What’s the Difference Between a Preset and an LUT?

November 28, 2018

By Greg Scoblete

Caio Resende | Pexels CC

Updated 11/18/2020

Photo software programs have a variety of tools to help you quickly tweak and tone your images, and while many tools look like they do the same thing, they often have subtle differences. Take, for example, a feature that’s becoming increasingly popular in still photography programs: Look Up Tables, or LUTs.

Like an image preset or filter (that you can create and sell to other photographers), a LUT can be applied to an image in a single click—but you shouldn’t confuse one for the other.

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LUTs are widely used in video editors but have only recently begun to migrate into photo software like Skylum’s Luminar and Photo RAW from ON1.

They are essentially an easy way to transform an image’s color and tone. They work by remapping color values from their original state (i.e. the colors you captured with your camera) onto a target output state.

They can target a single color or a multitude of colors. In the filmmaking world, LUTs are commonly used to give digital footage the look of older motion-picture film stocks.

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before and after LUT application in photography filmmaking editing
On the left side, the original image. On the right, the image with Luminar’s “Genius” LUT applied. In the middle, Fancy, the horse.

For still photos, they can be used to adjust color and tone to any color target the maker imagines. ON1, for instance, makes LUTs targeted at specific scenes and moods, like black-and-white, nature and wildlife, cinematic, moody and more

So what makes a LUT different from a preset? Basically, a LUT targets a narrower set of image parameters to change (color and tone). A preset, on the other hand, can adjust a much wider range of image parameters, things like exposure, sharpening and vignetting. A preset can contain a LUT, but a LUT is not generally referred to as a preset.

Like presets, though, LUTs can be edited or applied as layers, which allows you to adjust opacity to further edit your look. LUTs are powerful yet easy-to-use image editing tools. We’ll almost certainly see more of them coming to an image-editing program near you in the not-too-distant future.

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