A New Approach to Grading Color in DaVinci Resolve

In this article, I’m going to discuss some changes I’ve made to the way I approach color grading. I’ve modified the way I use my template node graph, and that has subtly changed how I work in DaVinci Resolve.

The template node graph

Let’s dive right in. Above, you can see my brand new template node graph. If you’re familiar with my workflow, it might not look too different from what I’ve been doing previously. The graph still has five nodes. The one at the far right end is a parallel layer mixer, and the two nodes at the bottom are placeholder nodes. That bottom branch is for working on my secondaries. I put it in a separate branch because that provides a good visual separator. It also allows me to do things like pull qualifiers or make power window adjustments that aren’t going to be influenced by whatever I do in my top primary stack.

The top three nodes are where the meat of our work is. You might remember that my old template node graph also had three nodes: Exposure, Ratio, and Balance. Now, I’m calling these nodes Prime, Balance, and Saturation.

Essentially, I’ve done this to get more functionality out of Resolve without adding more nodes. That’s one of the biggest magic tricks you can pull off in color grading: figuring out how to add functionality without adding complexity. Let’s take a look at how this new node graph operates.

The Prime node

The biggest change here is that we no longer have separate nodes for adjusting exposure and ratio. In the past, we always had one node for adjusting exposure and a separate node for adjusting the contrast ratio. This new graph combines those into a single Prime node. Don’t get me wrong, we are still working on exposure followed by contrast ratio, and we’re still thinking about them as separate things. But now we are combining exposure and ratio into a single node. 

There are a couple of reasons for this, but the main one is that most of the time I just don’t need to adjust exposure right off the bat. When I get footage, my first reaction usually isn’t, “I need to adjust the exposure.” If the exposure feels pretty good overall, I’ll want to work on the contrast ratio first. So having exposure and contrast in one node speeds up my workflow because I don’t have to immediately tap past an exposure node if there’s nothing for me to do there.

Let’s look at this first image. If I want to work on its exposure, I can tweak the offset and then immediately go in and start working on lift, gamma, and gain. Then I can adjust my contrast ratio however I prefer. 

With this clip, I wanted to work in the Prime node to make the image feel a bit softer. I think I achieved a good result. 

The Luminosity Composite Mode

There’s something else that I do with the Prime node in my professional practice. If we right-click on the Prime node, we can set its Composite Mode to Luminosity. Doing this ensures that our colors don’t change when we make exposure or contrast ratio adjustments.

If you watch the vectorscope when we select Luminosity for the Composite Mode, you’ll see the color gamut expands ever so slightly, giving us a little bit more color to work with. Essentially, the Luminosity Composite Mode ensures that our saturations and colors don’t change much as we adjust things like offset, lift, gamma, and gain.

That’s the new process in the Prime node. You should still think about exposure and contrast ratio as separate things, and you should continue to prioritize exposure before contrast ratio. But I’d like you to try doing all of that in one node instead of in separate nodes. I think that you’re going to find that freely flowing between exposure and contrast ratio in a Prime node is more efficient and intuitive than switching between nodes. Using a single Prime node allows us to shape the tonality of the image all in one place.

The Balance node

Nothing much has changed about the Balance node. It’s all the same basic idea. This node is simply a place where we can adjust the overall balance of our image. I have this node’s gamma set to Linear, which allows us to apply linear gain to get a cleaner balancing operation. To me, a Linear gamma balance feels evenly distributed across the bottom, middle and top of the image, more so than if we were doing an offset adjustment.

The Saturation node

The third node in the top section of the graph is the Saturation node. This node has its Color Space set to HSV and its Channels set to Channel Two. 

Some of you might know that I’m not the biggest fan of saturation. I think it is a distraction. We often reach for saturation when we should be thinking about exposure, contrast ratio, or color balance. However, sometimes we already feel good about those things and we want to increase or decrease our saturation.

That’s where our Saturation node comes into play. This is the place where we can do things like drive up gamma, drop gain, and give our images a bit more dimension. These steps can give us more of a filmic response than simply by twisting around the saturation.

A new grading process

As you can see, I’ve only given this new template node graph a few minor tweaks, but those tweaks change the way that our grading process works quite a bit. Let’s go through a couple of clips so I can show you how this new template node graph works in action.

In this first example, I want to work in the Balance node to open things up a bit. I also want to bring the gamma down and adjust the lift towards the right.

To be honest, it’s a little difficult to narrate what I’ve done in this image. I usually go by feel and by eye when I’m working in the Prime node, seeing what I like or don’t like in an image.

Next, let’s do the same thing that I did before for the Composite mode. Right-click the Prime node and change Composite mode to Luminosity. Again, the vectorscope pops back out a little bit. That pop-out is really just making the image look like it did before I adjusted anything in the Prime node.

The Prime node’s whole reason for existence is to adjust the tones of the image. We don’t want it to affect our color in terms of saturation, hues, or balance. We only want the Prime node to affect tonality. So, if I ever feel like what I’ve done in the Prime node has changed the color, I’ll often flip the Composite mode to Luminosity to make everything consistent.

Now, let’s move on to the Balance node. I want to move the color balance away from green and a little towards gold. 

This is where it’s good to have a Saturation node. Let’s increase the saturation gamma a little bit, just to get more color up in those leaves. When you’re driving the saturation gamma in a preset node that is set up in HSV and Channel Two, you can get some very pretty results that you won’t be able to get any other way. 

But be careful not to go too far. Look at what happens if I push the saturation gamma to its limits. We start to get tearing up in the foliage and things start to look kind of odd. 

Finally, let’s go back over our top three nodes and make some fine adjustments. After a few tweaks, our image is starting to look pretty good.

Example two: watch out for Luminosity

Okay, take a look at this shot. The exposure feels pretty good, so let’s dive right into the contrast ratio. Because we’re in a node that does everything, we don’t even have to switch nodes to work on lift and gamma. 

That’s already looking really nice. We’ve kept things deep but also rounded down in the shadows. Now, let’s switch the Composite Mode to Luminosity and see what changes.

In this case, Luminosity introduces a change that I don’t want to see. This image loses a little bit of saturation in its original mode, which I kind of like, so I’m going to let it ride. 

Let’s move on to the Balance node. For this example, let’s pull the color away from red and push towards green. Then, in the Saturation node, let’s give the saturation a little nudge. 

Some notes for managing color in nodes.

Before we go any further, I want to give you some context for how I’m managing color in nodes. Going forward, all of my color management is going to happen in nodes. I feel like it’s easier to understand what’s happening when you’re working this way. Plus, there are some snags that you can encounter while managing color in Project Settings that don’t exist when you’re color managing in nodes. Nodes are just a great way to have more control over the entire color management process. 

In this project, I’m taking advantage of DaVinci Resolve’s Group function. These shots came from an ARRI camera, so I have already assigned them to a group called LogC3. Because of that, these shots are getting an input transform that takes them from the camera color space into the working color space.

Our grading, and our new template node graph, is happening on the Clip level. Clicking over to the Timeline level reveals our output transform. One quick note on the output transform—if you are mastering content for viewing on the internet or mobile devices, you’ll want to target Gamma 2.2. For traditional broadcast or streaming, you will still want to deliver Gamma 2.4, or whatever is stipulated to you. But if you’re creating web content, Gamma 2.2 may be the better option. 

There’s also a look happening on our Timeline level. This look comes from my Voyager LUT pack. That’s nothing new, I’ve been working with it for quite some time. That’s where the overall creative look for our entire timeline is coming from.

One last note, in our Project Settings, under Color Management, I have the Color Viewer lookup table set to MacOS Viewing Transform v1.3. You can grab a free download of it here. 

This transform makes sure that we get the best reproduction of our image on our built-in GUI display. Now, I wouldn’t recommend this for critical color work. The best way to work is still to output from a dedicated output card to a calibrated reference monitor. But this is a great option if you want to get the best accuracy that you can out of your Mac display.

Grading dark shots with our new node graph

Let’s look at another shot and see how we would work with them using our new node graph. 

This one needs some exposure, right? We’re quite under in this shot, so we’re going to open it quite a bit. Don’t worry about getting the entire image perfect at the start. Let’s just focus on getting our subject to where we want to be. Using lift, offset, gamma, and gain, we can start to feel our way through this big adjustment in our Prime node.

Now, this image needs a little more love than we can give it in the Prime node alone, so let’s make some adjustments in Custom Curves. Navigate over to Custom Curves and tap the overexposed foliage in our image to get a sense of where it’s living. Then, Option-click down in the Custom Curves and see if we can roll in those highlights a little bit. 

Now, you might not expect things to move around to the left of that first anchor point set in the Custom Curves, but they do. I get around this by adding a second anchor point to the curve, just to ensure that everything outside of the region I’m working on holds steady. 

Next, let’s work on color balance. We’ve got some nice lush foliage that we don’t want to lose, but we also shouldn’t let the entire image get dragged into the green zone. This is a great example of when you should make your Balance and Saturation nodes work together.

First, we can use the Balance node to make our image a bit warmer. This will skew the color a little more yellow. The image won’t be quite as green as it was before, which is our goal, but we’ll lose some of that nice saturation in our foliage. Don’t worry, we can use the Saturation node to get that lushness back. Usually, I work by adjusting the gamma and gain intuitively until I arrive at something that I like. 

Using the secondary node branch

Now, the lush foliage in our example is holding up pretty well, and we have a nice bit of overall warmth, which feels good. But the color in the bright end of the image is a little too saturated for me. We can fix that by utilizing the secondary branch of our node graph.

In the secondary node branch, choose the Lum Vs Sat adjustment and drop the peaks down. Doing this causes your image to lose some of that excessive saturation as it climbs the tone scale.

As you can see, there’s still lots of life in the dark foliage and in our subject, but that heavy color saturation tapers off as the image climbs into the bright areas. That can be a nice, filmic thing to do to your images. Using the Sat Vs Lum curve can make the image feel a bit more restrained and better rounded.

When to do nothing at all

I like this shot. The exposure feels pretty good. I might stop down a little bit because of the atmosphere that’s hitting the lens. Or maybe that’s just something I would want to hit with my lift or with my gamma. In situations like this, it’s not always clear, but you can try both and see what works better for you.

Sometimes I’ll reach for my knobs and nudge a couple things around, but when I compare what I’ve done to the original, I’ll realize that I haven’t actually changed much at all. That’s a really good sign that you’re already happy with the image and nothing needs to change. In situations like that, I’ll usually just reset the node and move on. There’s no sense in trying to fix something that’s not broken. 

Color correcting for mood and tone

Let’s grade one more shot just for fun. First, in the Prime node, let’s open up the exposure. Even though I like the moodiness of this image, it could stand to have a little more stop. Let’s also bring the highlights down and open up the bottom end of the image. 

My favorite thing about working with lift, gamma, and gain is that you can work with them all at the same time and just try stuff. You don’t need to have the answer to move the knobs. You can just go in, play around, and see what feels nice. Let’s also use the Sat vs Lum trick we learned earlier to save a little bit of the color that we lost with our tonal adjustments.

I think that’s a nice improvement. Next, let’s work on balance. I feel like we could get more character out of this image by pushing it into a cooler, moodier register. Let’s lose some of those warm magenta tones and nudge everything into a cool cyan world.

I don’t feel like there’s anything we should change in terms of saturation. I kind of like the low-sat feeling in this case, so I’m going to leave that exactly where it is. 

Wrapping up

I hope that gave you a good taste of how this new template works. Using template node graphs definitely benefits my practice in terms of efficiency. It also gives me a more intuitive relationship with my image because I can do all my tonal adjustments in the Prime node. It also gives me the ability to use HSV saturation without having to create it as a separate node every single time. That comes up a lot, so it’s really handy to have HSV saturation already built right into the template node graph.

My grading practice is always evolving, and I’m doing my best to keep all of you readers in the loop. You don’t necessarily have to adopt all or any of the ideas that I’ve shown you here today, but I would encourage you to give them a try. Hopefully, this template node graph workflow will help you think about your grades in a different way and will give you results that maybe you wouldn’t get otherwise.

Cullen Kelly

Cullen Kelly is a Los Angeles-based senior colorist with credits spanning film, television, and commercials, for clients and outlets including Netflix, HBO, Hulu, Microsoft, McDonald’s, and Sephora. With a background in image science as well as the arts, he’s passionate about the intersection of the creative and technical, and its role in great visual storytelling. In addition to his grading work, Cullen is an educator and proven thought leader, with platforms including his podcast The Color Code as well as his YouTube channel.