Colour Grading Suite Setup – Your most important first step

Cindrey Liu

Cindrey Liu

Colourist

Colour Grading Setup is not as hard as you think. With these tips you will be grading like a pro in no time.

Colour Grading Suite Setup is your most important first step, including lighting, wall colour and closely followed by monitor calibration. You can’t just grade in any room using any monitor and expect your grade to come across to viewers accurately.

One of the biggest mistakes a budding colourist can make is to work in an unsuitable environment.

Thankfully, it is possible and fairly simple these days to set up your own colour grading suite at a reasonable cost.

This post will outline the basic principles that you will need to follow when doing so:

1.

Lighting

The keyword you should keep in mind when building your workspace is this: neutral. Your eyes are very sensitive to colour casts. For example, If you own a pair of blue sunglasses or blue swimming goggles, you are probably familiar with what happens when you take them off — everything looks yellow! This is because your eyes have the ability to adapt to colours without you even realising it, which will work against you when you’re grading.

Block out ambient lighting

Block out all ambient light from entering your suite. The colour temperature of natural sunlight changes constantly throughout the day.

How To Set Up Your Own Colour Grading Suite

Your eyes will adjust to these changes and can cause you to compensate, making your grade inconsistent. For example, as daylight gets warmer, your brain adds blue to compensate, then you add red or yellow to your grade to compensate for your brain compensating for the lighting… See the problem? It can create a real mess!

To prevent this, pick a room with no windows or use blackout curtains.

Colour temperature of bulbs

Make sure all the bulbs in your suite are 6500k in colour temperature so that the lighting in your room will be consistent with the D65 white point of your monitor. Also, ensure that they have a colour rendering index (CRI) of at least 90. The higher the CRI, the more colour accurate your image will appear.

Brightness levels

Your eyes also adjust to changes in brightness. If your room is too dark, your iris will expand and subsequently you will tend to grade darker.

There are many schools of thought about how bright a room should be when you’re grading. Some say it should be a very specific level while others recommend a level that matches your audience’s environment (e.g. grade in a completely dark room if the film is for cinemas). But viewing habits are so varied today that it is hard to cater to all your audiences and their various viewing platforms. I would suggest instead that you grade in a room brightness that is comfortable for you. Just make sure that you adjust your monitor’s brightness level accordingly, using the SMPTE colour bars to ensure your grade doesn’t end up too bright or dark. (Find out how in the next point).

2.

Wall paint

It may surprise you, but the colour of your walls is important too. If you paint your suite a bright pink colour, there will surely be a colour cast on your image. Your eyes will quickly compensate by adding green and cause you to add even more pink when balancing your shot.

18% Neutral Gray is the recommended wall paint colour. Pure white and black is also okay. If this is too boring, then at least make sure that your surround wall — the area behind your monitor and within your peripheral vision — is a neutral colour. You can paint the rest a different colour but it will still be wise to avoid vivid colours because light reflecting off these other walls can cause a colour cast.

3.

Monitor

Choice of monitor

This is your most important tool. Spend as much as you can afford to get the highest quality monitor possible. Thankfully, it is possible to buy a pretty high-end consumer monitor that will be good for grading. The key factor should be colour accuracy. Otherwise, your scopes may say your highlights are green but you look up at the monitor and they look blue… This will be frustrating and send you into a spiral of confusion. So make sure you pick a monitor with accurate colour rendition so you can be absolutely confident that you and your client are viewing the most accurate image possible.

calibrated monitor
Sony X950G. Out of the box.

OLED monitors are preferable as they are more colour accurate, have deeper blacks and generally a superior image. But what is considered the best changes every few months, so visit our favourite reviewers like RTINGS and VFX Pro to see what’s hot. (For 2020 we recommend this monitor.)

Monitor calibration

Even if you pick a high-end consumer monitor with superb out-of-the-box colour accuracy, there’s still one more step before you can start colour grading. Retail stores usually adjust monitor settings to overblown contrast and saturation levels in order to attract buyers. If you grade with those settings, you will end up with a grade that wont look good on a properly adjusted TV set.

You can easily fix that by using the SMPTE bars to adjust your monitor’s brightness and saturation levels. Remember to do this only after you have determined how bright you want your room to be.

The super easy steps are summarised below:

  1. Load SMPTE bars and warm up monitor. Set your monitor to recommended settings for optimal colour accuracy (not Dynamic!).
  2. Now turn your chroma/colour down to 0 so your SMPTE is B&W
  1. Adjust contrast until the 100% white chip no longer seems to get brighter.
  2. Adjust brightness until the 2 left PLUGE bars barely disappear, and the rightmost PLUGE bar is barely visible.
  3. Bring the Chroma (or colour saturation) back up to where it was prior. To get the chroma levels perfect, you’ll need to switch to your monitor’s “Blue-only” feature. Adjust the chroma until all the longer, alternating blue bars become one continuous bar each. If it is wrong you will see additional blue boxes at the bottom of each blue bar.
  1. Go back to full colour setting and check the brightness and contrast again.

Now you have your monitor calibrated to your room conditions.

But if you have a particularly keen eye for colour and want to get your monitor to its maximum accuracy, you can use quantitative tools like SpectraCal to calibrate the colours. (This webinar can help you with that) Beware the can of worms ;).

Now you have a solid foundation to colour grade with confidence. 

Check out our other colour grading blogs to get you colour grading like a pro.

If you have any questions, feel free to drop me a comment below.

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