On Blown Highlights and Digital Grading

Since getting intimate with Photoshop, I’ve noticed how various digital effects affect imagery. I’ve especially started to become very aware of the digital grading that happens with nearly all video produced for television or the big screen.

From Wikipedia:

Digital grading is a process through which celluloid film is transferred into a computer, manipulated by changing colors or smoothing effects shots, and transmitted back onto celluloid.

Remember Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers? I always remember that film as “blue”. A bit too graded for my taste. Remember CSI: Miami? With all the yellow and orange you’d think “wow it must be hot on Miami”. Having been tainted, I just think “damn, another orange layer set to hard-light @15% to hide that blown-out sky”.

Warning: If you love the show, you may not want to read on.

Well, the problem is understandable: your camera isn’t quite up to par with the human eye, and when filming a location with a lot of sky-light you’ll have to choose: a beatiful sky with a dark ground or a properly lighted ground with a blown-out sky. While not quite like Miami, here’s an example:

Blown-out sky:


Dark ground:


Which is better for television? Well, since actors can’t quite fly (yet) I suppose it would make sense to be able to see what’s happening on the ground. Ideally, the camera-team would come back earlier in the day to get a better shot, but they probably have a tight deadline and have to do with what they have. I imagine it goes like this:

Director: Damn, I wish we had some sky in there. There’s just too much whitespace now. What can you do?

Digital grader: Well, we could kinda even out the sky and make it look like it’s just really hot right now… that way the whitespace wouldn’t be white… rather.. uh, yellowspace.


Director: Wow, yeah, much better! It looks kinda creative too… man… this is great! Hey, could you go even further? Like, could you create a digital sky or something?

Digital grader: Digital sky huh? Well… I might have a trick up my sleeve. Ever heard of gradients?


Director: There, that’s it, right there, don’t touch it! Perfect! Wow, if we add some icelandic music to this shot I might even win an emmy this time!

Digital grader: Yeah, gradients are pretty great.

While I’m not going to declare a “war on digital grading”, grading doesn’t always help out television. I would personally just want some moderation at times.

Did you ever notice the TV sky didn’t quite look… real?

12 thoughts on “On Blown Highlights and Digital Grading”

  1. Jonas Rabbe says:

    While I don’t care very much for the yellow color cast of CSI:Miami, or for the blueish cast of CSI:New York, I am far from a declaration of war. Maybe even further than you.

    Having gotten more and more into photography, I am very conscious of the problems with blown sky or dark foreground. Sometimes you can use the narrow spectrum for artistic effect, or try and circumvent it. If you are making a large production, however, you should try and do something to make it work. As I said I don’t really care for the yellow coloring, but it sorta works.

  2. Ye on one of the LotR extra’s they showed how they coloured, lighted and graded each shot (especially woodlands scenes) and indeed they added a blue overlay quite a number of times. Without it’d seem stark and less magical probably…

  3. Chris says:

    Hmph. I happen to like the blue look. You can do the same thing with a camera, at least with my Canon, by setting the white balance inappropriately. I happen to like my blue clouds.

    Though, the orange of CSI: Miami is possibly one of the reasons that I don’t watch CSI: Miami but am enamored of CSI: NY.

    But, then, I think my affection for all things blue is obvious.

  4. Joen says:

    Well, it seems like I got the wrong gist of my point across.

    My point was not that I dislike all digital grading. It was merely, that sometimes it’s quite simply over the top, and other times it’s there to hide the poor quality of the initial shot.

    I do like the grading in the Lord of the Rings, especially in the forest scenes James speak of. It’s appropriate, and it does even out the harsh highlights. It’s also understandable since you’d need cameras so incredible they haven’t yet been invented, to catch the sky between the trees. I also like the fact that The Two Towers is bluish… it’s a fairly dark chapter, and it’s also somewhat anonymous, film-wise, compared to “the beginning” and “the end”, so “branding it” with blue was no bad idea. My problem was that it was slightly over the top in some scenes, and I even felt like some of the natural hues were lost in the process.

    CSI: Miami… well, I picked that show because it’s a perfect example of grading that’s there to hide poor quality of the initial shot. I distinctly remember scenes where our hero goes to the harbour looking at some body lying on the ground. Completely white sky above… well, it should’ve been, instead it’s yellowed out and gradiented. Then again, digital grading is expensive, and I suppose I can’t expect too much from television…

    In short: digital grading rocks when done well, but some techniques are a bit too creative and over the top.

  5. Rob Mientjes says:

    Same here. I can usually tell nowadays, because of my fooling around with Photoshop. I second Chris on the CSI choices, though. Really fond of blue πŸ˜‰

  6. Joen says:

    I suddenly remember Traffic as a movie I thought was horribly graded… Sure the blue on the corridors of power vs. the yellows of the warm and fuzzy desert had symbolic value, but man, to me it looked like a cheap shot at making it look unique at the expense of quality.

  7. So your point is “I don’t like over the top stuff” ?

    We all do Joen, we all do!

  8. Max says:

    There’s also the option of combining a blown-sky image and a dark-ground image into perfect-sky and perfect-ground. Of course, that would probably be harder to do than a simple gradient, but it IS there, it doesn’t require special camera’s, and it looks quite a lot more natural. Just a quick jab to illustrate what I mean, using the images above:

    Yes, I do know that there’s a halo above the trees, but that’s why it’s a quick jab. Joen, if you object to the image abuse, just let me know…

  9. Joen says:

    Very nice stuff, Max. Yep, that’s also an option. I suspect many “for-the-cinema” movies such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings use this method. It does require QUITE a lot of work, especially when things are moving.

  10. umayr says:

    Joen , though i believe with your thesis of digital grading, but i think the way you have pointed it out is a bit harsh on the director of photography, director of the movie, the camera men etc..

    The camera’s usually have filters with em, if the sky is blown out or has a chance of not being captured in its essence..(is coming white) you have ND filters or graded ND filters, which will make sure the sky turns out right, you have polorizers and god knows what not.. and the director of photography is a smart guy along with the camera crew.

    For example even in the black and white films when they had to shoot an indoor shot with windows and had to show outside the windows, they used to take a light reading in the room and a light reading outside the room take the difference and paste ND sheets on the windows , so both the lights were exposed correctly and the inside light and outside came out right.

    So i personally dont really think that they use the digital grading for that purpose, maybe its just style or maybe its the editors having a new plug in πŸ˜› something like Magic bullet .. hence the sometimes crappy effects.

  11. Olaf says:

    I really like the CSI filters

    and the way Traffic was

    filmed. Some of you talk

    about cheap arty ways,

    but I happen to like it big


  12. Mark says:

    Any comments on “Brother Where Art Thou”?

Comments are closed.