It is important to have your own style. Everybody says that. It is one of the most important factors to avoid drowning in millions of other photos from other photographers. A style is many things. It is your compositions, what you shoot photos of, what light you shoot in, but one of the most important factors is, how you post-process your photos. In this article, we will look at a post-process technique that can give you your own unique look to all of your photos using LUTs in Photoshop.
There are many ways to apply a certain look to your photos, some are better and some are simpler than others. You can pick up a filter or a preset in some tool and it might look pretty good. But it will not really be your style no matter how cool it looks. Anybody with that tool can click that exactly same preset and have the same look.
Create your own look
If you want to have your own style or look, you will have to create it. A great way to do that is by creating your own “Color Look -Up Table” or simply called LUTs. This is a fairly easy way to make a quite drastic look which will be unique to your photos. This is also called color grading.
A LUT is a Color Look-Up Table, it maps one color into another. It is a technique used in the movie industry, to create certain styles to movies. The same technique can be applied in photography to create a distinctive and professional look to your photos.
In this article, you will first learn how to use LUTs, and then how to create your own LUT files. The LUT is your post-processing style. This technique requires Photoshop or GIMP (or any program that uses layers – Luminar is also capable of using LUTs). The examples in this article were done with Photoshop.
Before we start, remember that when you are post-processing not to overdo it only “do it” enough, or subtly.
How to use a LUT
Photoshop comes with a number of LUTs out-of-the-box, you apply them as an adjustment layer. They will change the colors of the image and some of them will also change the contrast. Let’s see how to add LUTs to a photo.
Step 1 – Open a photo in Photoshop
Start by opening a photo, maybe one that you have post-processed a bit to balance the contrast, highlights, and shadows.
Step 2 – Add an Adjustment Layer
Then add an Adjustment Layer – choose “Color Lookup Adjustment layer”.
This layer will use a LUT file to make magic changes to your photo.
Step 3 – Pick a LUT
Make sure that you have the Properties tab of the adjustment layer opened. Click on the 3DLUT file drop-down menu and a list will appear. The list you see include the default LUTs shipped with Photoshop.
Pick one and see what happens. Play around and try different default LUTs and see what happens.
Some are very dramatic, like for instance EdgyAmber, while others are a bit more subtle.
At first, you may think that the dramatic ones are not useful at all, but try changing the layer opacity to 30% while you have the EdgyAmber LUT selected.
As you can see the dramatic LUTs can also become subtle.
Step 4 – Combining several LUT files
You can also create your own unique look. One that you can use for a particular series or even apply it on all of your photos as your style. You can do that by combining several Color Lookup (LUT) adjustment layers.
On each one, change the opacity level to something rather low, probably in the 5%-40% range. Once you have 4-6 layers, you can be pretty sure that the exact combination of layers, their order and opacity is unique.
This is a pretty effective, yet simple, way to process your images to make them look like professional photographs.
You can also use some of the other kinds of adjustment layers to change the colors, to make more exact fine-tuning tweaks. Good adjustment layers for doing this are Selective Colors, Channel Mixer, and Color Balance. There are others, but they are even more advanced.
Once you have a selection of Color Lookup Adjustment (LUT) layers that you like, you can save this combination as your own LUT. This way you can achieve the same look on another photo, simply by applying just one LUT. It is almost as simple as clicking a preset button.
Requirement 1 – Your photo must be the Background Layer
To make this work, it is a requirement that the original image is the Background Layer. This will always be the case if you have opened the image normally.
Requirement 2 – Do not use masks
Whatever color grading adjustment layers you use to change the colors, do not use any masks. Using masks will confuse the Color Look Table export tool and your LUT will probably not be usable.
Step 5 – How to use your own LUT
Once you have made a set of adjustment layers to your photo, you can save it to a LUT file by going to: File > Export > Color Lookup Tables…
In the export dialog box, you can name your LUT. You can also change the Grid Points. 64 is a good compromise between size/performance and quality. Finally, make sure that you have 3DL checked.
If you save all your own LUTs to the same folder, they will be easy to access and find later. You can make a shortcut to the folder and very quickly apply one of your own LUTs to another image.
Step 6 – Using your own LUTs
It is very simple to use your newly created LUT file. Open a new image in Photoshop, add a Color Lookup Adjustment Layer and click Load 3D Lut.
As you can see, it instantly transforms your photo.
If you apply this LUT to any photo they will share a common look and feel.
All the photos in this article are processed using the same LUT and the familiarity is easy to spot. The results are dark moody images with a yellow/orange tint in the highlights and a blue/purple ting in the shadow areas.
They were all created with just some basic contrast, highlight and shadows adjustments applied in Lightroom, before importing them into Photoshop. The post-processing need not stop here, but for the purpose of the example, these images were kept simple.
By creating and using LUT files you can create a look for all your photos or even just to a series of images, that is unique. The LUT could be just a part of a more complex post-processing method or it could be the one spice that makes it your signature look.
As you grow more familiar with them you can create LUTs that you use for particular types of photos. One for sunny daytime photos, one for pre-sunrise, one for nighttime, etc. Have fun and be creative with using LUTs.
You can find tons of LUTs available on the internet. Some are free, some are not. However, I still recommend that you try to create your own, make it your style.
If you have any questions about creating or using LUTs, please ask in the comments area below.