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Guide to LUTs

by Dawn Gilfillan on Oct 7, 2019

LUTs are a fabulous secret weapon for post-processing and color grading your images. Now they have become one of the quickest and smartest ways to color grade and enhance skin tones and colors in your photographs. If you’re not sure what LUTs are, or what they do, this guide to LUTs is for you!

We’ll tell you all you need to know about LUTs, including:

  • How a LUT works
  • How to install LUTs in Lightroom
  • Different types of LUTs
  • How to create your own LUTs in Photoshop
  • Common problems people have with LUTs and how to avoid them

What Are LUTs?

LUT stands for Lookup Table, and they are a set of numerical values used to adjust the color and contrast of pixels in a photo or video footage. They are applied though your image editing software just like a preset, although they are not the same.

Don’t worry, we’re not going to get all dry and technical on you – just a quick explanation of what LUTs are will be enough for you to understand how to use them!

Don’t worry, we’re not going to get all dry and technical on you. A quick explanation of what LUTs are will be enough for you to understand how to use them!

First, you should know that there are different types of LUTs. We’ll be looking at the different types a bit later on.

When you use a LUT to color grade, a set of your image values are sampled, and then changed according to the numbers stored in the lookup table. This causes a shift in the saturation, color and/or contrast according to the LUT you are using.

What Can LUTs Be Used For?

They are often used to give a certain look or feel to an image or footage. In recent years, the Cinematic look has been popular in photos in order to give them a Hollywood movie feel. Bleach Bypass has also been a very popular type of color grading look that originated in the film industry.

Applying alternative colors and contrast to images is an editing process known as color grading. LUTs have become a very quick way to apply this type of image editing without spending a lot of time making complicated manual adjustments in your editing program.

LUTs are often used to improve skin tones as well. They do this by compressing nearby hues. This is one of the reasons that fashion photographers use LUTs in their retouching workflow.

LUTS are also often used to create harmonized color palettes in your images, like the ever popular teal and orange combo. No matter what colors your camera captures in your photo, you can turn them into color harmonies with LUTs — as long as you know what you are doing, that is!

LUTs Are Different from Presets

You can get free Lightroom presets as well as free LUTs, but the two are not the same thing. Confusion can arise from this, so we need to learn the difference!

As mentioned before, LUTs are a set of numerical values that govern only contrast and color. Each pixel has values for red, green, and blue, and it’s not a flat table, but a 3D one.

Presets, on the other hand, are a set of filter adjustments that cover everything from exposure to sharpness and noise reduction.

To use LUTs effectively in your image editing software, you need to make all your basic image adjustments first, including white balance, exposure, detail enhancement, etc.

Another benefit of LUTs is that they can be downloaded and used in different image editing software. For instance, you can download the same LUT and use it in Luminar, Photoshop, or ON1. On the other hand, presets that are made in one image editor cannot be used in another.

How to Install LUTs in Lightroom

If you like the idea of using LUTs in your images, you may be wondering how you can install LUTs in Lightroom, and where you can find free LUTs.

Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered! This step-by-step guide will show you how to install and find LUTs in Lightroom photo editing software.

Before you can install LUTs in Lightroom, you will need to find and download them. You can find free LUTs for Lightroom, as well as premium pack to buy, on the Internet.

Once you’ve decided on a free pack of LUTs, follow the instructions for downloading them. They will download as a .zip file into your Downloads folder. Once they appear in your Downloads folder, Extract all the files.

Now you’re ready to install your new LUTs! Lightroom works with .XMP LUTs, so you may need to look out for them in some downloads if they’re not specifically named as Lightroom LUTs.

1. Open Lightroom’s Develop Module

Open up Lightroom. I’ll be using the latest version of Lightroom Classic here. Then, go to the Develop module:

Landscape image in Lightroom workspace

On the right-hand side of the screen, under the Histogram, you will see the Basic develop module. Across from where it says Profile, there are four rectangles together in a button. I’ve highlighted them in yellow in the screenshot below:

Lightroom basic develop module with Profile Browser button highlighted in yellow

2. Open the Profile Browser

When you open the Profile Browser, a new window will open in the Develop module. There is a + symbol in the left-hand corner of the Profile Browser. Click it, and a drop-down menu will appear. Choose Import Profiles:

Profile Browser >> Import Profiles

3. Find the Downloaded Folder

A file search window will open up. Go to your Downloads folder in it, and your unzipped LUT download folders should show up:

Downloads folder on PC

4. Choose the Correct Version and Open It

Click on your folder to open it. In this lutify.me free pack, there are then choices for different editing software types, such as Capture One or ON1. Choose the Lightroom folder:

Internal contents of downloaded LUT folder

Open it, and you will see options for different versions of Lightroom. Choose the one that applies to your version of Lightroom, and open it:

Contents of Lightroom folder inside LUT download

5. Import the LUTs into Lightroom

Select all of the files in this folder (Ctrl + A for a shortcut), and click on Import.

Lightroom LUT files contained within LUT download

6. Find the LUTs in the Profile Browser

You will find your new LUTs in the Profile Browser, but you will have to scroll down to the bottom, past Adobe’s own profiles to find them:

Profile Browser in Lightroom

That’s it — fairly easy! Now you can apply the LUT to your image just by clicking on it. You can see the difference it makes to this before and after photo:

Before and after comparison of Lightroom LUT applied to original landscape image

There is a slider in the Profile Browser that controls the amount of the LUT applied to your image. The default amount is 50, but you may find that either too much or not enough! Adjust the slider to suit the image you’re working with.

Types of LUTs

Many different types of LUTs exist, so it can get confusing here. There are technical LUTs, creative LUTs, 1D LUTs, 3D LUTs, .CUBE file LUTS, .XMP file LUTs, and so on. 

However, we’re not going to confuse the issue here by going into a lot of tech stuff. Instead, we’ll look at the kinds of LUTs you may want to use in your image editing software.

The majority of photographers will want to use creative LUTs. Many of the technical and hybrid LUTs are used in film and for converting video log footage, so they don’t concern us.

Be aware that Lightroom doesn’t work with .CUBE LUT files, only .XMP. Some LUTs created for video can be used by image editing software, though.

For example, Luminar will run .cube LUT files that can also be used in video editors.

There are workarounds for installing .CUBE LUT files in Lightroom, but they involve using Adobe Camera RAW or installing a special plugin for Lightroom. This video tutorial shows you how to use Camera RAW to install .CUBE LUTs in Lightroom.

Creative LUTs

Creative LUTs are used to color grading your images, as mentioned earlier. Color grading can give photos and footage a whole new depth and creative feel.

Creative LUTs are usually bold, with distinctive colors that allow you to create a very specific look.

Film Emulation LUTs

These LUTs are made to emulate the characteristics of different kinds of film stock. The color shifts are often less bold and more muted than with creative LUTs, because they are made to copy specific film types, like Kodak, Fuji etc.

Cinematic LUTs are those that give your images the feel and color saturation of big-budget motion pictures like The Matrix, Alien, etc.

Other LUTs have been made to specifically enhance skin tones in portraits, for instance. Some LUTs have very aggressive colors will ruin skin tones in your photograph, so if you are looking for LUTs that will suit people, I suggest finding portrait packs.

How LUTs Can Improve Digital Images

You may be wondering why you should bother with importing lookup tables when you can just use presets instead. Actually, using LUTs can give your images a harmony and depth that presets just can’t match.

With that being said, you can’t just slap a LUT on top of an image and expect it to look amazing.

LUTs only work correctly in image processing when you have the proper white balance on an image, and they won’t work well on over-or-under exposed images.

Remember, the only things LUTs change is color and contrast. If your white balance or exposure is off, the colors and tones won’t look like they are meant to. 

LUTs are a quick way of adding consistent color grading edits to your photos, and you can adjust the amount that is applied to suit the image.

You can do any tweaks and edits that you want to your image, add adjustment layers, change the blend mode of the layers — anything you like — and the LUT you apply at the end won’t affect your modifications.

Can You Do Color Correction with LUTs?

In video, LUTs can be used to color correct as you can apply both technical and creative LUTs. But, this isn’t so simple to do with still photos that only use creative LUTs.

All color corrections and balancing really should be done by using adjustments before applying LUTs. However, as mentioned before, you can get specific LUTs for enhancing skin tones in portraiture that may help correct and skin colors that don’t look natural due to poor lighting.

What Are the Benefits of Using LUTs?

Lookup tables are a quick way of applying color grading in your image processing. And, if you want a consistent look, they are a good alternative to presets.

Because they can be used in different applications, you only need to buy or download a LUT once to use it with a different image editing software. Presets, on the other hand, are unique to each program. Therefore, presets have to be downloaded again and again for each editing software.

Later, we’ll look at creating custom creative LUTs in Photoshop that can be saved and used in another image or video editing application that accepts .CUBE files. With this handy trick, you can create a LUT on a still image and apply it to any video footage you may have, too.

These LUTS are also color harmonized, so they will shift all the colors in your image to those that work well together. Basically, these LUTs create a pleasing overall look in your photos for you.

For instance, let’s see what a LUT will do to benefit this image below. All of the basic adjustments have already been done:

Original image of field with tall wheat stalks and two figures walking in the distance

The free LUT I chose first gives a very cinematic, bright feel to the image:

Brightened version of original image obtained using Lightroom LUT

But the one below makes it look much darker and more sinister:

Black and white version of original image obtained by using LUT

In this way, you can choose lookup tables to suit the mood you want your image to convey. 

How to Create Your Own LUTs in Adobe Photoshop

As well as finding and downloading free LUTs for Lightroom, you can create your own LUTs in Adobe’s editing software, Photoshop.

1. Open up an image in Photoshop

Open an image you want to create a LUT with, and make sure it’s set as the Background Layer. To do this, go to the Layers Panel and check that it says Background Layer, as in the screenshot below:

Layers panel in Photoshop with locked background layer of original image

2. Add Adjustment Layers

Add your changes by creating Adjustment Layers on top of the Background Layer. Don’t flatten them when you’re finished editing.

You can change anything you like on these layers, even the Blending Modes. You’ll find these in a drop-down menu next to where it says “Normal” on the Layers Panel.

Original image with adjustment layers applied in Photoshop

3. Save Your LUT

When you are happy with your new LUT, go to File >> Export >> Color Lookup Tables:

File >> Export >> Color Lookup Tables

A dialog box will open that allows you to name your LUT and select the file type. The default save quality is 32, which is more than adequate. If you choose a very high number, it will take forever for your LUT to load in future.

Export Color Lookup Tables dialog box in Photoshop

Once you save your LUT, you’re done! Photoshop saves it as a .CUBE file that you can also open in Luminar’s LUT Mapping.

When you want to use your LUT again in Photoshop, open the Color Lookup layer, then click Load 3D LUTs. You will be taken to the folder where you stored your custom LUT earlier.

Color Lookup Properties box in Photoshop

Tips for Using LUTs

Consider Mood

Before you use lookup tables to enhance your images or footage, it pays to think carefully about what you want your images to say.

Pay Attention to Exposure and White Balance

If you are going out shooting, make sure you correctly expose your photos, and that you shoot using the correct white balance. That way, you can achieve good, predictable results from your LUTs.

Tailor Your LUTS to Your Needs

If you want to get the best skin tones from your LUTs, you may have to buy ones that are made especially to enhance skin tones in portraits, although you may be able to track down some good free LUTs for this if you have the time and patience.

Not all LUTs will give you the results you’re looking for. Evaluate the characteristics of your image before applying a LUT.

For instance, LUTs that are made with a cold, blue tint will work well on images shot on overcast days, but will not suit images shot on bright, sunny days.

LUTs are attractive to photographers and videographers because they are fast and can make some attractive color and contrast shifts. They can add warmth, make amazing color harmonies and enhance the mood of the subject in the photo, all in a couple of clicks.

Most Common Problems People Have with Using LUTs

One of the most common problems photographers have with using LUTs is that they treat them as presets.

As mentioned before, lookup tables are not presets, so applying them in the same way just won’t work.

Add your LUT last, after you have adjusted your white balance, tweaked contrast and exposure, used noise reduction and worked on any adjustment layer you need.

Think of LUTs as the icing on the cake. Presets are the ingredients that go into the cake before you bake it.

Using LUTs for color correction doesn’t really work. You can get LUTs that add warmth or a colder, bluish tone, but unless your image is already color balanced correctly, it won’t be successful. You may get lucky, but that’s probably not going to happen very often.

Can be Glitchy

Other LUT issues involve the import and use of LUTs in your image editing software. You may encounter some bugs and other glitchy problems, as a quick look at photography and video forums will tell you.

Sometimes people try to import .CUBE LUT files into Lightroom, and they won’t install because Lightroom will only accept .XMP files. Make sure to pay attention to file type!

Conclusion

The world of LUTs can be a confusing place, in part due to the crossover between video and still photo editing. It helps to remember that you’ll probably only need creative LUTs for photography. Unless you’re also a videographer, you can safely ignore the other types, which makes learning LUTs a little easier.

For some reason, Adobe Lightroom doesn’t accept .CUBE LUTs, which can be frustrating since Adobe Photoshop does. 

Finding them in Lightroom isn’t easy either, unless you know exactly where to look. Adding LUTs to Lightroom can be a bit of pain too. This is especially true when you know how simple it is to find and add lookup tables in Luminar.

LUTs can add a special creative touch to your photos. If you want to start using LUTs more frequently, then learning more about color grading in photography and how to use it to the best effect is definitely a great idea.

There are lots of great tutorials on the internet about LUTs and color grading, but one of the best things you can do is practice using them hands-on.

It’s only through experimentation that you will learn what works, and what doesn’t. Don’t be afraid to try new things in both your photography and your photo editing. If you make a mistake (and we all do!), don’t beat yourself up about it. Instead, think of it as a valuable part of the learning process that will help you learn new skills and techniques.

I hope this article has helped you discover more about LUTs, what they do (and what they can’t), and how to install and find them in Lightroom. 

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