Color grading is one of the essential skills filmmakers must master to get the images they want to tell their stories. While you might not become a colorist yourself, you need to have a handle on what is possible and how to be a great client when hiring colorists for your projects. It's also increasingly possible to do complicated color grading on relatively affordable hardware, with even the entry-level MacBook Pro being capable of color grading HD and 4K imagery with some workflow tweaks.
However, it's not just hardware you need to color grade, but also a software solution that allows you to have all the tools you need at the touch of a key to make your footage look the best it can be to tell your story. There are a lot of software options available to grade footage including Baselight, Nucoda, and Assimilate Scratch. On top of that, there are some great grading tools built into most editing software like Premiere Pro's Lumetri color tool or Final Cut Pro X's color tools. Plus, there are powerful plugins you can add to that software to make it even more powerful for coloring your footage.
Almost all of that costs money in some way, shape, or form, however. If you are looking for an option that doesn't cost you anything, there really only one that sits at the top.
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Our Pick: DaVinci Resolve
Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve is currently the best, and really the only, choice for those who want to color grade their footage in free software. Resolve is available in two flavors: Resolve, which is free to download, and Resolve Studio, which costs $299 and adds some key features that working professionals will appreciate.
Studio includes tools like noise correction for grainy footage, face detection driven by a neural engine, and shared user workflows over a network. All wonderful features to have that make the upgrade worth it, but all features that you can easily live without while working within the free version of Resolve.
Resolve started as a color grading program, but has expanded its feature set to include picture editing, 3D compositing with Fusion, and a full digital audio workstation (DAW) with Fairlight, all from within a single interface. There were a few years where it felt like Blackmagic was not as focused on expanding the color grading toolset but was instead focusing on improving sound, compositing, and editing. With Resolve 17, there was a host of new color grading features that made it clear that all of Resolve is going to continue to get upgrade attention.
Resolve is built around a node-based structure, instead of the layer structure you might be used to from working in Final Cut Pro or Photoshop. Nodes are a little more sophisticated and all for more complicated color corrections, but once you get over the slight hurdle of learning how they work, they are actually much easier to work with than layers. You get a nice visual layout of what you are doing, and they are easier to rearrange and relink as you refine a grade.
The software also has robust tools for organizing your grades both for a single project and across projects built in with the gallery and LUT toolsets. If you are working with multiple camera sources, you might even consider exploring the color management tools, which are designed to bring different cameras into a single Resolve color space to make matching between cameras easier and faster.
The color grading tools themselves remain robust and frequently impressive. After years of teaching Resolve, I still get a little thrill out of showing students how fast and easy it is for the tracker to track an object you put a mask on. Doing a quick little beauty pass with midtone detail elevates footage with only a few clicks. And the tools for grouping shots to speed up workflow keep getting better. In any area where you might feel limited, you can always install a plugin.
Blackmagic is also taking the process of training and certifying users of the software very seriously. With competing software platforms, the process of getting official certifications is both complicated and expensive. With Blackmagic, it's simple and free. The official Blackmagic training guides for the software are all on their website and are available as free eBooks or low-cost physical books. You can watch any of their training videos for free on their site. You can attend their online trainings for free. And you can take the certified user tests, all free. Blackmagic wants as many people as possible to use this software and know all of its power.
How does Blackmagic do all this while keeping the product free? Well, to really take color grading seriously, you need to evaluate your image not on your computer monitor, but on a calibrated broadcast monitor. To do that, you need to get a signal out from your computer to a monitor. To do that, you need a special hardware device, either a PCI card or a thunderbolt box, that outputs a proper video signal. Blackmagic makes those boxes, and only lets Resolve work with their hardware boxes.
So, if you want to properly evaluate your image on a broadcast monitor, you should at the very least purchase a Blackmagic Mini Monitor, which starts at $150. If you have more complicated needs, their video I/O hardware can run into the thousands of dollars. Because they have a robust hardware business, they are in a position where they can give the software away for free.
Color grading has long been one of the priciest areas of the film industry. When DaVinci Resolve was initially released for $1,000, the entire industry was in shock. When a robust free version was offered, they were shocked again. This time because it was free. There really isn't a major contender that comes anywhere close to the sheer level of power and complexity available in DaVinci Resolve.
Best Almost Free: Red Giant Magic Bullet Suite
While technically not free, we have to mention Magic Bullet Suite. If you're a student or a teacher, the company offers Red Giant Complete which includes Universe, Trapcode Suite, Magic Bullet Suite, VFX Suite, and PluralEyes for only $2.99/ month if you live in the U.S. Which is as close to you can get to free.
On top of that, the bundle also includes Cinema 4D and Redshift for C4D.
If you want to learn to color grade, download DaVinci Resolve. You can also edit, do sound design, and even do 2D and 3D compositing with it as well. The great thing about Resolve and Red Giant software (like many others that come with a price tag) is you can edit in whatever program you prefer and export the footage for your final grade. When you have the income to start spending more money, you can start investing in the hardware you need for a true color grading setup.