I understand what color grading and LUTs (Color Lookup Tables) are and how they can improve a photo or video. But a new application for Mac and Windows has a rather revolutionary interface that helps you visualize what your image values are and lets you modify them to your heart's content.
The software is called Photon. It can work as a plugin for DaVinci Resolve or as a stand-alone editor for still images.
Grading in Photon works without layers or nodes. Instead, you directly shape a 3D color model. But you don't have to be a 3D artist to become a really good colorist. Simply "paint" directly on the preview image, and Photon translates your strokes into a live 3D virtualization of the color model you are building. It's very strange at first but gets uncannily useful the more you work with it.
You can work on colors globally, hue-based, saturation-based, or build your own custom ranges with 3D HSL or DRB controls. DRB is diameter, radius, and brightness. The algorithm is built into the software. Photon allows you to create 3D masks with extremely high-quality edge separation and gray-axis neutrality. DRB operates on the spatial dimensions of the color space without being confined to color qualifications like traditional keyers.
Once you are through, your LUTs can be exported to apps like Photoshop, Premiere, After Effects, DaVinci Resolve, Final Cut Pro X, Luminar, Affinity, and more.
I tried some color grading on several landscape photos, and the results were good — better, I think, than using the provided tools in my editing apps, like Lightroom Classic, Photoshop, and Luminar AI. You can get similar results with all these applications, but once you get the hang of it, Photon is faster, and it seems the results are better. I liked Photon's ability to target a particular hue and change it without the changes bleeding into the rest of the color palette, but of course, you can more globally make changes, subtle or not subtle.
A history timeline lets you jump back to previous iterations, which I found useful on several occasions when I got too far into bizarre changes. As a test, I exported my newly created LUTs and then imported one into Luminar AI. It was a bit of a struggle to figure out how to get them in. Skylum, I think, wants you to purchase their LUTs, or "Looks," as they call them.
Anyway, I found the import menu item under the Mood editor, and with a click, lo and behold, my LUT was being used on the image I was working on.
A lot of my tests were on drone photos, so I created the LUT in Photon with one image, then tried it on several images taken under similar lighting conditions. I liked the results, but nothing prevented me from doing further adjustments in Luminar AI.
Here's a before image in the Photon interface:
And after I adjusted the color.
The differences are subtle, but that's what I was going for. I exported the LUT and loaded it into Luminar AI, and it made the changes to the original file properly.
The Good News
Photon is a very nice app for adjusting color on a micro or macro level. The graphic that lets you see your color palette is unique and useful. That's not to say you could not achieve this by other means in a good photo editor. I do think Photon is a faster and more visual way to edit. You can click on a button and see your original, and as I said, you can step back through your history.
The Not so Good News
While I liked the app and the thinking behind it a lot, I'm not happy with the purchase options. There are three ways to get Photon, which is available for both Windows and Mac computers. One is a free trial. You can get a good idea of how useful the app might be for you. Like many similar free trials, you can't export any of your LUTs, and you can't save your images.
The second way is to buy the Basic version of the app. It's $71, but it doesn't have a plug-in for DaVinci Resolve and won't let you grade live video from Resolve. I'm not a video editor, so that really doesn't matter to me.
Then there's the Pro version. It's $144 and works with DaVinci Resolve. But here's the kicker. After a year of using the app, licenses expire automatically and have to be extended from the Color.io Appstore.
After the license expires, you can no longer export your work or receive new updates. Of course, anything you export from Photon during your license period is yours forever. Resolve projects using the OFX plugin will continue to render all Photon grades created during your license period, but you will no longer be able to render out new adjustments.
I don't think that's an acceptable practice. Photon is not the only software that follows this philosophy, of course. Seems to be you should be able to use the app and export your work, and I understand it should not be updated with a new feature or OS fixes unless you have a current license. That's closer to standard practice. But killing the app and making it useless after purchase but non-renewal seems like blackmail. Yes, I admit, others follow similar practices, but I find it odious.
Photon is very clever and does what it advertises. The people who created it took a really fresh look at how a GUI should work and did some worthwhile reinvention. It shows some smart and original thinking. Still, I really don't like the app becoming useless upon non-renewal. If it wasn't for that gotcha, I'd be wildly enthusiastic about Photon. I hope they shift their thinking on this.