The Best Way to Use LUTs

Tl;dr - LUTs are much more than just Instagram filters for your footage. Learn how to use LUTs during production and amp up your shooting game.
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Table of Contents

What is a LUT?

You’ve probably heard the term before and seen loads of sites selling bundles of LUTs to make your project look like the latest blockbuster hits. 

But what is a LUT, really?

Look Up Table

LUT stands for “Look Up Table”.

I know, sexy right? It sounds like a command for your 2007 Excel sheets.

And that’s about right. A LUT is essentially a small file of “if this, then that” coordinates.

Essentially, it takes an original LOG image file and says, “if the pixel data looks like this (flat), then make it look like that (colored)”.

Of course it’s more complex than this, and there are multiple different types of LUTs and LUT files, but for our purposes today, all we need to know is that a LUT file is like a map that tells your image how to look.

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How do you use LUTs?

For a long time I looked at LUTs like Instagram filters. 

In my mind, they were pre-designed looks that you could add to your footage to give it that “cinematic look” during post.

I think a lot of people look at them this way, and that’s why those LUT packs that are for sale get sold.

But, it turns out, this is not the best way to use LUTs… at all.

During Prep

The best way to use LUTs begins in the prep of a shoot.

Ideally, you want to take your camera that you’ll be using out to the location or a similar location and re-create the types of conditions that you’ll be facing.

For example, light a test scene in a similar style, with similar wardrobe and set dressing and shoot a test shot.

Then, you can take that test shot into a program like Davinci Resolve and color it to your liking.

Once you’ve done this, you can export that color profile as a LUT and now the journey begins.

On Set

Now that you’ve created your custom LUT to the exact specifications of your shoot, when the time comes to actually begin principal photography, you have an amazing secret weapon.

Loading your custom LUT into your camera and your monitors will now let you view your flat RAW or LOG footage as it will be in the final product.

Amazing, right?

The director, the talent, the agency, the execs all will get to see footage on-set that is very close to what the end result will be.

This is a game-changer as it will keep everyone on the same page and eliminate confusion down the road with all of the, “that’s not what I thought it would look like” comments.

Plus, as the cinematographer, you are now able to light the scene with more confidence and accuracy.

The production designer is able to dress the set and see how the props, paints, and set dressing will actually look.

The wardrobe and make up people are able to look at the monitor and see their work in a much more useful way.

It’s helpful for EVERYONE.

What About All Those Presets?

So, does this mean all of those LUT packs and presets that you’ve purchased are useless? 

Of course not.

Those are still great tools that can help you get to where you want to go faster.

Use these presets as a jumping-off point to get to the look that you want so you don’t have to start from scratch every time you make a project.

But, now that you know the best way to use LUTs, you know to use these presets during the prep of the shoot where you can control the outcome of the project instead of in post where you can only hope that it all comes together and looks the way you want it to.

Happy shooting.

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Alex Darke
Alex Darke
Alex is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker located in Los Angeles, who has spent the past 7 years working with the legendary broadcaster Larry King and shooting thousands of episodes of television as a camera operator and director of photography. He owns the motion picture production company Gilded Cinema and co-hosts the No-Budget Filmmaking Podcast.
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