If you’re not shooting raw images, selecting the right picture profile could be the difference between a decent image and an incredible one. I was surprised to find out that some photographers didn’t know that they can download extra picture profiles and install them. Why waste the opportunity?
A Picture Profile, or Picture Style, is how the camera treats color in your shot. Some people shoot in the standard profile, but there are others that may be better suited to the shot you’re trying to take. The problem is that the profiles that came with the camera can be limiting. Canon’s set of six profile pictures, for example, doesn’t leave you with a lot of room to experiment. However, they offer more profiles that you can download and install.
Why Use Picture Profiles?
One of the biggest reasons to divert from the standard picture style, is to flatten the image. It can increase dynamic range, allow for more control in post, and can really help with shooting video on a DSLR. I like to think that shooting with a flat profile lies somewhere between a regular image and raw. You get some extra legroom for color grading, but it’s nothing compared to shooting in raw. This is obviously subjective, and each picture profile should be used in the situation in which is suits the best.
My own trick for shooting with a flatter profile, is to expose the shot in a standard profile and then switch back to the flat profile. This way you can really see what the shot will look like after you process it. Sometimes a flat profile can be too forgiving, and even misleading.
Cinestyle Profile, graded in Photoshop with a LUT and Levels
What are the best profiles to flatten my image?
You could use the Neutral profile setting, which can be found on most cameras without fail. Neutral settings will pull out some of that contrast and saturation, which is exactly what we’re after for post work. However this isn’t as far as you can take it, we’ve only just started.
Cinestyle and Marvel are all perfectly good examples of what’s available for Canon users. Both offer the same thing, however one is flatter than the other. Personally I love Cinestyle, but that’s because I love the extra room in post. Cinestyle is like Neutral’s older brother, on steroids.
Marvel has a lot more contrast, and so you don’t need to do very much post work to get your final image. This profile is probably within the realm of possibility of people who don’t want to shoot raw, but want just a little extra. To learn how to install these, check out this video.
For Nikon users, the available selection is very large, however there’s a lot of individuals making their own take on what a flat picture style should be. Among these, Flaat is a credible suite of profiles. You can download it here, and learn to to install it here.
CineLook Profile used for a quick turn around with video content
The Fun Stuff
Beyond flattening the image, why not grade it in camera? I love testing out of these profiles, not because I use them on client’s shoots, but because I can get a stylized image without going to Lightroom or Photoshop.
For Canon users, you can check out CineLook from Vision Color. It’s a sharp profile that emulates a modern cinema look. I’ve used it a couple times when I needed a very fast turn around with a lot of video content, and it worked out great. You will completely forgo any option for post processing though, and while this profile is good fun, it isn't free.
There’s also the option to download a slew of profiles from NikonPC, if you shoot with Nikon. Here you can tweak the profiles to your liking and install them straight onto the SD card. It’s entertaining to play around with the test images here and see what effects you can create. It certainly allows for so many more options!
How to Use These
Canon: You can install picture profiles via the EOS Utility app on their computers. Relatively simple, just make sure you’re in Manual mode as some Canon cameras won’t let you otherwise.
Nikon: Users can put it straight on the SD card and install it from there. Create a folder on the SD card called NIKON (after it’s formatted), then make a folder called CUSTOMPC inside that one. Put your NPC files into that folder. In your camera's menu, select "Manage Picture Control" and choose your custom NPC.
If you want to speed up the post process with your flat images, you can read up on LUTs, which will speed up your workflow massively.
Do You Really Need All of This?
Arguably, you don’t. A lot of picture profiles are created with video in mind, and as Prolost points out, Neutral is the easier way to go. They also found similar results to the above profiles by simply changing some of the Neutral settings, taking down sharpness and contrast.
However I think it’s important to understand and have at your disposal. I can’t count how many times Cinestyle or Marvel has helped me when editing and tweaking images, but it doesn’t mean that I need to rely on it all the time. It's an extra luxury that I can afford.
It’s worth noting that installing anything I’ve spoken about is at your own risk. While there’s no issues that I’ve discovered to date, nobody is responsible for your camera but you.
I hope you all enjoy exploring the world of picture profiles!