Quick Tip: Desaturate Highlights For A “Cinema Look”

If I see one more advertisement for an app, color grading software, or LUT that will miraculously transform low-grade video footage into something that looks like it was shot by a professional cinematographer on an Arri Alexa, I may scream.

Everybody wants their video footage to look like a movie. But movies look very different from each other. Some make everything blue, some make everything orange, some make everything desaturated, some make everything super-saturated. There is no “cinema look,” despite what people selling “cinema-look” products will tell you.

With that said, there are certain attributes of cinematic color grading that are relatively easy to duplicate, and will make your footage look less like an amateur video. I’m going to share one with you today.

Fix Over-Saturated Highlights (AKA Nuclear Foliage)

Nothing screams “video” more than the flourescent highlights on grass and leaves. You will NOT find bleeding-chroma highlights in cinematic movies. Do you know why? Because movies were originally shot on film, and film used a chemical process that made colors less saturated as they got brighter. Even though most modern movies are shot digitally, the colorists make sure that highlights get progressively less saturated as they get brighter. They also desaturate shadows, for a similar reason: shadows should be crisp black, not muddy brown or navy blue.

The good news is: you can do this too! And, it’s fairly easy.

Here’s a simple example. This a still from some footage I shot with a Panasonic GH5. Look at the highlights on the leaves in the first shot, versus the second.

Notice the highlights in the trees. The neon green is a dead giveaway for the “video look.”
Same shot, with only one change: I’ve desaturated the highlights and shadows.

It’s subtle, but once you’ve seen it, you can’t un-see it. If you’re using Premiere Pro, you can apply this effect very easily yourself in Lumetri. Just scroll down to “Curves,” and open “Hue Saturation Curves.” Then click on the graph to create something like this. Once you’ve done this, you can copy and paste it, or save it as a preset.

You’re telling it to turn saturation down to 0 in both the darkest and brightest areas.

Depending on your preferences, and the shot itself, you may want to start the desaturation a little closer to 100% brightness. For example, on this sunrise shot, I adjusted it a bit to retain some of the golden highlights around the sun, while removing the flourescent yellow corona.

Pretty shot, but look at that yellow crust around the sun. Yuck
I felt that this was a little too much desaturation … Too much white.
I reduced the effect a little bit, so that it wouldn’t start desaturating until closer to 100% brightness.
This was just right … Got rid of the yellow crust, but retained the nice colors in the sky.

Of course, this is only scratching the surface of color grading, but this is a quick way to fix some of those harsh, discolored highlights that you didn’t know you hated so much until somebody pointed them out!

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