Demystifying Camera Picture Profiles

Demystifying Camera Picture Profiles

Most, if not all, have seen the picture profile settings in our cameras. These can include settings for Landscapes, Portraits, or even Cine-style formats for filmmakers looking to achieve that cinematic look. But what do these mean and how do they affect our final image?Regardless of which camera system you use, picture profiles can be defined as customizable presets that apply in-camera processing to your photos. As it turns out however, how these settings are applied can have a dramatic effect on your final image but not always the final say in post.

Examples

In general, picture profiles take the data from your image and automatically apply contrast, color tone, saturation, and sharpness settings to your image to give you a certain look right in camera. Here are some examples I took this morning using my Canon 6D. My camera settings were f4.0, 1/40th of a second, ISO 100, JPEG (for reasons I will explain later), and I used a simple, yet vibrant subject, to emphasize the color levels and differences in tone between profiles. Obviously, different camera manufacturers will have different profiles or different names for similar profiles but in general, you will find these to be the norm. It should also be mentioned that it was a solidly overcast day so my white balance remained set at 6000K.

Although obvious to some, here is a side by side comparison of Canon's in camera picture profiles. It is important to note the differences in tone, color, and sharpness between each

If you look closely, you will immediately notice that certain profiles, such as Landscape, provide a much higher level of saturation than others such as Neutral. This will be evident most in the green and red colors for this particular shot. More importantly, you will see a difference in tonality and “crispiness” depending on the profile use. Neutral and faithful have noticeably far less of both than most of the others with the exception of Cinestyle (which will be explained later). Monochromatic is self-explanatory but the rest should provide subtle differences that are visible to the unaided eye. Of course, you probably knew all of this already right?

Raw vs. JPEG?

One of the lesser known aspects of using a picture profile is what happens in camera with when shooting raw vs. JPEG. When you snap a picture with a particular profile selected, your camera automatically processes it as a JPEG with that profile applied for viewing on your LCD. This happens regardless of whether you are shooting raw or JPEG. However, the profile used for shooting DOES come into play when you enter the post processing phase.

If you shot your image in JPEG, that picture profile will be baked into the image with very little room for adjustment. It will appear exactly as it did on camera which makes editing more efficient, uses less storage space, and may be exactly the type of workflow you require. Shooting in raw however does allow for that flexibility as the profile is not baked in but rather, used only as a guide while shooting. With a raw format, you can import the image into your preferred editing software and it will appear relatively flat and unadjusted, almost as if shot in a neutral style. This advantageous for many reasons, primarily the flexibility it allows with creative styling, but it comes at the cost of greater storage requirements and time to process.

Suppose you liked what you saw in camera but like to have raw files for discrete adjustments in post? Lightroom offers a feature in its develop module which allows you to apply a color profile similar to what you saw in camera. It is located under the "Camera Calibration" tab on the right side of the Develop module at the very bottom of the sidebar. While it does not offer all the same options as in camera, it is a good start and an efficient way to speed up a raw workflow.

Lightroom's Develop module offers a quick way to re-apply those in camera picture profiles to RAW files

Using Profiles in Videography

Probably a more relevant approach for discussing profiles in today’s world is their application in video work which can be far more daunting and restrictive. The discussion of video profiles throughout the past few years has been centered around very flat, “logarithmic” styles which claim to improve dynamic range and allow for enhanced post processing for cinematic styling. These typically include Sony’s S-LOG profiles and the C-LOG/Cinestyle profiles of Canon’s pro cinema cameras and DSLR’s respectively. For many years these profiles were reserved for higher end models of cameras yet, with today’s increased interest in shooting video in addition to stills, these profiles are becoming widely available in smaller, hybrid cameras such as Sony’s A7Rii or Canon’s line of DSLR’s.

Shot using Canon's Cinestyle profile which is preferred for videography. Notice how flat the image is which helps it retain details in both the brightest parts of the image as well as the darkest

But what exactly are these flat profiles and how do they translate to creating your image? In short, these profiles offer exceptional tonal reproduction in both the high-lights and low-lights. In other words, they help expose the brightest part of your scene while still keeping the detail in the shadows. Hence, improved dynamic range. The result of which are extremely flat, washed out images that frankly look awful on the surface. How they do this is a topic for another article so please pardon my brief explanation of a very complex topic.

To any experienced photographer or video shooter, dynamic range, or the lack thereof, is a common barrier for most digital cameras and one of the primary reasons techniques such as exposure blending exists. As camera technology improves, so does their dynamic range but in practical terms most sensors will struggle to see as the human eye does and in certain scenes, you have to decide to sacrifice the details in either the darkest areas or the lightest. A common rule of thumb is to expose for the highlights as details lost in the brightest parts of an image are non-recoverable in comparison to the darkest parts which can be recovered, to an extent, with the introduction of noise.

Choosing the right profile matters even more to videographers as the data captured by most video rated cameras is not raw and therefore, fairly inflexible in post. Setting your white balance precisely, choosing a picture profile, and determining the correct exposure are far more important when it comes to video work as there is simply not much wiggle room in post processing. It is essentially the equivalent of JPEG file. Pushing the exposure too far or adjusting the color temp one direction or another will almost immediately produce undesirable artifacts and unless you are shooting with an expensive and data hungry camera that films in raw, you will be hard pressed to alter much of your scene in post.

Flat, S-LOG style profiles are good alternatives to overcoming this issue as they allow you to capture more data from any given scene which in turns provides greater latitude in post for corrections. Cool effects called LUTS, or Look Up Tables, are often used in conjunction with flat profiles to provide a very cinematic look with little adjustments to the image itself. They can be applied to the cut with a simple one click step and are specific to camera as well as profile types such as S-LOG.

The key take away here is that when shooting video, choose your settings wisely as they will be difficult to adjust later on.

What Profile Should You Choose?

There is no right or wrong answer here as it really depends on the type of shots you are taking and their intended use. If you are on a family vacation and simply want snapshots, one might argue shooting in JPEG with a profile that suits your scene to avoid a lot of post work later.

To most heavy shooters though, raw is the way to go. It won’t matter what profile you choose and if you remember liking the one you did, simply load it to the file in post.

The most important example of using profiles relates to video and I would highly encourage anyone filming to make an informed decision before choosing. Get set for your shot and perhaps film a few takes using different styles to determine what works best. The results will be far superior and you will thank yourself once in post.

I hope this article helped anyone confused about profiles in camera. Happy to answer any questions or comments you may have.

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18 Comments

Jeff McCollough's picture

If you shoot RAW photos choosing a profile does nothing to your file.

John MacLean's picture

Correct, but it will affect your LCD preview on the camera.

Mark Bowers's picture

Thx for clarifying John. This was one of the main points I was trying to make...

Jeff McCollough's picture

Yeah but that's it lol

Justin Berrington's picture

There is a way to shoot RAW and still get a loaded camera profile such as the Cinestyle LUT to import with the RAW file. Unfortunately it requires using Canon's RAW converter, Canon Digital Photo Professional. If you load your RAW files into their software you can load the cinestyle profile or any others you may have on your camera. Then export in TIFF or PSD into Photoshop.

Mark Bowers's picture

Interesting Justin. I think I came across this reading Canon's website but didn't finish all the way through. Very helpful tip for anyone who wants to use the proprietary profiles.

Spy Black's picture

Just a note that camera profiles in processors like Lightroom and Capture One are not the same profiles that are in your camera, even though they may have the same names. They're approximations that Adobe and Phase One have deducted. As Justin has noted above, you need to the camera manufacturer's RAW converter to apply the same profiles to your RAW files that the camera applies to JPEGs. These programs are usually slow, clumsy and limited, but if you want the manufacturer's profiles on your RAW files, this is the only recourse.

Joshua Kolsky's picture

Canon also offers multiple other picture profiles that you can set to you custom profile on your camera.

Mark Bowers's picture

Absolutely true. They have some interesting choices

Justin Berrington's picture

Not just Canon. You can get a few other 3rd party profiles. These are the ones I've been playing with lately.

http://philipbloom.net/blog/pictureprofiles/

Update: it looks like a lot of the links are now broken. Even Vision Color has removed all of their products. I'm sure they can still be found somewhere though.

John MacLean's picture

"What’s Profile Should You Choose?"
*What

Mark Bowers's picture

Another excellent clarification John. It was my mistake and the editors missed it. I went ahead and updated to the correct wording.

Rob Mynard's picture

One reason for shooting in RAW but using colour profiles would be if you're showing your client images from the back screen as you're going. Setting up a shooting profile that matches your editing style as closely as possible give the client a better idea of what to expect, rather than showing them a flat image on your screen and then having to remind them, "it'll look better once I've edited it".
Nikon shooters can also take advantage of the "Active Dynamic Lighting" effect which applies a softer tone curve to your jpeg images (and so too the preview image) bringing in a little more detail to the shadow areas to get a better preview idea of what details you've captured if you tend to shoot quite dark while also leaving the raw files untouched.

One thing to consider when choosing picture profiles for videography is also what codec you are shooting on. A flat/LOG image retains a lot of information, but in a 8-bit 4:2:0 color space with a highly compressed codec a lot of the excess data goes to waste. Philip Bloom explains this problem very well in this blog post about SLog on compressed codecs: http://philipbloom.net/blog/picture-profiles-on-the-sony-nex-fs100/

Stuff like fine gradations or color data is not retained well in a compressed codes, so as soon as you apply a CC and a grade to the image it kinda tears the image apart in terms of banding and artifacts. Not that this is a massive problem on newer DSLR and Mirrorless systems, but it's still something to have in mind when you consider how much you'll leave to post production or not. Sometimes it's better to leave some of the contrast and saturation baked in so you don't have to do the extreme corrections that comes with working with LOG footage.

Mark Bowers's picture

This is a really great point Oystein. Most DSLR/mirrorless cameras, even the Sony A7 series, use the lossy 8 bit 4:2:0 codec I believe. It has always been a question to me that regardless of the fact that those cameras shoot internal 4K which contains more details at a pixel level, their color science and compressed XAVC-S codecs don't reproduce very well even with SLOG. Something like the Canon C300, although only 1080, has a much stronger XF codec that captures 4:2:2 color sampling at 8 bit which IMO, is more important in the end than simply having compressed 4K footage. What are your thoughts on this??

You are correct about the C300 having the upper hand by using 4:2:2 sampling, having done color work with that system myself. At least it gets rid of a lot of the blocky artifacts that comes with grading 4:2:0 footage. A neat "hack" is also downscaling compressed 4K to 1080p, if that's the master resolution, to achieve 4:2:2 and less banding.

But there are still a lot to keep in mind with any codec or format that isn't RAW. Even ProRes has it's weak spots, where it's really important to dial in the white balance in camera and nail the colors on set. What I mean is that there is a limit to how much you can manipulate the image with HSL corrections, especially if you have already contaminated your skin tones on set with a bit of mixed lighting. This is a very specific example, but it's still indicative of how important it is to get most of the look in-camera, regardless of bitrates sub-RAW.

Mark Bowers's picture

Very informative and great advice. I hope other readers scroll through to this comment. Thanks!

great article, so if i shoot both raw and jpeg, then does the color profile only affect the jpeg?