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Lightroom Profiles and the Future of Accurate Color

The enhanced Profiles feature is positioned front and center in the April release of Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw. But which is the right one to use? And why are there so many?

You've probably already be inundated with blog posts describing what Adobe has done with the April release, but as a quick backgrounder to set the stage for what I want to talk about here this week, allow me to present a brief recap of what I discussed last week. "Profiles" provide a means of visually selecting how an image should look from a menu of preset choices. You can basically think of Profiles as being pre-canned collections of settings and adjustments that you can load with a mouse click rather than having to manually make a series of tweaks with the tools and sliders available in the Develop module yourself. It's not that you couldn't achieve the same results yourself, its just that Profiles lets you do it more easily and more quickly. And they let you do so visually, requiring only that you can click on something you like when you see it.

Color Checker targetCamera Profiles have been in Lightroom and Camera Raw for some while now. By shortening the name to just Profiles, greatly expanding the range of preset choices, and putting it right there near the top of the Basic settings panel, Adobe is clearly saying they view Profiles as a useful part of an effective workflow for optimizing images in the digital darkroom. As I think can deduce based on my article about Profiles last week, I agree with them. Profiles are cool.

But there's an aspect to the whole idea of Profiles that I think is worth examining here. If the objective of image editing is to achieve an accurate rendition of a scene, then why are there so many choices for Profile? Wouldn't you just need the one "right" profile, the one that rendered color accurately? Or by embracing the use of Profiles, are we (us photographers and Adobe alike) acknowledging the subjective nature of good photography, that an image should not only "look right," but also "feel right?" We pick profiles by looking at how a given image would be rendered using each. After trying out a few, we settle on one that looks best for that image. Unless the image we are editing is a picture of a color checker target with known reference RGB values for each square, there's no real way to objectively pick a profile. The process is inherently subjective. You pick the one that looks best. To you.

In a bygone era, photographers used to discuss the merits of different film emulsions. In amongst the considerations of film grain and the like, attention was also paid to how various films rendered color. Not only were films optimized for use under various light sources, they were also optimized simply for producing pleasing palettes. What was long an unspoken differentiator between films burst into full awareness with the release of Fuji Velvia. With Velvia, Fuji was openly acknowledging that images with big, bold colors simply looked better. Velvia dispensed with any pretense of striving for "accuracy" in color and instead took a step toward playing on the viewers emotions. Vibrant, "larger than life" colors triggered reactions that were in turn larger than life. Unabashedly so. Color photography hasn't been the same since.

When the world moved to digital image capture, the gateway to digital editing also opened. Rather than deciding on a "look" ahead of time and shooting a film known for producing it, we can now decide on a look for each image, after the fact, and with live previews to guide us. We can tweak our own version of Fuji Velvia unique to every image as we work on it. Within limits, we can change the look of an image quite a bit through the selection of a profile in Lightroom or Camera Raw.

Not all those profiles can be accurate at the same time. Some may approach it while others clearly impart a specific mood or feeling to what the camera faithfully recorded. The Camera Profiles previously present in Lightroom purported to help you get closer to accurate color. The new Profiles feature unabashedly embraces better looking color. Lacking any frame of reference to compare the image on your computer monitor against, the very concept of accuracy loses at least some of its meaning. What is accuracy? I say its whatever looks the way I remember it, and we all weight our memories in favor of the good parts. It's only natural that our images should reflect that.

I think it's worth keeping in mind that all good things can be done to excess. So, if we embrace the idea that Profiles let us go with our feelings by picking the rendering we like the best, how do we know when we've gone too far? There an increasingly blurry line between digital photography and digital painting, but most of us still want our photos to look like they came from a camera not a paintbrush. The truth is, this issue has been with us since the earliest days of digital. It's just that the tools necessary to indulge or creativity in this way have become increasingly available and popularized.

So how do you know when you've over-indulged your creativity and gone too far? You don't. At least not really. But to trust yourself to pick the Profile that looks the best is to trust yourself not to pick a Profile that goes too far. Going too far simply won't look as good as a choice made with more moderation. Simple.

So, what about color accuracy? That may be where Profiles came from, but that's not where they're headed. The future belongs to images that look good. Embrace the future.

Date posted: April 15, 2018


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