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How to (Effectively) Use Color Profiles in Lightroom

A guide to Lightroom color profiles

Your camera has several color profiles that you can enable to change the look of your photos while shooting. (On most cameras, these have names like “Standard,” “Portrait,” and “Landscape;” the names are fairly self-explanatory and tell you what each profile is designed to be used for.)

But while color profiles are generally easy to apply in-camera – you simply find the right menu item, then toggle between your options – what if you want to experiment with color profiles during post-processing? Alternatively, what if you apply an in-camera color profile that doesn’t turn out great and you want to apply a different profile later on?

Fortunately, Adobe Lightroom Classic offers a handy Profile Browser. Not only does this allow you to try different profiles after the fact, but it also provides additional profiles for you to choose from so you can further enhance your photos. Below, I explain how to use camera color profiles in Lightroom, and I share my method for creating profiles of your very own.

Let’s dive right in!

Why do cameras have color profiles?

Color profiles in Lightroom.
This photo was taken with the Canon Portrait Picture Style color profile which is ideal for portraits.

Back before digital photography, when everybody used film, it was common practice to select a film that suited the subject being photographed. A landscape photographer might use Fujifilm Velvia, a slide film that produces high-contrast, deeply saturated images perfect for landscape photography. A portrait photographer, on the other hand, might use a film like Kodak Portra to create portraits with softer, more subtle colors.

When digital cameras first became available, the colors rendered by a camera all looked the same. You could adjust parameters like contrast and saturation if you knew your camera menus well, but it certainly wasn’t straightforward, and there weren’t a whole lot of options.

Then manufacturers started adding color profiles to their cameras. I’m using the term “color profile” because every manufacturer has a different name for it. Here are some common ones:

  • Canon: Picture Style
  • Nikon: Picture Control
  • Fujifilm: Film Simulation Mode
  • Sony: Creative Style
  • Pentax: Custom Image
  • Olympus: Picture Mode

(Fujifilm’s approach is interesting because they have named their profiles after genuine film types. As a result, Fuji color profiles are more nuanced and subtle than those made by the other manufacturers. This approach to color profiles is one of the features that sets Fujifilm cameras apart from the competition.)

Color profiles in Lightroom
This image was taken with the Fujifilm Velvia color profile. This Film Simulation setting works well for landscape photos.

How to use color profiles

You can apply color profiles both in-camera and in Lightroom.

Note that in-camera color profiles are designed primarily for JPEG users. If you use the JPEG format, it’s important to choose the most appropriate profile as you cannot change it afterward in Lightroom.

On the other hand, if you shoot in RAW, then it ultimately doesn’t matter which color profile you select as you can change it later in Lightroom.

That said, even if you photograph exclusively in RAW, there is one benefit of adjusting color profiles in-camera: they’ll be applied to your image previews. So if you want to see how a shot will look with a certain profile applied, you can set the profile, take the image, and then preview the image on your LCD.

Even cooler: If you own a mirrorless camera with an electronic viewfinder, the color profiles will be applied to the EVF screen, which allows you to see the world with the profile overlayed. When looking through the viewfinder, you can view a scene in sepia, in black and white, with high contrast, and more!

Color profiles in Lightroom

How to (Effectively) Use Color Profiles in Lightroom

If you go to the Develop module in Lightroom and look at the top of the Basic panel, you’ll see the Profile option. Here, you can click on the current profile to see a list of several Adobe profile options:

Color profiles in Lightroom

If you click Browse, you’ll be taken to the Profile Browser, which contains a slew of additional profiles to choose from:

Color profiles in Lightroom

The options you get depend on your camera model, but under the Camera Matching option, you’ll see the profiles that Lightroom recognizes as native to your camera:

Color profiles in Lightroom

To apply a profile, simply click on one of the options. Lightroom will adjust your image accordingly, and you can get on with your editing!

Now, you might be wondering: When is the ideal time to apply a color profile? Should I do it at the beginning of my editing workflow? Or at the end?

Since the color profile is one of the most important settings in Lightroom, I recommend that you apply it before you do anything else.

To see why, select a portrait in Lightroom, go to Profile Browser, and select the Portrait profile (Fujifilm users can use the Camera Pro Neg. Hi setting). Take a good look at the skin tones. Now change the profile to Landscape (or Velvia for Fujifilm). See the difference that makes to the skin tones? Which looks more natural? This is why it’s so important to set the profile first, and then proceed with additional edits as needed.

Color profiles in Lightroom
Different profiles will alter the colors and tones of your image from the get-go. Start by choosing a profile, then continue with your editing workflow.

Monochrome color profiles

Most cameras have several black-and-white (or monochrome) color profiles. Again, these are designed for JPEG shooters and are not much practical use for RAW users, except for previewing B&W effects in the field. In my view, the best way to convert a photo to black and white in Lightroom is to go to the Basic Panel and manually set the Treatment to B&W.

I’ll add, however, that Lightroom has recently added a slew of black-and-white color profiles, each with slightly different looks. If you’re thinking of converting a file to monochrome, these can be a great starting point!

Color profiles in Lightroom

Color profiles and white balance

Color profiles work together with the White Balance setting on your camera to control the colors in your photos. For example, if you are shooting portraits you could set the profile to Portrait and White Balance to Cloudy to give your portraits a pleasing warm color cast.

As with color profiles, if you use the RAW format, you can easily change the White Balance in Lightroom. This lets you decide how cool or warm you want your photos to be at the development stage.

Color profiles in Lightroom
I processed this photo using the Portrait color profile and the Cloudy White Balance setting. The result is warm and flattering.

How to create custom color profiles in Lightroom

Most cameras have less than ten color profiles. This doesn’t seem like a lot, especially compared to the wide variety of film types available to photographers 20 years ago.

So what if you want more profile options? It’s possible to create your own customized color profiles using Lightroom. The way to do this is to create a Develop preset.

Let’s say that you like your camera’s Portrait color profile but would prefer the colors to be less saturated. In this case, you could edit a portrait in Lightroom, using negative Vibrance or Saturation settings to reduce the intensity of the colors. You could also adjust the saturation settings in the HSL/Color Mixer panel.

Once you’re satisfied, you could create a new Develop preset that saves those settings. Simply click the Plus icon in the Presets panel (on the left-hand side of the Develop module):

Color profiles in Lightroom
Click the Plus icon in the Presets panel to create a new Develop preset.

Give your preset a name, like “Portrait Preset,” and make sure the relevant editing boxes are checked. Then click Create:

Color profiles in Lightroom
Decide which settings you want to include in the new Develop Preset by ticking the appropriate boxes. Give the preset a name and click Create.

Now you can apply that preset to any photo you like by going to the Presets panel in the Develop module and clicking on it. For example, I edited the following portrait by making adjustments to the Color Mixer and Tone Curve panels:

Color profiles in Lightroom

Once you are competent at using Lightroom’s Tone Curve and Color Mixer panels to control color, you can create some very beautiful presets that you can use on your photos. Alternatively, you can take advantage of the knowledge of other photographers and buy presets that somebody else has created.

Enhance your photos with color profiles!

The usefulness of color profiles depends very much on your personal workflow. If you use the JPEG format, then both color profile and White Balance settings determine the way the colors in your photos come out. It’s really important to get both settings right when you take the photo.

But if you are like most photographers and you shoot in RAW, you can leave that decision until the post-processing stage. And you can even go further by using Lightroom’s color control tools to alter the colors in your photos.

Now over to you:

How do you like to use in-camera color profiles? How about Lightroom profiles? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Are you a fan of the natural/vintage look in portraits? Then check out my Vintage Portrait Presets for Lightroom. There are over 30 presets to help you create beautiful portraits in Lightroom!

Read more from our Post Production category

Andrew S. Gibson
Andrew S. Gibson

is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He’s an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

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