Contrast Adjustments: Which Is The Right Tool For You?

August 9, 2022

In Part 3 of Cullen Kelly's 'Flexing Fundamentals' series, learn how to think about organizing contrast adjustments to improve your results.


Flexing Fundamentals Part 3: Exploring Rolling vs. Linear Contrast Tools

If you’ve checked out any of my other Insights, you know that I’m a big believer in keeping my node graphs as simple and organized as possible: one node for exposure, one node for contrast, one node for balance, etc. But I’ve often found that my contrast node in particular has the tendency to get over-complicated as a result of multiple knobs and tools being stacked up within it in order to achieve my result.

In this Insight we’re going to inventory some of the key tools available to us for contrast manipulation, looking at how they overlap, how they differ, and whether they impart a “rolling” or a linear adjustment to our image.

Learning Goals for this Insight

After watching this Insight, you should understand:

  1. The multi-dimensional nature of contrast: there are many ways to create or control it, and finding the right one for your needs requires a clear understanding of how our various tools work
  2. The value of structuring not only your node graph, but the adjustments you allow yourself to make within each node. This is artist-specific, and requires exploration and experimentation!

External links mentioned in this Insight

  • Grayscale DCTL – A link to the GitHub repository for the Grayscale DCTL generator I use in this Insight

Related Mixing Light Insights

  • How to use GitHub – This is Part 2 of my series on coding with DCTLs. I’m linking to it here since it covers how to use GitHub, in case you’re not familiar with downloading and installing DCTLs from that repository.
  • Thinking Like A Colorist: Considering Final Contrast – Dan Moran: “Considering Final Contrast before you make your first primary correction is a huge advantage creatively to help you get the best results.”
  • Managing Contrast Across Multiple Scenes – Patrick Inhofer: “Stop using the full video contrast range on every shot in every scene. Learn to start managing contrast between scenes for visual interest.”

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Homepage Forums Contrast Adjustments: Which Is The Right Tool For You?

  • Jim Robinson

    Hey, thanks Cullen.
    I feel like I am hanging out with you everyday – and that’s a good thing.
    I have a comment not related to contrast, but a topic that you are talking about in this insight.

    For the last 3 or 4 years I have been keeping a list of simple updates that I would like to see Blackmagic Design incorporate into the GUI.
    At the moment I have an eleven point ideas and suggestions , to which the first is –

    Number 1 -a sticky note that can be added to the node tree – like a small yellow rectangle that you at anytime can double click and read or edit notes. The node labels are great but even saving power grades or giving instructions to yourself for future use etc. would be ideal.”
    Having a sticky note node that, at anytime can be dropped into the node tree, and double click to read, would especially be a great way to save, and more importantly, review Stills, or Powergrades. When you come back to something that you built months ago to quickly read what your intentions and thoughts were in development, for me I end up wasting time hunting around trying to remember what I was trying to do.
    It seems to me with all the tech added over the last versions, that this would be a simple upgrade that would save all colorists loads of time.
    Anyway, great to see another Cullen Kelly insight here. You know how much I enjoy your teaching. Sometimes I learn brand new stuff that I haven’t thought of, and other times, I feel like I am getting a doctors second opinion on procedure and techniques that I have adopted myself. Both of which are great.
    Thanks a lot.

  • Cullen Kelly

    Thanks Jim! Always enjoy reading your replies and insights. The sticky note idea is a great one!

  • Hi Cullen, thank you for this insight 😉

    One question, if I apply an HDR contrast on a grey scale ramp, it behave sort of Gamma + Gain (Primaries) mix together.

    Do you know why ? Nothin like an S or linear curve…

    • Cullen Kelly

      Great question Saul! If you look at the effect of the HDR Zones Contrast/Pivot on a ramp without an output transform, you’ll see that it’s essentially linear contrast with a compression function at the bottom end. I personally don’t find its response to be very intuitive, but I might just be too set in my ways!

  • Rich Marino

    Hi Cullen, Thanks for the great insight as usual, albeit being a coffee lover it’s not quite the same as when you are sipping from your mug, maybe that’s YouTube only 🙂 Would be interesting to address how extremely different the HDR contrast is in comparison, don’t find myself using it very often maybe for a certain different look. I am working in ACES CCT.


    • Cullen Kelly

      Haha, thanks Rich — and don’t worry, the coffee may be out of frame but it’s never far 😉


      Re HDR contrast, see my above reply to Saul’s question — the shape of the curve it draws is essentially linear contrast with compression in the bottom, but also worth noting that color and luma are being decoupled in a unique way with the aim of better preserving hues and saturations. I usually don’t love the results on my images, but it’s absolutely worth experimenting with for yourself!

  • Great video, thank you!

    I have a long standing feature request related to fixed node usage I’d be in interested in people’s thoughts on… I’d love it if there were an option ‘Switching nodes selects Last used Menu’ so that when I decide to have a node for only Primaries and a different node only for the HDR tool, when I switch between these nodes Resolve would switch to the appropriate palette /tool – rather than me having to manually switch the UI between Primary and HDR Tool. Efficiently working with one tool for one node. What are your thoughts?

    I’d also love to be able to toggle on/off each tool within a node if I decided to use multiple tools in the same node (I rarely do this partly because currently I can’t toggle them off independently).

    Thanks again.

    • 100% agree with that one Jamie.

    • Cullen Kelly

      Glad you enjoyed it Jamie! These are excellent suggestions! I’ve definitely been frustrated by the current behaviors you’re describing.

  • Evan Anthony

    I agree also with Jamie!

  • I’m glad people like this idea! I posted it in the Wishlist Blackmagic forum and nobody seemed to like it!

    Thanks all!

  • I was surprised by the lack of enthusiasm for my feature wish here…

    But perhaps habits change, vote it up if you like it 🙂

  • Yash Mistry

    Hey Cullen,

    I have a question.

    I often find it confusing to adjust exposure once we set the initial contrast. I follow your Macro to Micro rule every time I begin my grading. It helps every time. Although I have a few questions I want to ask.

    I initially set the contrast on the timeline level. However, I face issues while I am adjusting the shot on a clip basis. So after setting up my contrast on the timeline level, I get back to clip level and I adjust exposure using Offset. Although while working with underexposed shots, I often find myself using a Gamma/Gain wheel. As result, I find that my shot looks way far from my initial contrast adjustment. It is really annoying for me because I don’t take the right judgment.

    Eventually while adjusting the clip with gain, I notice my shadows lifted up a little bit and find myself playing with the Lift wheel then again with Gamma/Gain.

    So then I transfer my timeline level contrast adjustment to the clip base at the end of the pipeline. And make adjustments to it to bring the clip where I want. Which eventually makes it time-consuming for me to put all the clips together.

    In timeline adjustment, I use curves with Editable Splines. And then to adjust clips I use the Primaries wheels.

    Would you please share what I am doing wrong? It would be much helpful for me.

    Thank you!

  • Cullen Kelly

    Hey Yash! I don’t think you’re necessarily doing anything wrong, but here are some tips I think will help you find better results:

    1) Spend more time dialing in your macro-level contrast. If it’s not serving the majority of shots in your timeline, you should keep refining until it does (and sometimes this is just a matter of doing less). And remember to preserve mid gray at this stage!

    2) Experiment with different exposure tools, for example the HDR Global wheel. You may find this works better for you than offset, and requires less subsequent manipulation of gamma and gain.

    3) When it comes to shot-level contrast, if you’ve dialed in the right macro-level contrast, you should really only need to make significant adjustments on “outlier” shots — meaning shots that have a significantly different contrast ratio than the majority of the material.


    Hope this helps!

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