I’m a big fan of LUTs (lookup tables). They are used in cinematography to give movies a specific ‘look’ but they’ve now crossed over into stills photography, where they are used for everything from vintage effects to film simulations.
LUTs are also used for correction and conversion in video. If you’ve shot footage in a Log mode, you’ll need a LUT to convert it to regular movie color space. For stills photographers, though, LUTs are all about creating a ‘look’, or a very specific color palette.
LUTs work by shifting colors and tones from their original values to new ones. They are, very literally, lookup tables, where the LUT process looks up each individual color value in the image and remaps it on to a new one.
TIP: LUTs and where to find them
The LUTs in this article come from Lutify.me. They come in the regular 3D LUT format that’s used across both photo editing and video editing apps, but what’s interesting is that the package includes special ‘Profile’ versions for Lightroom and Capture One, programs which don’t support LUTs directly, but do support profiles. The Lutify.me subscription doesn’t just include downloadable LUTs. It also offers online color grading and previewing for video and production teams. You can also get free LUTs, but the quality can vary.
LUTs are not the same as presets. LUTs are a low-level image adjustment process that happens before any of the software’s own tools have been brought into play. They are equivalent to the Profiles in Adobe Lightroom. Indeed, the LUTs I use are a third party set from Lutify.me that can be installed and used with a number of programs, including Capture One, Lightroom, Luminar, Exposure X and ON1 Photo RAW.
LUTs don’t work on everything. I’ve found they are less useful for outdoor photography, where we have very specific ideas about the colors in blue skies and green vegetation. With indoor scenes (or overcast outdoor scenes or city scenes), however, you can take more liberties with color and be more experimental with your LUTs.
So for this particular experiment I’m using this retro cafe interior which has a decor and a character that responds well to a vintage treatment and different color shifts, all of which enhance its atmosphere. These LUTs are all from Lutify.me and I’m applying them in Capture One here – but another reason I love LUTs is that I would get exactly the same look by applying the same LUT in other software.
Here’s another example of an image where I started out with a LUT before doing any editing: Montacute House in moody monochrome with split toning
Six LUTs compared
LUTs vs presets
So why use LUTs and not presets? I like LUTs for two main reasons:
- I can use my favorite LUTs in any program that supports third-party LUTs. The best LUTs are the product of a skilled and creative artist and you’ll want to use them everywhere, where as presets are fixed to specific programs.
- They are independent of the editing tools, so you can start your editing from a clean slate, and not have to work around settings applied by a preset.