When nearing the end of post-production on your project, one of the final stages is the color grade. Color correction grading your image allows you to establish a certain emotional connection with the audience, affecting the mood and feel of the piece. However, many editors go into the coloring process ‘blind’ for all intensive purposes. Trying to color your film without the proper use of scopes is like trying to fly a plane without radar (or mix sound without meters)!

While this article is primarily designed for FCPX users, the general concepts of reading color information from scopes will apply to anyone who works with color, regardless of whether you’re using DaVinci, Lumetri, or simply manipulating your vacation photos in iPhoto. Of course, the more professional the software, the more granular and precise the tools for color manipulation become. FCPX may not have DaVinci Resolve’s powerful node-based system, but FCPX is still a powerful tool for color grading. Although your monitor may not be color-calibrated to fit professional standards, the ability to read scopes will guarantee your image’s improvement.


What Are Video Scopes?

Scopes are visual representations of the numerical values that represent a digitally captured image or video clip. Since what our eyes see is often subjective, scopes help us to make objective decisions when adjusting light and color in our images.

FCPX contains three types of scopes:

  • Waveform (luminance) – gray-scaled values (brightness and luminance)
  • Vectorscope (chrominance) – color values (tints, saturation, color balance)
  • Histogram (RGB) – ranges waveform and vectorscope values in an image

To open these scopes in FCPX, click the gear icon at the top right corner (Command+7), and then select the view button (located above the gear icon) to choose how you want the scopes to be displayed. For this article, let’s choose a 2-up layout, where we see a Waveform and a Vectorscope.

 open scopes

The Importance of Video Scopes

The importance of reading scopes vs. color grading by the colors seen on screen is due to numerous factors affecting the perception of color: your monitor’s calibration, brightness of the screen, ambient room lighting (incandescent, halogen, tungsten, or LED lights) as well as the color and brightness of your room’s walls (brighter surrounding bounces light compared to darker surrounding absorbing light). Even though the brain compensates for the effect of lighting (based on the color shift of surrounding objects), a white page under blue, pink or purple light reflects mostly blue, pink, or purple light to the eye, respectively. Hence, what we see with our eyes may not necessarily reflect reality.

Even after putting the time into grading footage, there’s no guarantee the project’s true colors will be presented on the clients’ end. Every person will be in a different viewing room with different conditions under which they will experience your project. However, by properly reading scopes, we are minimizing the chance of mistaking our intended color values for the end product, as well as avoiding perceptive coloring mistakes.


What Are Shadows, Mid-Tones, and Highlights?

Let’s quickly familiarize ourselves with these essential terms:

Shadows are the darkest areas of an image. For example, in a black and white image, shadows would have shades leaning towards black. If an image is underexposed, the darkest areas lack detail and dynamic.

Mid-tones represent the middle color values of an image. For example, in a black and white image, the mid-tones would be many shades of gray. In a color image, any colors that aren’t too dark or too light will be found in the mid-tones. You want a good presence of mid-tone in a balanced image, but you don’t want everything to be ‘gray’ or flat. When dealing with humans, mid tones are crucial for balancing skin color. To quote Vashi Nedomansky

Mids are where faces live.”

Highlights are the lightest and often the brightest areas of an image, and therefore are the parts that have the most amount of light hitting it. If an image is overexposed, it means there are too many highlights, and the brightest areas lack detail and dynamic. For instance, a shot of the sky makes the clouds become highlights.


Setting Up Your Scopes

There are great color grading plugins for FCPX, such as Color Finale and Film Convert (my personal favorites). However, when starting off with color, I suggest you simply play around with Final Cut’s own Color Board, which is a powerful grading tool in its own right.

Drag a clip into your FCPX project. Select the clip → open Effects Browser → select and drag the Color Board effect to your clip.  Type Command+4 to open Inspector, then click on Color Board.

open color board


Playing Around With Your Scopes

While having your Waveform and Vectorscope open, simply move the toggles around the Color Board, then move the toggles in Saturation Board, and then adjust the brightness in the Exposure Board. Look at how the Waveform changes as Exposure settings are modified.

toggle color exposure


The general rule to remember is to never allow your Waveform to go below the zero line (0 IRE) nor go above the 100 IRE line. IRE is the scale invented by the Institute of Radio Engineers and is designed to match the capabilities of early televisions to display an image. Anything at zero is completely black, and anything above 100 will be overblown white. Going below and/or above results in image detail loss. For instance, “crushing the blacks” (by lowering shadow values, therefore ‘crushing’ the dynamic range) results in losing details in the darkest areas, while exposure values result in highlights’ detail loss.

(It is important to note that modern displays actually allow going beyond these limitations, and FCPX does offer a solution to edit in a Rec.2020 color space, as opposed to the 20th and early 21st century Rec.709 color space. But for now, let’s keep it within the Rec.709 space.)

To see how your vectorscope is affected, toggle the Saturation Board. You’ll notice that the vectorscope color range keeps contracting and expanding (more Saturation expresses a wider color range). Toggling while toggling the Color Board changes the tints and hues in Vectorscope.


toggle color board

Continuing Your Study of Color

Color Grading is a deep art and science. This article is the tip of a large iceberg. There are numerous articles, blogs, books, videos on the internet that will serve as a guide into your exploration of this wonderful world of color grading. If you decide to pursue color grading on a more professional level, I urge you to study more about the science of color, and how it pertains to moving images.