Navigate the Basics of the Color Wheels


The color wheels can be intimidating at first glance, but when simplified, they’re easy to navigate. Learn the basics with PremiumBeat.

You’re brand new to filmmaking or editing and want to give your footage that extra bit of finesse. So, you’ve opened up the color wheels in your editing software to do just that, but you’re not sure what you’re looking at or how they work. If that’s where you find yourself, then the video tutorial below is for you. 

Color Wheels Introduction

Like our previous episode on the curves, we’re using DaVinci Resolve. The color wheels are a universal tool used in the same manner across all software with a three-way color corrector. And, in fact, I’ve just noticed that Adobe Lightroom incorporated one, which is extremely cool. With that, let’s jump into the basics of using the color wheels.

In Resolve, this is a typical representation of the color wheels.

Color Wheels

Although we’ll be focusing on the three to the left, there are four identical-looking wheels that also operate identically. However, the adjustments will vary with each wheel. Each wheel represents a different tonal range, and the hue adjustments will, for the most part, only affect the specified range that corresponds with the selected wheel.

So what are the ranges? They are separated as lift, gamma, and gain, which primarily corresponds to the shadows, midtones, and highlights, but not precisely. We’ll go into more detail about that in a moment. 

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate how these regions operate is with the master wheel. You’ll find the master wheel directly underneath the color wheels. These allow you to adjust the YRGB channels together, which will adjust the luminance for tonal regions depending on what control you use. Dragging a master wheel to the left makes the corresponding tonal region of the image darker, and dragging it to the right makes that tonal region of the image lighter. So, you can make quick contrast adjustments that are more precise than simply increasing the contrast setting. 

Color Wheels: Lift Adjustment
In this image, I’ve dragged the lift master wheel to the right.

Let’s have a look at this in practice with color. At the center of these wheels is the white point. At the edges, you’ll find the primary hues plus everything in-between. If I push towards a red cast in the gamma wheel, we can see that correlate in the scopes, as the red channel starts to have a heavier presence within the midtones region. Or, if I push towards blue in the gain wheel, we can see the blues extend high in both scopes. 

Color Wheels: Gain Blue Adjustment
In this example, the blue hues are extended.

Tonal Regions

However, when you add a hue to a select region, it feels like it’s affecting the entire image. So, what’s the difference? First, there’s something important to note regarding the regional differences between lift, gamma, and gain. Because lift corresponds with the shadows and so forth, you may think that these controls definitively define one specific region. Perhaps on a graph it’d look something like this: 

Incorrect Lift/Gamma/Gain

However, this isn’t the case. The regions overlap, and quite broadly too. Visually, it’d look something like this:

Correct Lift/Gamma/Gain

We can see that there’s not a definitive gap between the lift and the gamma, or the gamma and the gain. Everything intersects, meaning your adjustments smoothly transition into the corresponding tonal region. As such, you can make subtle and naturalistic adjustments using these controls.  

As a result, when (for example) you add blue into the gamma, you’ll also be slightly affecting the edges of the lift and gain—which will need correcting. 

If I add 0.10 to the red channel to each color wheel and then compare, we might get a better idea of how the hues work in each region. 

Color Wheels: Red Hue Example

In the lift slot, we can see the red has primarily affected the darker areas of the image, leaving the sky its natural color because that has the brightest luminance values, where the lift adjustment is weakest.

 The gamma adjustment has left the dark shadows and bright highlights somewhat neutral, but has given the image an overall red cast because it has a wide range of information in midtones.

In contrast, the gain adjustment completely affected the sky and bright areas on the ground. However, it also left the shadows with a neutral color because the gain adjustment is weakest. 

In summary, while the hue will somewhat affect the overlapping region, where you input that hue will dictate how the image is affected. 

In Practice

Let’s put this information to use with a theoretical job. Let’s say the client has asked you to slightly warm the shot, so it doesn’t look as cold, and to make sure we have maximum contrast. This is going to be a very soft adjustment. Before we manipulate the color, let’s fix the contrast with the master wheels. 

I noted that the master wheels let you precisely modify image contrast by YRGB adjustments, which individually alter the black point, the white point, and the distribution of midtones that fall in-between. For this, we’re going to lower the lift, push up the gain quite a bit, and then lower the gamma. Also look at the scopes to make sure we’re not crushing any values. Now, we have an image with maximized luma values.

Color Wheels: Correct Contrast
An example of an image with maximized luma values.

Now, we need to warm the image. It’s a midday shot, but they want to emulate that it’s later into the day, and with a warmer light. We can imitate that. As we can see in the scopes, the majority of the information in the midtones shows that the gamma has the most overlapping for the tonal regions. So, let’s add some warmth to the gamma wheel. I’m simply going to do that by pushing the center point toward the reddish hue. You’ll find that you only need to push the control point of the color wheel slightly outward from the center. That’s because the further your push the control point, the more saturation you’re adding to the adjustment.

You’ll also notice that as the Color Balance indicator moves, the RGB parameters underneath change independently to reflect the independent adjustments in each channel. Therefore, if you’re ever trying to copy a grade’s specifics or have received exact instruction as to where this hue needs to be, you can input the numerical value instead. 

As an additional side note, if you ever need to reset the hue adjustment, you can double-click within the color ring. Hitting this reset button will also reset the corresponding contrast adjustment for that wheel.

The problem is that we’ve got these warm, dark areas, and typically, shadows aren’t warm in color.

Color Wheels: Color Contrast
Here, you can see a bit of a red hue in the shadows.

To fix this issue of warm shadows, we’re going to go to lift wheel, and we’re going to add blue to the shadow to counter the addition of that red hue that slipped into the shadows. 

Color Wheels: Corrected Image
With the shadows corrected, the image appears to be warmer.

Now, we have a warmer image with the corrected shadows. 

Offset Wheel

Depending on what software you’re using, you may also see an additional color wheel called the offset color wheel. This operates like the lift, gamma, and gain controls. However, the results are quite different as it allows you to adjust the entire tonal range of the YRGB channels.

Offset Wheel
An offset wheel.

So, the color balance control will simultaneously adjust all hue values across the three tonal regions, which may work in your favor if you need to add a slight color cast to the entire image. Likewise, the master wheel will adjust the lightness of the entire image. Need to raise the luma values of the whole image and not just the midtones? Just use the offset color master wheel.  

For more on color grading basics, check out the articles below.


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