How to Color Grade in FCPX

Tom Adams Video, Tutorials , , , ,
Final cut Pro X
FCPX – Image from Apple’s FCPX online Guide

I’m now venturing into the world of video production. Like photography I need to learn how to make my video stand out. How do I do that? With Color Grading! And here’s How to color grade in FCPX.

The most important thing for me is signature. Now, What do I mean by Signature? The signature could apply to a character or a setting or an overall feel to the video. The most noticeable is the Hollywood ‘Orange & Teal’ look that everyone wants. Another example is the British Production and directed by Danny Boyle, 28 days later, where the films desaturated look to amplify the despair and desolate surroundings of Cillian Murphy’s character. On the other side of that, think about Avatar…everything is so heavily saturated and bright, reflecting the excitement of this fantasy world. If we dive deeper into Signature, a few of my favourite directors have their own stand out styles.

Zack Snyder

He’s long been a favourite of mine since first getting eye’s on ‘Watchmen‘ (2009) and then following with ‘Sucker Punch‘, ‘Man Of Steel‘ (my favourite with the soundtrack alone!!) and now the massive hype that is ‘Zack Snyder’s Justice Lague‘. The trailer alone released at DC Fandome, kinda made everyone forget about Joss Whedon’s calamity…..

How does he do it?

Not only Does Zack Snyder deliver an amazing experience of storytelling through action, music and composition. The tone is emulated through the colouring. Heroes are saturated amongst a bleak background. Man Of Steel is a great example of this when Superman is fighting General Zod, and the world engine is pummeling the earth, everything is turning bleak apart from superman. He’s standing out as this last hope, Vibrant Blues and Reds in the sky.

The image below is another great example of Zack Snyder’s Signature. A pretty desaturated/muted scene but our Hero, dead centre still has his bold colours separating him from everyone else but he too is slightly muted, the idea that he’s still holding on, giving you the atmosphere of this scene, if you’ve seen the film, you know why this is a sloping scene for Superman.

Zack Snyder - Man Of Steel. Color Pallete Courtesy of Studio binder to aid Color Grading
Color Pallete For Man of Steel – Zac Snyder (courtesy of Studio binder)

He uses a lot of psychology to connect the emotional aspect of his story to the deeper workings of your subconscious. there’s a great article on his colour theory here at Studio Binder.

Here’s another one of my favourites Christopher Nolan, and the Studio Binders Piece they’ve got on him.

So..How to Color Grade in FCPX

Now you know why Color Grading is important. It’s your signature and it’s also going to relay emotion through your story telling. Here’s how to do it in FCPX.

Set up your workflow

FCPX Colorgrading workflow

To colour grade in any software, you need the right workflow. You need the right information in front of you to know what you’re effecting and what you need to correct. There are three important tools that will be valuable during the colour correction process. You need to display your Video Scopes (cmd+7), then view and select the following in any arrangement you like;

  • Luma (Waveform – Luma)
  • RGB Overlay (Histogram – RGB Overlay)
  • Vectorscope (Vectorscope – Vector)

Some use a fourth which is the RBG Parade, but I find it too cluttered. I get most of my info from the RGB Overlay. There’s a preset for a good colour grading workflow already in FCPX. You can find it in Window > Workspaces > Color & Effects (alt+Shft+2).

Correct Your Exposure

Luma Waveform viewer - FCPX
Luma Waveform viewer – FCPX

When you come to set your exposure, you want to use the Luma Waveform to give you the best idea what needs to be adjusted. Your baseline for shadows should be 0 midtones 50 and highlights should be capped at 100. As you start messing around and adjusting you’ll see what minor adjustments will do to your waveform. You don’t have to be critical of the Luma Graph, adjust for the look you want but keep.

FCPX exposure controls. How to Color Grade.
Video Inspector – Exposure controls

So now we know where we’re going to looking, we now need to know how to set it. Open your Video Inspector panel and create a new Color Board, Exposure should be the default go-to. From here you have Four sliders, a Master on the left or overall exposure. And then your Shadows, Midtones and Highlights in the main panel. You have your percentages below where you can apply micro adjustments or copy your values in.

Use the sliders to get the look and keep an eye on your waveform. You’ll adjust the contrast Via the S.M.H sliders and watch your Luma waveform expand. Giving you more Dynamic range to play with later.

Correct White Balance

Now you’ve corrected your exposure you can move onto correcting your white balance. This is important because you want your colours in your Base (your corrected video. Before you start adding saturation and effects etc.) to be as close to natural as possible. There’s two ways of doing this;

Number One

Color Wheels FCPX

Click Color Board and then come down to Color Wheel in that drop-down menu. When you open Color Wheel it gives you an expanding option for colours and sliders which we’ll come to later. Below that you have the ‘Temperature’ slider which goes from 2500-10000k so you have a vast spectrum to work with here. You also have a Tint and HUE Option which can be powerful.

Number Two

Balance Color FCPX

The Balance Color Option. Easily my go-to. You can go to the bar just about your Timeline Editor to the left-hand side. There you’ll see a small wand, click on that and select ‘Balance Color’ (Alt+CMD+B).

Balance Color FCPX

You’ll then see this option available in your Video Inspector. From here, you can let FCPX do the work and set it to ‘Automatic’, or select ‘White Balance’ and use the dropper to select a white or neutral area on the hero shot.

This is a better method. You’ve come to set a scene and you’ve done your lighting adjustments, then balance colour in-camera (via temperature) . You can do this off a clapper board which is White. sometimes the more expensive ones have a color correction feature on.

Or you can go with a white piece of paper as balance. This is a cheap and easy option. Highly recommended If you’re looking at doing this properly. I’d also recommend a monitor calibrating tool like the Datacolor Spyder. One of their kits has some other features that are worth it when shooting in the studio or Location.

Adjust Saturation

So now we have a good base where all of our colours are natural, we now look at colour grading. Were going to go back to the Color Wheels first, then dive into some of the other tools available.

Color Wheels in FCPX

If you look at the Color Wheels, they’re broken down into 4 Controllers. Master, Shadows, Highlights and Midtones. On either side are verticle sliders – Saturation on the left and brightness controls on the right. Then bottom right of either slider is a revert to zero.

Now you can apply your own look!

You can move the controller situated in the middle all the way around the Hue wheel. The further out you go the more intense the colour. Let’s look at some of the Hollywood look or Orange and Teal. They’re contrasting colours on either side of the colour wheel so they complement each other. They compliment skin tones and make certain elements pop with the right lighting.

RGB Value in the RGB Input and mix slider FCPX.
The Mix slider sits all the way to the left and you only need to make adjustments of 0.01 each time.

The Teal sits in the shadows and the Orange in the highlights and can be heavily saturated. Want to be specific for the Orange & Teal look, you can add the RGB values at the bottom. Then use the Mix slider at the base to adjust. It’s a risky way of doing it. You want to make small adjustments, with plenty of control over your colouring.

There’s more tools available in FCPX that are important for colour grading.

  • Colour Curves
  • HUE/Saturation Curves

These are great things to single out certain colours or further adjust your contrast.

Color Curves

If you’re familiar with Photography then you would have used Color Curves before.

In image editing, a curve is a remapping of image tonality, specified as a function from input level to output level, used as a way to emphasize colours or other elements in a picture. Curves can usually be applied to all channels together in an image, or to each channel individually.


Curves require a little bit of play or experience when breaking it down into channels. But your Luma will probably be the Channel you use the most. You can study S curves all you like, but you need to test and adjust to each snippet. You can also break it down in your individual channels and see the effects in your RGB Parade or Overlay. So again, play around with it.

HUE/Saturation Curves

This is where I do a lot of my grading. With the Color Curves tool, I can individually select a Color. Then I can make stand out and saturate it in the HvS tab. Like the blue of the Sky of the Green of the trees? The HvS Tab is where you can really make those stand out.

I’ve taken this next piece from the FCPX user guide available online because it’s a great reference.

Inside your HUS/Saturation Curves panel you have mupltiple options;

  • HUE vs HUE – Change the color in the video
  • HUE vs SAT – Change the saturation of that color
  • HUE vs Luma – Change the brightness of that color

My favourite is the HUE vs Sat layer. You can individually select a colour with the dropper like in our white balance tool and adjust its saturation.

HUE vs Saturation tool
From the Apple online FCPX guide

Consider this an additional tool if your scene has been washed out during colour grading. It can really add some presence to a subject or surrounding.

So…..How to color grade in FCPX

There you go, everything from here is to try and test and try again. One of the best ways to get your head around it is with Color Theory and maybe some influencers in this practise. There’s plenty of Youtube Tutorials but one I’d suggest is Waqas Qazi. He uses a different programme by black magic design called Davinci Resolve but the base technique is the same.

So, Let’s review

Step by step how tocolor grade in FCPX

  • Correct your Exposure – With the colour board and exposure panel. Correct contrast and overall exposure.
  • Correct your White Balance – With the Balance Color tool or temperature controller in the colour wheels.
  • Achieve your Base – after you’ve done these first two steps you should now be at your Base to work from. Make sure this is as accurate as possible otherwise you’ll be wasting time and potentially money. you can add a little saturation here and there to normalise it.
  • Add Color or Saturate – You’ve achieved your base but now you need your look. Apply the orange and teal ‘Hollywood Look’ to your Shadows, Midtones and Highlights. Adjust individual colours using the Hue/Saturation Curves and the Color Curves.

This is a testing process and takes time to achieve and master. There’s plenty of things to toy with but the practice is important. As I mentioned earlier study colour theory and learn something from directors and colourists works from films that inspire you.

Wrap up!

I hope you’ve taken something away from this. Please leave a comment or contact me for more info on anything. Please share links in the comment below to any work you’ve worked on, I’d love to see it. And don’t forget to subscribe for future posts like this.

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