How a Pro Colorist Handles Crushed Blacks in Resolve

When I first started working as a colorist, one of my least favorite notes was, “The blacks are too crushed.” It wasn’t because I didn’t understand what it meant. I understood perfectly. But it was the kind of note that would leave my client a little less happy once I addressed it. That, or the change would make the image look worse than it did before.

There are a lot of reasons why I think I experienced this. The main one is this: crushed blacks are a common note in color grading. They can be symptomatic of all kinds of problems. If we want to identify, diagnose, and treat these problems, we need to know what questions to ask.

So, what should you do when a client says the blacks are too crushed? It’s kind of like going to a doctor and saying, “Hey doc, my stomach hurts.” A good doctor knows that many things can make a stomach hurt. They’re not going to only treat the symptoms. They’re going to find and treat the root cause of the pain. 

It’s the same thing with color grading. Crushed blacks can mean many different things. A good colorist needs to ask the right questions to figure out what their client means when they say the blacks are too crushed. Let’s go through a few of these questions and see if they can help us through this process. 

“Is my client seeing what I’m seeing?”

The first question is going to sound obvious, but it’s a great place to start. “Is my client seeing what I’m seeing?” It sounds basic, but it’s an easy question to overlook.

If you and your client are not sitting in the same room looking at the same screen, it can be tough to guarantee that you both are seeing the same image. And if you’re not, there is nothing you can do on your end to solve that problem. It’s a screen problem—a problem of two different displays not agreeing with each other.

Getting your client in the same room to look at the same monitor can an important part of the color process.
Getting your client in the same room to look at the same monitor can an important part of the color process. Image courtesy of Light Iron, © 2020.

Getting two displays to agree can be fairly easy, but sometimes it’s a little difficult. If you have any doubts, I recommend sitting in the same room as your client so you can both look at the same screen. Doing this at least once at the beginning of your process will give your client an image that they can remember. Then, if the blacks look crushed on your client’s device later, they will be far more likely to think, “Wait a minute, this isn’t how it looked when we were all sitting in the same room together.” 

It sounds obvious, but it is almost impossible to overstate the importance of asking, “Are we even looking at the same thing?” If you’re not, then there’s nothing you can do that will solve the fact that you and your client are looking at two different images on two different displays. The simplest solution is to have everyone look at the same screen to get a common understanding of what the image should look like. That way, your client will have the ability to call it out if they are getting a weird reproduction on different screen.

“Is my exposure optimized?”

Question number two is, “Is my exposure optimized?” This is a great example of something that doesn’t seem to speak directly to the black level. 

If you look at the image above you’ll see that, yes, those blacks look super crushed. But it’s not necessarily because there’s a problem with the contrast ratio. It’s because the exposure is really, really low. As colorists, we always want to ask the question, “Has my exposure been optimized?” That doesn’t mean you need to open everything up and get a super bright reproduction. But you do want to make sure that you’re happy with the exposure.

Exposure is a creative parameter, so it’s not about getting the exposure right. It’s about getting the exposure to a place that you and your client feel is correct. A great question to ask your client is, “Does this subject feel well-exposed to you?” You want to determine if your client thinks the subject is under or overexposed.

No matter what, the answer is going to give you some insight into where your client’s feedback is coming from. “It’s too dark” or “It’s too bright” will tell you where the exposure needs to be. Then you can address more localized things like the shadows between that subject and the floor of the signal.

“Have I shaped my contrast enough?”

The next time you get a note about crushed blacks, I want you to ask, “Have I shaped my contrast enough?” You want to double-check how you have shaped the high and low ends of your image tonality. That’s something that can evaluated by eye. It’s also something you can evaluate with your scopes. 

For example, when I look at our image’s histogram, I can see that the blacks may indeed be too crushed. The signal is smashing into a wall. The histogram is hitting at full strength on the left edge. That’s a clue that we could stand to shape the low end of the image more. 

There are a lot of different ways to do this. Let’s start by going to our Primaries Color Wheel and opening the lift way up. 

When you do this, things might look weird for a second. Right now, our image now looks far too open and artificially lifted. One of the best tricks to treat crunchy blacks is to go up on the lift and then down on gamma. Oftentimes, you will also have to go up on gain as well.

If you look at all of our adjustments, you’ll see that we’ve made a big move. I’ve also separated our lift, gamma, and gain adjustments from the offset adjustments by copying them into a new node. Now we can flip our tonality adjustments on and off to compare them to our separate exposure adjustment. 

We can see a lot further into the image after fine-tuning our tonality. We haven’t flattened out the contrast of the image either. That’s the biggest challenge when getting feedback about crushed blacks. A good colorist has to recognize that contrast is necessary. You want to have rich contrast and tonality without flattening the bottom end of the image. This trick with lift, gamma, and gain is a good example of how you might achieve that. Let’s look at another way to do it.

Adjust your tonality with custom curves.  

We’re going to work on tonality again, but this time with Custom Curves. To do this, go to Custom Curves and use the eyedropper to select the upper region of the crushed shadows in your image. For this image, click where the light on the actor’s face falls off into the darkest shadow. Tap somewhere around there, and then option-click to move the selection point up a little bit on the custom curve.

Let’s bring some fill light into the dark zone by manipulating only the lower end of the Custom Curve. Be careful—it’s easy to can take this too far and make the image look weird. But using Custom Curves can be a powerful way to slightly open up the low end of an image. 

A little encouragement.

Sometimes a small change like this is all you need when you’re getting a note about crushed blacks. I had to learn this over time. When I used to get that note, I would think, “Oh my God, I have to completely redo the image.” But sometimes all you need is a little nudge. 

And sometimes, all your client needs is a little encouragement. You can say something like, “I see what you mean. The blacks were feeling a bit clipped and crunchy before. But I feel like this small change makes a big difference. I don’t think the blacks feel crushed anymore.” What you say to a client is an important part of being a colorist. Your words can give your client a fresh perspective on how the image is feeling. 

What you say to a client is an important part of being a colorist.

Colorists make their money in how they shape the very bottom of the very top of the image. Most people can figure out how to make the middle of an image look good. But you’re going to see big gains in your color grades if you learn how to shape the low end of an image too.

“Am I using the right look?”

The last question I want to leave you with is, “Am I using the right look?” We haven’t talked about looks yet. By turning off the look, you can see that my Kodak 2383 LUT is doing a lot to the image.

A LUT can do beautiful things to an image. But notes about crushed blacks can be a clue that you may not have the right look in place.

When I say the “right” look, I don’t mean that a look is terrible. But the client may not like the look that’s been chosen. They might not even realize they don’t like it because they’re just looking at one shot after another. You should ask this question if you’re getting recurring feedback of any kind, not just about crushed blacks. Any feedback that you’re getting more than once can be a clue that you need to revisit your look. 

You might find that simply backing off on the look is a solution. There are a lot of different ways to do that. One is to prepend a serial node, then set the Pivot point to .336, and add a little bit of negative contrast. 

“Is my look correct?” is a question you should get in the habit of asking yourself. You should be ready to ask your client if they want to go back and tailor an overall look, or even get rid of it completely and try a new look.

Here’s a good litmus test when you’re implementing looks: once you apply a look to an image, you and your client should be saying, “Cool, that looks good.” If your client looks at the image and says, “Oh no, the blacks are too crushed” then you need to question whether or not you are using the right look.

It’s all about the client.

The biggest thing that we as colorists should keep in mind is that it’s all about the client. It’s more about the client than it is about the image. As colorists, we need to understand what our clients are seeing, whether that’s what they are physically seeing on their monitors or if it’s what they want to see in an image. Part of a our job as colorists is managing clients and their expectations. It is as much a part of the job as anything you might do on a computer. 

Learning how to work at a professional level will make you an effective collaborator that clients will want to come back to.

I hope you enjoyed this walkthrough. Hopefully, this gives you a more nuanced way to deal with crushed blacks. Now you can do more than just raise the lift and see how far you can go before you hate it. There are more ways to address a dark image than simply opening up the low end and hoping for the best. I hope you’ll keep these questions in mind the next time you get a note from a client about crushed blacks.

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.