What is Colour Grading?


Colour grading is a technique that photographers and filmmakers use to change the visual ‘tone’ of an image, and to manipulate the colours of a photograph.

Colour grading will completely change the aesthetics of an image, and certain colours are often used in photography and film to evoke different emotions.

People sometimes confuse colour grading with colour correcting, but the two are different.

Colour correction is applying adjustments to improve the colours of an image, such as adjusting white balance, contrast, saturation/vibrance, and the colour temperature of an image. Colour correcting is what you need to do before you start colour grading.

For colour grading, the process can involve adjustments in the curves, hue/saturation, solid colour fill and levels. LUT’s take that complicated process and allow you to apply it to your images in one click, which is why they are such a useful tool for colour grading.

Some people may say that using a LUT is a lazy person’s way to colour grade, but if you use a LUT, you’re creating something that you probably wouldn’t be able to make on your own, even if you had hours and hours to experiment and hone the adjustments. LUT’s are the most effective way to quickly create a cinematic or old-school film look for your images, and they can save you hundreds of hours of guesswork.


You may have heard of LUT’s before in cinematography, but did you know that you can use them to enhance your photographs too? They have been around for a long time, but photographers have only recently started using them, and now it seems that you can download LUT’s everywhere.

LUT stands for Look Up Tables, and they are a file which can be used by software to alter the colour and appearance of an image using a mathematical formula. They consist of a table of colour and brightness source and destination values. If you use a LUT, they can vastly improve the quality and colour of your images without you having to do a lot of time-consuming work. You can use pre-made LUT’s, or create your own and import them into your editing software.

You may well be thinking that LUT’s are just presets under another name, but although they have some similarities, LUT’s have a much wider range of usage. LUT’s can combine multiple and complex colour adjustments in a single file – you can then apply this data to an image to change the colour and tone curve of the image based on the values in the LUT file.


Just as with presets, LUT’s are not a magic bullet to make a so-so image into a great one, but they can take a good image to another level. LUT’s are formulated for properly-exposed images, and will give good results only on those images. If your image has blown-out highlights or completely black shadows, you’ll get a less than optimal result.

You also need to have a properly white-balanced image for the LUT to give predictable results. If your WB is off, you may still get a good result, but that’s not colour grading – it’s guesswork and luck.

There are different types of LUT’s too – viewing, transform, calibration, 1D and 3D, but for the purpose of this article, I’m not going to bore you by going into all the differences, just the important ones in the context of photography:

1D LUT’s

  • These LUT’s don’t give you fine control because everything is tied together in them. For example, if you chose to edit with a 1D LUT and wanted to change contrast, the saturation would increase or decrease too, as these adjustments are tied together.
  • They aren’t as realistic as 3D LUT’s, or capable of doing as much processing.
  • Work in one dimension for one colour: red, green, blue.

3D LUT’s

  • These LUT’s offer far more control, as the adjustments are independent of each other and can be changed separately.
  • They are very realistic and more reliable for complex colour grading.
  • Puts the colours into a 3D cube, which holds the formula for the inputs and outputs of the LUT.
  • Provides full volumetric colour space control.

Finding LUT’s

So, you want to try out some colour grading with LUT’s. Where do you get them from? Some editops like Luminar have a range of free LUT’s built in, to use LUTs in Photoshop you’ll have to load them. If you search for LUT’s on the internet, you’ll find a whole host of websites offering LUT’s both paid for and free. Here are some:

Free Cinematic Colour Grading LUTS

LUT’s Colour Grading Pack

8 Free Orange and Teal Lightroom Presets and LUTS

You’ll get the best results from your LUT’s if you have done all of your other adjusting and editing work first, such as correcting exposure, contrast etc, before adding them. LUT’s should be the last thing you do before applying any sharpening needed, and outputting your finished image.

You can also learn how to create your own LUT’s. There are many good tutorials out there explaining how to create LUT’s in Photoshop or Lightroom that can be used by other software applications.

Final Thoughts

LUT’s are a very useful tool to colour grade your images, and create exactly the right mood. They won’t fix a bad photo, but will add that extra something to good, well-exposed and colour corrected images. If you learn how to create your own, you can unleash your creativity, but if you don’t have the time or the inclination, there are some excellent ready-made LUT’s out there for you to download.

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CTO of GripUp, BA in Film Production.

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