Color grading a black and white project isn’t as simple as reducing your saturation down to zero. In order to get the best result, you need to follow this one basic principle.

Any professional filmmaker understands the value of a great colorist, but so many neglect the color grading process when they’re making black and white films. It’s extremely common for directors, producers, and editors of low-budget B&W films to grade the footage themselves, but in the end the project doesn’t have a very strong aesthetic.

How to Color Grade Black and White Projects the Right Way: Schindler

When filmmakers that lack a strong color correction background think of a colorist’s role, they’ll often assume the job solely involves pushing colors around to make them as pleasing to the human eye as possible. What they often forget are all the other vital components of a colorist’s job, such as matching shots, fixing problem areas, adding power windows/vignettes, and making dozens of other small changes along the way.

On the surface, black and white projects may seem like they’re easier to color, but in reality they take just as much work. After all, you still need your shots to match, and you still want everything to have a consistent and polished feel. So if you’re planning to make your next film in black and white, consider these three tips:

  1. Match your shots first
  2. You can still adjust your white balance
  3. Up your contrast

Like any regular color grade, you want to match your shots before you start fine tuning the images. Never omit this part of the process, or it’ll take you far longer to match the shots after the fact, and they’ll never look quite as good.

How to Color Grade Black and White Projects the Right Way: Nebraska

Adjusting your white balance may seem counter-intuitive, considering your footage is black and white, but your white balance setting will still have a very noticeable effect on the way your B&W footage appears on screen. Certain settings will bring out your highlights more, and others will lift your shadows. Play around with your WB settings and get creative to see what’s really possible.

And finally, don’t be afraid of contrast. These days, it seems like everyone is going for a low-contrast look (to emulate film), but when shooting black and white, high contrast almost always looks better.

There’s no exact recipe when it comes to color grade black and white footage — or any type of footage for that matter —but always remember to approach it with the same care and attention to detail that you would on a film shot in color.