MAKING THE GRADE: The 5 essential purchases for new colourists
Updated: Oct 25
Tracks and Layers offer an expert colour grading service right here in Manchester / MediaCity UK, but we also like to support those who are interested in getting started on their own colour grading journey. Here our own colourist Tom Majerski will highlight 5 essential purchases to kick starting your career. We will also even provide links to purchase these items for yourself via our affiliate links.
1 - Davinci Resolve Studio
Davinci resolve is one of a small handful of top end industry software packages which are used for colour grading by professional colourists. It wasn't long ago that this software would cost you over £250,000 and had strict hardware requirements. In essence you had to buy the equipment with the software. Since being purchased by Blackmagic Design, Davinci resolve has been made more and more accessible through its lower cost, UI design and a huge expansion in features. Now it ranks and the number 1 colour grading software and many studios and freelancers also turn to it now as their primary editing software too.
Although there is also a free version available, the studio version is the complete and unlimited one to go for. For a single one off fee (no subscription necessary!) you can enjoy endless updates to the latest and greatest version and it can replace most of your Adobe Creative cloud suite too!
Inside Resolve Studio you have a very powerful editing section, Fusion for high end VFX and compositing & Fairlight for audio production and mastering. If you have to make one purchase, this is it!
2 - Blackmagic Control Surface (micro & mini)
Both the Blackmagic Mini and Micro control surfaces are valuable addition to any colour setup and they're relatively compact too (so they're suitable to take with you if you're going to be a freelancer). They both will give you direct access to the core controls inside the colour tab of Davinci Resolve. The build quality is excellent and the precision really lets you fine tune your grades to perfection.
The arrangement of the wheels are fairly standard too, so if you're used to a different panel (such as the ones offered by Tangent), your muscle memory should transfer fairly quickly.
The two main things that control surfaces offer you are speed & precision. One other thing they offer over using a Keyboard and mouse (or graphics tablet) is the ability to affect more than one setting at once. An example of where this is useful might be when you're dialling in contrast and changing the pivot point of the curve at the same time. Another might be when you want to use a lift & gain control simultaneously to quickly correct for exposure and contrast in an image.
Using dedicated controls might seem like a bit of a vanity exercise to begin with; trying to look the part with lots of buttons and knobs, but over time you will be certain to appreciate just how transformative it is to use them. It's not just a replacement for a keyboard and mouse, it's the necessary direct and accurate access you will find to be essential for any good colourist.
3 - ASUS ProArt Calibrated Reference Display (PA279CV)
It's impossible to understate the importance of having a reliable reference monitor. It's a classic beginners fallacy to claim (or some even foolishly champion) that a calibrated reference display isn't require because "people won't be viewing it on calibrated display". This fall back excuse to presumably justify saving money is simply not going to cut it in the real world. There's a blog posts worth of reasons why it's important to have such a tool in your arsenal but the short version for this blog is that without it - you're almost grading blind.
Professional reference monitors can cost anywhere up to £50k+ but that doesn't mean you need one this expensive to begin with. This ASUS ProArt PA279CV display ticks all the boxes so that it should serve you as a colourist for many years before you need something more expensive.
As well as it being capable of displaying the relevant colour spaces, it also comes pre-calibrated to ensure that it has a less than 2 delta-E rating (which is a fancy way of saying what margin of error the display will have, less than 2 is generally considered to be the standard point at which it's impossible to notice).
Are there better screens out there? absolutely! For getting started though, this is absolutely your best bet. Ideally I would suggest you order x2, one for your GUI and one for the output device. (see 5)
The monitor is technically capable of HDR, but I would not consider using one of these as a HDR reference, just as an SDR one. This may sound like a negative, but if you're just starting out then I suspect you won't need to worry about HDR content for many years.
If you want to shop around and compare, look for a monitor which is calibrated, capable of 100% Rec709, QHD or UHD and supports 10-bit. You may find a cheaper option, but I'm confident this one can't be beat on balance.
4 - LogicKeyboard Davinci Resolve Astra 2
Obviously you need a computer keyboard and as tempting as it might be to get a lovely retro mechanical keyboard, the Astra 2 Davinci Resolve keyboard by LogicKeyboard is going to help you to get up to speed with all the most important shortcuts inside Davinci Resolve.
As well as it being well built, it's also backlit and colour coded to help you to quickly scan for the tool keys. A huge feature for this keyboard is that it has the Printer Light colour keys denoted on the numberpad. If you're asking "What are Printer Lights and why should I care?" then keep an eye out for a future blog post, needless to say that they're one of the best (almost) hidden features of Davinci Resolve and this keyboard helps you to take full advantage of it.
Available for both Mac and PC (see the relevant links below) - it's a good price for a good keyboard. It's also going to accelerate your learning inside Davinci Resolve too.
5 - Blackmagic Output device (Decklink or Ultrastudio)
Number 5 on the list may seem like the least interesting or perhaps the least useful tool in this list, but here's why it's actually a critical component to any colour grading setup.
These output devices allow you to send a clean 10bit 444 video feed direct to your reference monitor without any interference from your computers colour management.
If you suspect you can get this by just connecting your monitor direct to your graphics card then read on! Although your graphics card is still doing the processing, output devices like these are the only way to get a true 10bit untouched image from a mac or PC. I know your computer may claim it's sending a 10bit image to your monitor, but there are simple gradient ramp tests you can try for yourself to demonstrate this is not quite the case.
Furthermore your operating system (whether you're in the PC camp or Mac camp) loves a bit of software colour management on everything it's sending to your display. This means that no amount of money on a high end reference monitor is going to give you an image you can trust unless it's coming through something like either of these two devices.
These devices only send the video signal and not the GUI, so one monitor connects directly to your graphics card and the other connects to one of these.
Both of them offer up to 4K HDR video and 444 sampling and they come as either a PCI-E card for PC users or Thunderbolt for mac.
So there we go, there's our 5 essential purchases for getting started as a colourist. There's plenty more in terms of equipment that you're going to want to consider (beyond the obvious) but if you purchased all of these then you'd be well on your way to a great starting point.
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