Hipster Color Grading

Using Adobe After Effects

I don’t have to tell you how popular Instagram and other similar apps are. I also don’t have to write a lengthy article explaining why Instagram’s popularity influenced the whole world of music videos, advertising and film. It’s quite simple. People suddenly got an easy and free access to a combination of filters that greatly improved the look of their pictures. It got insanely popular. Clients, directors and creative directors, enjoyed this new thing like everybody else and integrated it into their work.


The outcome was that guys like us, digital colorists, had to deal with this new reality. I know that some colorists hate Instagram because they think it renders their work as easy and effortless in the minds of everybody. I can understand that. I had a similar feeling about Magic Bullet when it first came out (like many other colorists, I’m sure). Everything I had come to learn by myself, creating everything from scratch, seemed so easy and quick to do. Press this big button with shiny icons and boom! Voilà. I hate it when something nice happens without sweating and understanding what’s happening under the hood. But then I realized how great it was for younger guys and how enlightened I would have been if this kind of software was available before I even knew what color grading was. I would probably have learned the craft much faster.

I’m not a power user of Instagram, but I use it from time to time and I love it. I think it brought something cool and refreshing to our industry. It gave us the freedom to try new stuff without being scared that it was too experimental or too unconventional. Applied on the right project and done right, the Instagram Look…. or the Hipster Grading can look great.

I created my hipster formula back in 2011 while grading a music video for Beverlay. Director Yola van Leeuwenkamp wanted an out of the ordinary look. I was skeptical at first… but I think it turned out great in the end. I was cleaning old stuff in my archives this week and when I saw this project, I thought it could make an interesting color grading article. So here it is:

Hipster Color Grading

My software of choice for Hipster Color Grading is After Effects. It’s possible to achieve similar results with high end systems like Lustre, but I find you can experiment different stuff faster with After Effects. It works like Photoshop and you can get unexpected results by cycling through different blending modes and opacities very quickly. Here’s a before and after video:

The Formula

My Hipster Color Grading formula consists of seven layers. Four adjustment layers with curves and three color solids. The first two layers control the brightness, contrast and minor color adjustments. The solids are where the hipster magic happens and the additional top layers are for exposure fine tuning. Note that this formula works best with natural lens flares. You might have to adjust the Contrast Curve if you are using it without flares.

Layer 1: Brightness/Contrast Curves
The first layer controls the brightness and the contrast of our shot using two Curves. The first one on the left is a simple S Curve to increase the contrast. The second Curve on the right increases the brightness by gently lifting the midtones.

Layer 2: Brightness/Color Curves
This layer lays the ground for the look in terms of colors. I used one Curve and adjusted the Red, Green and Blue channel. You can see how I modified the curve for each channel below. Don’t get mistaken, it seems like three curves, but it’s only a screenshot for each channel.

Still using the same Curve, I switched back to the full RGB channel and increased the brightness by raising it with a point between the midtones and the highlights:


Layer 3: High Color
My first Color Solid targets and adds color in the highlights. If you read my post Adding Color to Your Highlights you’ll understand its purpose right away. Pick the color of your choice and set your blending mode to Darken. Lower the opacity until looks good. In my case, I used the color #FF8E08 and set the opacity to 18%.

Layer 4: Main Color
The process for this layer is the same except the color and the blending mode is different. As the title says it, this color will have a greater impact on your image. It’s the dominant color. Try to pick a color that’s not too far from the previous layer to get pleasing results. I used the color #E41347 with the Screen blending mode and the opacity set to 38%.

Layer 5: Additional Color
This last Color Solid blends everything together nicely. Once again pick a color not too far from the other ones and then set your blending mode to Color Burn. This mode is pretty intense so make sure that your opacity is not to high. I myself used the color #FFC408 and set my opacity to 9%.

Layer 6: Lift
This layer adjusts the exposure after the color work is done. I call it Lift because Hipster Looks generally have the blacks lifted. This helps the color to bleed smoothly through the tonal range of the image.

Layer 7: Vignette

Using a basic oval shape, I drew a vignette around the edges of the frame and set the mask to subtract to affect the outside matte. The feather was set to 525px to get a very soft gradient. To darken the edges, I applied a vignette and crushed the blacks and the lowered the mids a notch. You can see the shape and the Curve below.


That’s it! Our shot is now Hipsterized. I’m sure there are plugins or softwares out there that will give you a similar result with only a few clicks, but with this formula you have the ability to customize each layer to your liking. Hopefully you also understood pretty much what was going on under the hood and will be able to adapt it to your needs. If you want to play around and try different looks, change the color of the layer Main Color:

This technique is obviously not suitable for every projects. I will probably never get the opportunity to use it on a standard 30sec TV spot… but it can look nice for a music video. You could even use it for a wedding or vacation video. Have fun and try it out!

Charles-Etienne Pascal is a freelance digital colorist working in Montreal, Canada. His line of work mainly consist of advertising, but he also very much enjoys grading music videos, short films and documentaries. Chuck likes photography, motorcycles, travelling, bouldering, guitar and of course color grading.
  1. Jacken Reply

    another great post, thanks!
    too bad that not a lot cc software can create solids with color fill

    • iseehue Reply

      I agree. I miss them when I’m not using After Effects. It is possible to replicate the same effects with traditional grading tools though… but not as fun!

      • Jacken Reply

        True. I know this technique when you lifted up shadows to completely white blow out picture then lower gain and use it for color you want to fill but it’s way more limited.

  2. amani Reply

    Hey Iseehue,
    This is greater stuff I’m glad i find your website at premiumbeat anyway do u have video tutorial resources?
    Regard amani

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