Presets and LUTs are a staple of digital photography, and they have very specific and different uses, although they seem very similar. Where as a preset is a set of instructions that tells your image to display particular contrast, saturation, sharpness, including all the basic settings and indeed even more complex instructions such as borders, am LUT (or Look Up Table) is a set of instructions to change how your colours work, for example it will tell one shade of green to act like another, or a blue to act like a red etc. Both are usually talked about together, because they are used for one of two things, either setting a starting point for an image, or changing an image to reflect create something different. While a preset can include an LUT file, an LUT file can only hold data for colours and nothing else.
If you shoot in raw, you will be familiar with presets and LUTs as a raw file is simply data and you or the editing program you are using will adjust those colours using whichever system that program uses. Some programs will have presets for landscapes, portraits, flat, vivid etc, while some programs will have presets for your cameras settings, recreating how you captured the image in your camera. Without thinking about it too much, you will have used your first preset (which a lot of the time would include an LUT). Most of the editing programs will allow you to load a raw file with no base curves etc, this is simply displaying a flat image based on the editing software’s coding, giving you effectively a flat preset. Loading the same image into various pieces of software using no enhancements gives surprisingly different images depending on what software you use!
What a preset/LUT is:
Most professional photographers, or photographers with large workflows who need a lot of images processed in a similar way will also have extra presets or LUTs that they will use in order for them to make the most out of their images. The best and most popular photographers will have a set of either that they use, as it brings consistency to your workflow, which is especially important when creating a portfolio of work, photographing events such as weddings or gatherings, portrait shoots where there are many images and landscape and architectural shots as part of a larger piece of work.
A preset or LUT gives you a new or extended starting point from your initial raw imported setting (and can be used in jpeg files, which already would have embedded colour data). They are especially usual if you know the look you are after, or use a number of different cameras with different colour representation. A lot of programs will come pre-programmed with large selections of presets and a selection of LUTs. These can be very useful, and many people use them, especially LUTs which can recreate old film stock from your raw files.
Presets and LUTs can be used as to finish off a product or a base point to a photograph look that you want to achieve.
What a preset/LUT is NOT:
A preset or LUT is not an instant fix for your image, although when used with a jpeg image it can get you to where you’re going very quickly. A lot of people hear the term “preset” and they atomically think it’s the computer doing the work for you and “cheating”. It can be used for this, but usually it is tweaked by yourself and then saved as another preset, making it more suitable for your own images.
There is nothing wrong with using presets, or buying presets, and the majority of top professionals will sell you their presets to make money as a sideline. One thing these presets do not do, is make your images look like the images of the professional you bought them from, as they would have used it as a basepoint before starting their images.
For a lot of people, they will use presets or LUTs in reverse and add it at the end when they think they have finished with their photographs. Quite often, this will give their image a very different look (especially in the case of LUTs) and it’s that magic of going through the settings that people enjoy.
Everyone uses presets or LUTs if they shoot raw, a lot of the time the software will call this by various names such as base curves, camera settings or colour profiles, but they are just preset starting points for you to get started. Once you’re more comfortable with editing, especially with large workflows, you’ll start to experiment with built in presets or start using LUTs, it’s a natural progression that people move to in order to create a “look” which separates them from everyone else. Once you become competent, you’ll design and use your own presets, and use them in the way that suits you.
Of course, there’s no right or wrong way with using presets or LUTs, some people are happy with the initial presets as they don’t have large workflows, or simply don’t need the features that are there too help them out. While others will use them as they need to keep their work looking consistent for their professional use or portfolios.
One thing to remember, whichever you choose to use most, presets or LUTs, they are there for a reason, and it’s how you use them that distinguishes your work from other people’s. If you intend to sell your work, it’s something you’ll need to consider as your workflow increases as behind every great photographer is a great preset or LUT.