NAB is always an opportunity to see some new color correction tools. It’s one of the things I enjoy most about the show. Here are some things I do when I sit down at an unfamiliar color correction system to get a sense of how it operates.
- First and foremost, I check my gut: Am I daunted or welcomed by the interface (physical and/or on-screen). Does it make me feel powerful, or stupid? Does it feel solid, or like a toy? Do I like it?
- After that, my recommendations get more specific. For example, if there’s a three-way color corrector, try grabbing the shadows wheel and pushing it toward the hue of your choice. Does the image get more pleasing to your eye, or will further adjustments be necessary?
- Also on a three-way color panel, try pushing the midtones down. Do shadows block up quickly? Or can you make an extreme adjustment that’s still useful?
- Find the Saturation control. Try cranking it way up. How far can you go before the image falls apart?
- Are there controls for adjusting the appearance of individual colors? How quickly can you get the results you desire? Does the image fall apart if you push these controls too far?
- Is there a keyer? How quickly can you get a useful key?
- Are there “look” presets? Are they actually useful? How intuitive is the browsing experience? Are they black-boxes, or can you adjust them? Save those adjustments? Share them?
One last one, and it’s a biggie. If you’re seeing a demonstration of a color correction system (rather than trying it out yourself) watch the demo artist carefully. Do they actually demonstrate color correction and grading? Or do they apply a LUT or a “look” and then nudge some things, claiming they could do a lot more if they had more time?
More time for what exactly? Aren’t we here to see a demonstration of color grading?
Color correction tools are a lot like cameras. After all the bullet-lists of features and capabilities, after the sexy demo shots and lists of big clients, what matters more than anything is the feel in your hands. This is as true of software as it is of hardware, from an iPhone app all the way up to a color grading suite.
This is something automotive journalists have known for years. Yes, they’ll dutifully list off the horsepower and foot-pounds of torque—but what they’ll spend the most time describing is how it feels to drive.
Trust your gut. If a color correction tool feels hard to use, it is. It’s not your fault for not learning how to use it. If a demo artist can’t make an image look great in less than a minute—in a way that matches how you expect to actually work, they are wasting their time and yours, and revealing something about their product and the culture that created it.
These are the hard questions I want you asking when you try out Magic Bullet Looks and Colorista III. I want you to hold us up to these high standards. I believe that usability is not the exclusive domain of the low end. I believe that the easier-to-use tool is the more powerful tool.
I believe in color that’s a joy to drive.