Working With Reference Images Part 1: Evaluating Provided References

July 21, 2020

In part 1 of a new series, learn the essentials of how to interpret and read references for contrast, tonality, and other key factors.


In this Insight, we’re kicking off a new series on working with reference images.

Maybe you’re wanting to emulate the look of a favorite film or show in your next project, or perhaps your client has given you their creative direction in the form of reference images. Wherever they come from, skillfully borrowing from these references is a vital skill for the working colorist, and it starts with the ability to ‘read’ the reference, which is what we’re going to cover in this first installment.

I’m going to show you how to break down a reference image by looking at its:

  • Photography Choices
    • Lighting style: available or controlled?
    • Quality of light: hard or soft?
    • Lens choice: long or wide lenses?
    • Compositions: intentional or ‘found’? Wide or tight?
  • Grading Choices
    • Contrast curve: heavy or soft?
    • Saturation: high or low?
    • Palette: primary or secondary colors?
    • Color contrast: how much hue distance between opposing colors?
  • Overall texture
    • Sharp or soft?
    • Clean, noisy, or grainy?

Once we’ve made a thorough profile of our reference image by examining these attributes, we’ll be ready for Part 2 of this series, where we’ll assess the attributes of the material to be graded, and start to identify which visual ideas we’ll have the most success in borrowing. Then in the final installment of this series, we’ll put it all together to build a look that matches the tonality and feel of our references.

If you have any questions, thoughts or something to add to the discussion, please use the comments below. How do you go about emulating references in your grades?



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