The Ultimate Guide to Understanding Color Correction vs. Color Grading in Photo Editing

When you take a digital photo, the colors in your picture may or may not appear as you would like them to. Thankfully, it’s possible to manipulate colors in photos relatively quickly and easily. Knowing what’s possible helps your creative flow. So in this article, we will take a look at color correction vs color grading in photo editing.

When you understand the basics of color and how your camera records it, you have begun your journey. Color editing requires an understanding of some technical aspects of digital photography. Having a vivid creative imagination is also important.

Color Correction vs Color Grading: What is the Difference?

Color correction is most often needed for all digital photographs. Color grading may happen automatically, or you may need to color-correct your photos using an app or external editing software. This depends on how your camera is set up to save your photos.

Color grading is less common and not so necessary. You can set your camera to include some types of very rudimentary color grading. To have more control, using professional-level photo editing software is recommended.

Whatever type of visual digital media you work with, color is a fundamental element to control. Whether you set up your camera or manage how the colors look in your photos is up to you. .

In-camera color correction is automatic and therefore a great time saver. Having to manually adjust the colors in every photo you take requires time and patience. You’ll also need to spend hours studying and learning how to manipulate images so the colors look how you want them to.

Before you dive into what might seem like an overwhelming task, let’s break down color correction vs color grading. This will provide you a good understanding of both.

What is Color Correction in Photo Editing?

Color correcting a photo involves making adjustments to the colors so they appear as natural as you saw them with your eyes. Correcting the colors in a photo so they are accurate is sometimes very straightforward. At other times it is much more complicated.

A major factor that makes the difference between an easy color correction task and a challenging one is light temperature. Light is not all the same. 

Some light is warm. It has a yellowish glow to it. This is most common in the early morning, a little after sunrise, and in the evening, a little prior to sunset.

At other times, light can produce a blue hue in your photos. This is common shortly before sunrise and after sunset. Cloudy days result in cooler-toned colors, as do photos taken in the shade. Especially in deep shade in cities.

Electric lights also influence color temperature in your photos. When you go to buy an eclectic light bulb you have options. You can purchase ‘Daylight’, ‘Warm White’, or ’Cool White.’ To your eye, there may not seem much difference. This is because our brain filters colors differently than our cameras record them.

When you take a photo of a warm white light bulb and a cool white light bulb that illuminates the same room you will see the difference more easily. Our cameras record a single image on the sensor in a split second. This means when there’s more than one color temperature illuminating a scene our cameras cannot correct the colors. 

Color correction is the process of rendering colors in a photo so they look natural to the human eye.

Natural Color

Is Color Correction Necessary in Photography? 

Color correction is necessary for photography for any colors to look as they naturally do. If the colors are displayed without any correction they will not look normal. In digital photos with no color correction applied the colors look flat and dull, lacking contrast.

This is what you see when looking at a RAW file. When your camera is set to save RAW files it saves all the data the camera records when you press the shutter button. The camera adds no filters and does not alter any aspect of the photo. 

When your camera records .jpg image files, some filters and tweaks automatically adjust the colors in the photo. This is why photos saved as .jpg files look better than those saved as RAW files before they’ve been post-processed.

You can adjust the in-camera settings to manage how colors in your .jpg files look. You can control:

  • Hue
  • Saturation
  • Brightness
  • Color Temperature

Manual control of RAW files requires post-processing. This is done using image editing software such as Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, or Affinity Photo. With this software, you can manipulate the colors so they appear correctly in your photos. There are many filters and plugins designed to automate this process or parts of it.

Filters for both color correction and color grading can make for a more consistent look. Depending on how you apply a filter or tweak it may result in unrealistic colors. Learning to manually control how the colors appear in your photos takes time and practice, but provides more accurate results. 

Relying on filters for color correction often produces less than satisfactory images. If an incorrect filter is applied the colors in a photograph end up looking less realistic rather than more realistic.

relastic color images

What is Color Grading in Photography? 

Color grading in photography is the creative process of manipulating a photo so the colors look how you want them to. This may be surreal, slightly real, or hyperrealistic. It’s up to you.

Color grading is all about style, mood, and atmosphere. Whether colors look realistic or not is irrelevant. 

This technique is most effective when the same color grading process is applied to a series of similar photographs. Well-controlled color grading across a body of photographs helps tie the images together as a collection.

Film directors make good use of color grading to help shape the mood of a scene or a whole movie. Wes Anderson is well known for use of highly controlled color correction in many of his movies. The Matrix famously uses a green color correction for scenes when the movie’s characters are in the matrix. 

Advertising campaigns often make use of stylized color grading to make their products more appealing. Well toned colors in an ad campaign manipulate how people perceive products. Using warm hues creates a vastly different impression than when the same photo is treated with cooler tones.

Color grading is used to adjust the visual mood of an image. Split toning is a common color grading technique. This method involves altering the hue of shadows in a photo with a different tone than the highlights. 

One popular choice for color grading editors is to add teal to the shadows and yellow or orange to the highlights in a photo. 

Color grading in photography

Is Color Grading Necessary in Photography? 

Color grading is not 100% necessary. How you want your photos to look is up to you. 

Traditionally, people have expected colors in photographs to look natural. But this has changed in the digital era. Color correction is necessary, either in-camera or with software, so colors in photos look natural. Color grading is more important when you want your photos to take on a particular look. 

Selecting a collection of photos that have similar subjects and lighting, you can manipulate the mood of the series with color grading. Applying the same set of filters to each photo helps to tie them together more tightly. 

Your choice to use predominantly use warm tones or cool ones has an overall impact on the atmosphere of the set of images. Uniform color grading intentionally helps shape how viewers perceive the photographs.

A key aspect of successful color grading is your intent. When you have in mind how you want your photos to look the process is more effective. Consider the mood you want your pictures to convey. Then decide how you want to color grade your photos. 

With no clear intent, the effect of color grading your photos is diminished below its potential. The best color grading of photos helps keep a story flowing and the mood.

A sound understanding of the technical aspects of both color correction and color grading is a good foundation. When you know how the process works and how color affects the atmosphere in an image, you will produce more effective results. In the next section, we will introduce you to the basics of how to color correct and color grade your photographs.

Is Color Grading Necessary in Photography

How to Color Correct Your Images

To color correct your photos properly you must know what the colors in the photo actually look like. You must also have some understanding of how to use the color correction tools in the editing software. Across many of the popular editing programs these tools are very much the same and so is the process.

Here is the base image to demonstrate. This photo was saved as a RAW file in my camera. I have opened it and saved it as a .jpg without manipulating it.

unedited photo RAW format.
The unedited photo as it appears in RAW format.

The first step in my color correction process was to adjust the exposure because the photo is a little too dark. Then I tweaked the highlights so that they are a little brighter. Next, I adjusted the shadow slightly and darkened the blacks. I made no changes to the mid-tones because after adjusting the exposure these colors looked good.

exposure, shadows, highlights
The same photo with adjustments to the exposure, shadows, highlights, and blacks.

Once I’d made these changes I thought the colors still looked a little dull. I then adjusted the saturation and vibrance to boost the colors a bit more.

This photo was taken using daylight and my camera’s white balance setting was set to automatic. So there was no need for me to adjust the color temperature.

Below is the color-corrected image with all the changes applied.

vibrance and saturation of the colors.
In this version I have also adjusted the vibrance and saturation of the colors.

The white page of the sketch pad looks clean and white. The blacks are deep and rich, containing no color cast. The colors of the art products look natural as they did to my eye.

How to Color Correction in Photoshop – Easy Method

Color Correction Before and After 

Placing the original beside the color-corrected photo, you can clearly see the differences.

The Ultimate Guide to Understanding Color Correction vs. Color Grading in Photo Editing
RAW original

The Ultimate Guide to Understanding Color Correction vs. Color Grading in Photo Editing
Color-corrected photograph.

The overall tone of the edited photo is much more lively and realistic than the muted tones of the RAW file. 

How to Color Grade Your Images

Color correction focuses on tweaking the exposure, white balance, and tones in a photo. Color grading focuses more on the:

  • Hue
  • Levels
  • Curves
  • Solid color filling
  • Split toning
  • And saturation

All or only some of these controls may be used to color grade photos to achieve the look and feel you are aiming for. 

In this image, I have manipulated the main colors of the products so they look similar. With the warm colors tweaked to appear more orange and the cool colors having a teal toning.

teal and orange toning
Color grading was added to produce teal and orange toning.

For this image, I adjusted the contrast, highlights, and the saturation levels. I also tweaked the white balance. 

By pushing the contrast higher and increasing the saturation, the colors appear more bold than they naturally do. I dragged the white balance slider more toward the blue end of the spectrum. Notice the effect this has particularly on the shadow of the blue marker pen.

 contrast, highlights, and the saturation levels
Starting again with the RAW file I adjusted the contrast, highlights, and the saturation levels. I also tweaked the white balance.

You will also notice the blue cast on the white paper created by the shadow of the yellow marker pen. This is not a natural occurrence. It happened because of the combination of other changes I made when editing this photo. 

Whenever you are manipulating color grading sliders in editing software you must check the effects that have in real-time. As you make the changes, check each area and color in the image to ensure the photo ends up looking as you intend it to.

For this last image, I added some curve adjustments and used the color grading panel in Lightroom to give the photo a cross-processed look. This produces a vintage look with unusual coloring.

The Ultimate Guide to Understanding Color Correction vs. Color Grading in Photo Editing
Screen grab from Lightroom showing the adjustment made to the red curve.

Color Grading Before and After

Comparing the original RAW image with any of the color-graded ones it is easy to see the differences. 

Original RAW photo.
The teal and orange look.
The teal and orange look.
The high contrast, oversaturated look.
The cross-processed vintage look.
The cross-processed vintage look.

This look was originally produced when processing a film in the incorrect chemicals. It involved developing a negative film in chemicals for processing positive films and vice versa.

The real key to being successful with color grading is your intent. When you have a clear idea in mind of the look and feel you want, the process is more straightforward. 

Having only a vague impression of what you want means the process is less precise and a series of images may not look as cohesive as they might.

Learning to translate what you envisage into the final edited photos takes training and skill. You must know what you want before you begin the process for real. 

As you are learning the art of color grading, don’t be afraid to experiment. A lot! The more time you spend practicing you’ll come to know the broad variety of effects the different tools have. 

Try adding the same treatment to different photos and compare them. You’ll soon discover that changes you make to one photo that produces pleasing results may or may not work so well on other photos.

Where to Outsource Color Correction and Color Grading Service If You Need? 

There’s a great solution if you don’t have time to learn how to color correct and grade your photos. You can make use of Clipping Path Studios Photo Color Correction Services.

This service is ideal when you have a large selection of images and you want the colors to appear correct and consistent. Learning to do this on your own can take a very long time. Making use of this service from Clipping Path Studios reduces the time and stress involved.

If, for example, you have a product line for sale online, maybe a clothing line on Etsy or Amazon. You certainly want the colors of the products you’re marketing to appear as they really are. 

The Ultimate Guide to Understanding Color Correction vs. Color Grading in Photo Editing

Imagine how disappointed customers would be if they purchase an item based on the color on the website. Only to receive an item that appears to be quite a different color. If your images are not properly color-corrected, this mistake will cost you time and money.

Outsourcing your color correction and color grading requirements makes good sense. Having professionals apply color correction to photos you are assured the colors people see are the actual colors.


What comes first color grading or color correction?

It is most important to color-correct your photos before you apply any color grading to them. Once a photo is well-balanced and color corrected, any color grading adjustments are more consistent when applied to a series of photos.

Is color correction a crucial need for every photographer?

Yes. Color correction, whether in-camera or produced with editing software, is necessary. Without any color correction, your digital photos look flat and dull.

How much charge for color grading?

It depends on the style of the color grading. As there are various options for color grading, the price varies. Also, the number of images is another factor. The more you’ll order, the more cost-effective the price will be.

How much does color correction Cost?

It depends on the nature of the color correction. As there are various kinds of color correction, the price varies. Also, the number of images is another factor. The more you’ll order, the less the price will be.

Is color grading the same as split toning?

Split toning is one style of color grading that is very popular. But there’s more you can do with color grading than only using split toning.

Final Verdict

Color correction is vital. All photographs need some form of color correction to ensure the images look correct and appealing. Without paying proper attention to the colors in your photos, you will find that people don’t pay them much attention. 

Well-planned and applied color grading can transform a series of images. You can alter the mood and atmosphere when you color-grade photos. One of the key aspects of good color grading is knowing what you want and applying your changes with intent. Grading the colors in your photos is not necessary as color correction is.

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About the Author

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Kevin Landwer Johan


Photographer, Author, Teacher

Kevin Landwer-Johan is a self-taught photographer who has a depth of experience he loves to share with others. Kevin started in photography working at a daily newspaper in his native New Zealand in the late 1980s. He worked for many years as a newspaper photographer before starting his own freelance business where he engaged in commercial, editorial, wedding and portrait photography.

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