars), because whoever is using them feels they are worth it.

The underlying reason why large post houses pay for these systems is the hardware and software support they get. You can’t expect someone to take your $100,000 and not answer calls afterwards. It is extremely critical for these systems to perform day in and day out on highly demanding (DI, 4K and stereoscopic) content – that’s not an easy task. Try to finish a 4K project in Resolve with a ‘decent’ workstation and you’ll see.

All things considered, if I were to advise a young colorist on software (for which I’m totally unqualified, so why are you listening to me?!), I would say: Pick DaVinci Resolve. You can’t go wrong with it. The only thing I wish the free software included is the noise reduction capability of the paid version. It’s a critical component of the finishing process.

I hope this article has helped you figure out which color correction software to pick, and when to pick it – with confidence. After that you’re on your own.

Exclusive Bonus: Download my free guide (with examples) on how to find the best camera angles for dialogue scenes when your mind goes blank.