At the most basic level, virtually every adjustment we make in color grading boils down to some kind of contrast adjustment. This makes more sense when we think of contrast as the distance between any two unique components of our image. These components can be targeted based on their tonality (e.g. shadows, midtones, and highlights), colorimetry (e.g. reds, greens, and blues), or their geometry (e.g. pixels which fall inside the middle 20% of the image). In a previous article, we outlined tips on color grading cinematic images

In a three-part series, we will discuss tonal contrast and how we can manipulate it inside DaVinci Resolve. Below is Part 1. 

Exposure and Offset

The most important tool in Resolve’s Color page is the offset wheel.

Offset represents the simplest possible operation we can perform on an image—uniformly increasing or decreasing the value of every pixel. This behavior also mimics that of a camera lens’ iris, meaning that offset is the colorist’s equivalent of exposure.

Exposure is a concept we all too often forget about when we’re grading, but it should really be the first thing we evaluate and adjust. If we can nail exposure right off the bat, the rest of our tonal contrast adjustments become far easier.

Gain and Lift

Once we’ve set our exposure properly, we may find that all we need is a simple adjustment to either our highlights or shadows.

In these situations, gain and lift respectively are the perfect tools—they provide the simplest possible form of contrast adjustment. Gain adjusts the brightest portion of our image with minimal to no effect on the shadows, and lift does just the opposite—moving the darkest region of our image with minimal to no effect on the highlights.

Contrast and Pivot

It would be great if we could always get our desired contrast by solely adjusting our shadows or highlights, but often we need to work with both in tandem.

This is the point at which I’ll usually switch from the lift and gain wheels to Resolve’s Contrast and Pivot knobs. These controls allow you to dial in contrast by eye, and then adjust how much of this contrast comes from the shadows versus the highlights using the Pivot knob. It’s a simple, intuitive tool that’s great for situations where you need more than a single adjustment to a single tonal region.

The Contrast and Pivot tools also have a secret feature accessible via the checkbox under File > Project Settings > General Options > Use S-Curve For Contrast. With this checkbox enabled, you’ll get a “soft” or “rolling” form of contrast which allows you to preserve tonal details which would otherwise be clipped out as you increase contrast. This feature is another great reason to opt for the Contrast and Pivot knobs when you’re adding contrast!

We'll be releasing the second and third parts over the coming weeks. Have any color grading tips? Share them in the comments below. 

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