Streamlining Color Correction in Premiere Pro

The dark art of color correction is not all that opaque.
Jeff Sengstack
By Jeff Sengstack 08.08.11


Premiere Pro has a full complement of tonality and color correction tools including about 40 tonality and color correction video effects and four vector and waveform scopes. Most video editors gaze upon all those possibilities and end up choosing the path of least resistance: automated effects. As for scopes...forget about it. Who can make heads or tails of them? Turns out, the dark art of color correction is not all that opaque.

It's a good idea to use color correction tools on most, if not all of your projects. Your videos will look better and your family, friends, and clients will appreciate the improvements.

In this tutorial I show you how to do all of your so-called primary color correction work using only one video effect and two scopes. Primary color correction changes the tonality and color of an entire clip. You use secondary color correction techniques to change tonality and color in areas within a clip's frame.

This tutorial will cover primary color correction. At its most basic, primary color correction is a two-step process: first adjust tonality - brightness and contrast. And second, fix the color cast (if there is one).

Organizing the workspace

Setting up a workspace for color correction - both software and hardware - will lead to more consistent results. On the hardware side, you need a reasonably good LCD or plasma monitor. Set your monitor display to 6,500 degrees Kelvin (the standard video editing display, color temperature for most of the world) or 9,300 degrees Kelvin for those working in East Asia.

It used to be that if you were working with video that would appear on TV screens, it was a good idea to add a video monitor to your workspace. I think that is no longer the case. It's difficult to match color calibration on different monitor makes and models and clients might prefer what they see on your PC monitor versus what shows up in the playback monitor.

It's best to work in an environment where the lighting doesn't change (no windows), use lights that match the color temperature of your monitor, and put a neutral gray, wall covering behind your monitor. As you work, briefly look away from your monitors, and regularly take longer eyeball breaks.

On the software side, Premiere Pro has a preset workspace called Color Correction. That is a good starting point when working with tonality and color. Switch to that workspace by choosing Window > Workspace > Color Correction. Doing so adds a Reference Monitor to the workspace. "Gang" the Reference Monitor to the Program Monitor by clicking the button at the bottom of the Reference Monitor (see below). In that way, when you work with a scope in the Reference Monitor, it will display the data from whatever frame is visible in the Program Monitor.


"Gang" the Reference Monitor to the Program Monitor by clicking the highlighted button. Then the scopes will display data from the clip frame currently being displayed in the Program Monitor.

Understanding tonality and the YC Waveform scope

Maximizing the breadth of tonality usually is your first objective and might be all you need to do to make dull videos dazzle. Your goal is to give your clips a complete tonal range by making sure the darkest shadows are pure black and the brightest highlights are pure white. There are exceptions to this approach, notably when working with videos shot in fog or softly lit interiors. In any event, your final tonality step is to adjust the midtones (gamma) to create a pleasing contrast.

When adjusting tonality, use the YC Waveform scope (Y=luma, C=chroma) to evaluate the changes. To display that scope, open the Reference Monitor menu (shown below) and choose YC Waveform.


Open the YC Waveform scope from the Reference Monitor menu. Uncheck Setup (7.5 IRE) and Chroma.

With the YC Waveform scope open, uncheck Chroma (there is no need to display the color values) and uncheck Setup (7.5) IRE as shown above. That latter control limits the data display to so-called "broadcast safe" zones above 7.5 IRE (Institute of Radio Engineers) units. Zero IRE is absolute black and 100 IRE is absolute white. Adjusting the darkest areas of your video to 7.5 IRE would cause them to look dark gray instead of pure black and would create an overall low contrast look to your clips. (Editor's Note: See this older article on Luminance Ranges in Video for more on black, white, digital values, and IRE settings.)

The "broadcast safe" issue no longer has much weight due to the switch to digital broadcasting and the move away from CRT TV sets. The main thing now is to avoid having your video drop below 0 IRE or climb above 100 IRE. But even that is not a hard and fast rule. I contacted five San Francisco TV stations and two national programming and advertising distributors and they confirmed my take on this.

imageThe YC Waveform scope displays luma values horizontally across your clip. The figure at right gives you a feeling for how that waveform graph works. Brighter areas within the clip are displayed toward the top of the waveform graph, darker toward the bottom.

YC Waveform luma graph areas of interest and their associated locations in the clip.

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