Photon for Mac and Windows Is a Very Unique Color Grading Editor

Photon for Mac and Windows Is a Very Unique Color Grading Editor

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. 

Summing Up

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.

Log in or register to post comments

29 Comments

kotlos kotlos's picture

Looks pretty good. But with a forced subscription-only model it is a hard pass. Too bad.

Jonathan Ochmann's picture

We updated the pricing model and made the license much simpler and *much* more affordable.

I posted the details on our hub here: https://hub.color.io/post/photon---updated-pricing-604244e90eb054ba82c4371f

Thank you so much for your feedback and suggestions!

Ryan Cooper's picture

I installed it to give it a whirl, at a glance it reminds me a lot of Color Cone from Picture Instruments but with a lot more UX polish.

The challenge I'm having with it is that I just don't find it all that useful. Like it does what it says it does in that you get this cool visualization for color grading, but unlike Color Cone, this one doesn't feel like it offers much other than that visualization. Everything it can do I can easily do with Photoshop. (With the exception of that Hue Twist thing but that is never going to be useful in any actual situations, its just neat)

For me to grade with another tool I have to see a very significant value, regardless of price/license terms and this doesn't seem to offer that. The crazy license terms and the expensive price is just a nail in the coffin.

Brad Husick's picture

Sorry, but this is a pet peeve for me. There is no such thing as "very unique". Something is either unique or it's not. If it's rare, then it might be "unusual" but if there are any others similar to it, then it is not "unique".

Mel Martin's picture

Fair comment. Thanks.. Mel

Jonathan Ochmann's picture

Hey everyone, Jonathan here from Color.io! Thank you so much for your feedback on our pricing model. It's not the first time this criticism has come up and we've been having discussions about offering Photon with a permanent license - and we just did - so you should be able to see the updated pricing on our site.

Photon is just out of public beta and we're still figuring out the market (we've been way too busy getting everything else up and running). Feedback like this is absolutely vital to us! If you guys have any questions - I'll be monitoring these comments and you can also reach out to the team on hub.color.io. Thanks!

Dominique Feliziani's picture

The prices you mention in the article are wrong. On the company website, prices are WAY, WAY higher than mentionned. Like 149 Euros ! Yikes, that's way more that 71 bucks !

Ryan Cooper's picture

See the comment directly above yours. It seems Color.io adjusted their pricing model in response to this article. Though, I can't see why anyone would pay 150 euros for such a simple app. I feel the value here is like maybe $20.

Jan Holler's picture

Is it working with JPG files only (8 bit LUT)? If so, I wouldn't bother at all.

But anyway, I'd never buy such software: "After the license expires, you can no longer export your work or receive new updates."

An alternative, working in full RGB colour space, non-destructible and of course the RAW files: https://www.darktable.org/usermanual/en/module-reference/processing-modu... (and following pages).

Edit: After reading the comments I see they changed their price plan. But trust is gone now. In year or two they'll do it anyway. They wouldn't even have thought about it in the first place. They reacted because of the negative feed back they got.

Jonathan Ochmann's picture

Hi Jan, thank you for sharing your thoughts.
Photon is by no means a photo editor and RAW capabilities and therefore not a priority for us. Darktable is an amazing piece of software that serves a very different purpose.

Saying that we'll "change to a subscription model anyways in a few years" is a bit presumptuous. This article and comments weren't the first instance of criticism we received on our pricing model and I wonder why responding to such constructive feedback is a bad thing? We're a very small team of three developers and have never marketed another product like this before. The only way for us to try and create a great, useful product that is fairly priced is to listen and respond to our users. And that's what we're doing. I'm not here to trick anyone into buying something that wouldn't actually be useful for them.

Jonathan Ochmann's picture

On a technical note, Photon supports TIFF, PNG and JPG for previewing and works with double precision floating point and not 8 bit color. You are right that it's not a RAW photo editor by any means though.

kotlos kotlos's picture

Hi Jonathan,
I really prefer your LUT based editing for photos than having many different slides and subpanels. But that advantage goes away once we have to go through the hassle of exporting/importing tiffs for every picture and the price almost impossible to justify. So even if it is not a priority for you, it would be very useful for a lot of photographers. Thus, if not for a full editing program, I strongly urge you to at least think about a Lightroom plugin (or any other photo program).
Your program has a lot of potential!

Jonathan Ochmann's picture

Hi kotlos kotlos! Absolutely agree that the current workflow for photo editing can and should be improved. Our first priority for the Pro version was to develop an OFX plugin for Davinci Resolve because of our close relationship with the color grading community. With such a small team we have to pick our priorities carefully but seeing that there's demand from the photo community is definitely the first step towards better integration with Photoshop or Lightroom with a dedicated plugin!

Pricing:
Motivated by the general consensus here on fStoppers and other communities we updated the pricing model and made the license much simpler and *much* more affordable.

I posted the details on our hub: https://hub.color.io/post/photon---updated-pricing-604244e90eb054ba82c4371f

Thank you so much for your feedback and suggestions!

Jan Holler's picture

Thanks for digging in. If the source file has 8bit of colours (3+3+2) and a limited gamut (sRGB) I do not think that double precision (32bit integer or 32bit floating point?) does help.
In what colour space is your software working internally? (darktable works with 32bit fp and linear REC2020 RGB or linear Prophoto RGB if you like, LR is 16bit integer only).
Please don't get me wrong. I just don't recognize the benefit for me. I use a RAW-editor. Your software does not really fit in my work flow. If it'd be integrated as a module in my RAW-editor it'll be a different story

Jonathan Ochmann's picture

Photon already supports multiple color spaces internally (all 32 or 64bit float, like I said) but right now the only option we're exposing is SpindleRGB which is our custom color science that is functionally somewhat similar to HSLuv and other perceptually uniform distributions.
I absolutely understand that if you're doing RAW editing Photon is definitely for you. I wouldn't use it for that either. :)

Jan Holler's picture

I watched the videos on your page. It is really an unique way to manipulate colours and also the representation of it looks very convenient. But after all I still think it would be better if the software were able to read RAW files. Why don't you use https://www.libraw.org/ to import raw files and work with the 12 or 14bit of the data to retain the dynamic range? Highlight reconstruction and shadow recovery are important if one darkens or lightens a photography (and then convert it to the desired colour space such as sRGB with its narrower gamut.)
Another aspect, maybe I missed it: Is there a way to select parts of the image with a parametric and/or drawn mask?
I imagine your software being a module in darktable (or LR if you prefer): That would be very nice. darktable's colour checker lut module looks very simple compared to photon. Other modules like colour zone with mask (different kinds) do work well. But I imagine 'photon' would be a much easier way to handle colours.
I saw the new pricing. I think this is a good start. I'd be interested if there was a Linux version.
Cheers!

Jonathan Ochmann's picture

We definitely hear you on RAW support but it's a difficult subject. At its core, Photon is able to import and process RAW images. But the RAW image has to go through various pre-processing steps like debayering and device specific profiling in order to start a grade from a neutral image. The problem is, that this pre-processing varies from software to software and most vendors go so far as to create their own device profiles. We see photon as a color editor and not a full-blown image editor - just one of many elements in the workflow of our users. And our users range from film colorists to photographers and game designers creating looks for video games.

Down the road we will develop more plugin integrations to make the round trips between different RAW processing softwares and Photon easier - similar to what we've already done with the Resolve plugin.

Masking in the spatial image dimension is not something Photon will do for the exact same reason. Photon is color-only and masks are really 3D color ranges defined in HSL or DRB. To apply Photon to pixel coordinate regions on an image you would define a mask on an adjustment layer or node in your host software and apply a Photon LUT (or down the road a plugin directly) to that masked adjustment. The Resolve plugin already works like that.

Jan Holler's picture

Thank you. Have much success and a nice day!

Dan Ostergren's picture

The subscription model and the very high price point really kill any interest I could have in something like this. There are other very good tools for color grading that cost less and don't make you renew your license every year.

Jonathan Ochmann's picture

Thank you for checking it out Dan! It's not a subscription model. Please see my comment above.

Mo Gaff's picture

I do agree that it's expensive but after using it for a few months (participated in the public beta) I can say that it can do much more than just look nice and make some simple tweaks. It's not a photo editor and I don't think its trying to be that. But LUT visualization, LUT editing, smoothing, non-linear 3D color compression are absolutely non trivial or impossible in other applications. I do think it's too expensive but writing it off as a trivial little color app like some comments simply doesn't do it justice.

Jonathan Ochmann's picture

We've received an overwhelmingly negative response to the pricing. And I'm actually kind of glad that happened. I think it's super hard to figure this stuff out without having a ton of experience or without actually having a product out in the wild or even knowing who our customers are. As I've mentioned in my comment above, we've adjusted the price and changed to a lifetime license model. Your beta license has also been extended to a lifetime license including updates and support at no extra cost. Glad to have you on board Mo!

Reid Thaler's picture

It really galls me when some says or especially writes, "very unique." Unique means one of a kind. Either something is one of a kind or it isn't, it can't be very one of a kind. Please learn English is you are going to write articles for online publications.

Sulio Pulev's picture

Here is a place of DEEP amateurs. Including "author" of review. I observe that near nobody understand the main idea of the program - management of the colors through management of color spaces/gamuts/LUTs. And this program is ONLY! for high end professionals. As such, review here make no sense. Should be promoted in the closed groups of a top colorists or high end A class professionals and not wedding or amateur photographers. And being professional, the program has it HIGH price. This high price stop deep amateurs from using it, but attract professionals that are familiar with such models and prices. Btw, for professional program 144 $ for year is FREE! So guys from color.io,this program is not for reviewing here, nor is for deep amateurs. They are not your target both for usage and price. Concentrate on Colorist society, HPA and similar high end professional organizations with prohibited access for amateurs. Even if those amateurs consider themselves professionals.

Ryan Cooper's picture

I actually fundamentally disagree with this assertion. First, I'd argue that in order for an app to be truly as useful to the mystical and mighty gods of colour management it would need to be significantly more advanced. I get that I should shut up and just be grateful to have the opportunity to breathe the same air as them but for some reason, I just don't seem to think they are as marvellously beyond the realm of us mere photographers as you do.

For example, this app has very limited precision. I can't dial in my adjustments with any degree of specific accuracy. You make your edits by "feel" and through dragging with the mouse. While simple, it is, by nature, highly imprecise. Compared to other color management apps such as Color Cone or 3D Lut Creator, or even the feature shipped in DaVinci this app is very simplistic. Elegant, but simplistic.

Second, in terms of price. Yeah, I get that to a massive production company, $144 is trivial. It is the same reason Apple can charge $15k for a mediocre editing rig and those companies pay it without a second thought. There is also a reason that Black Magic gives away DaVinci for free. In order for an app to become industry standard, it has to be accessible for those on the rise. As an app maker you want EVERY film student using your app while in school and for personal projects. Why? Because they will all want to keep using it once they are in the industry. $100+ for a different take on a feature already built into a free editing suite is a tough sell to a student who is barely able to subsist on a diet of Ramen and Cheerios.

Third, the profitability of Color.io is directly related to volume. If at $144 they only have a market of potentially a few hundred elite colorists globally that isn't a big enough market for a viable business. Even if they somehow sold their app to every single one of them that doesn't even pay the annual salary of a single developer. In order for this app to represent a viable business model it needs to access a much larger market and a lower price point gives them that. If they can sell 100x more copies of the app by lowering the price by 50% or more, their business is going to generate far more revenue and be much more stable. Ultimately though, I actually feel Color.io's biggest earning potential for this app is to sell it to a company like Black Magic, Apple, or Adobe to implement into an editing suite, but that's a whole different conversation.

But hey, what do I know? I'm only a mere photographer who has taught color theory and also has a decade of experience in software development, distribution, and production. What would I know? ;)

Jonathan Ochmann's picture

Some really great insights Ryan! I agree with many things you said.
Especially the part where you said that in Photon you make your edits by "feel". That’s beautiful. I didn’t think we were quite there yet but that’s got to be the single greatest compliment we’ve received.

Sulio Pulev's picture

I agree to disagree. Are you member of Colorist society and or HPA? Where you know color science from? Internet and youtube? Because from your answer it is not clear you understand. This program is NOT color grading program,but mostly color MANAGEMENT program (as such, exactity of mouse doesnt matter). In a totally new ,and I recognize, clever way. Also its WELL integrated in DaVinci which is color grading program but is not best example of color management. I cannot explain here the difference,because my lessons are too expensive and not dedicated to the amateurs (even if they consider themselves professionals),but its a difference. Also another amateur statements is of spreading of DaVinci inside the A class colorists. Not,here are strange and expensive programs like Quantel (outdated and in decline but still used),Baselight and similar. They offer educational licenses and make workshop accross the edu institutions exact in order students to get familiar with them. What you say for peoples using cheap soft for studies of grading and then apply in business is valid for wedding cinematographers and deep amateurs. A-class professionals have another standards and approaches (despite I do not agree always with it). Its true that companies overcharge the professional cinema software (and not only software -when absolutely same lens from machine vision/scientific become cinematographer's, price is raised 2-3 times) but they (soft industry) consider that movie production earn enough to pay exagerated prices. Now economics of the movie industry has been changed and I expect they will search for more affordable alternatives,but still highly professional and complicated. And DaVinci is used on previz ,but not on final grading -please make difference and not believe to the manufacturers advertising that with the software X is made super blockbusters Y. X was used for dailies and/or previz and not for final,most compicated and highly demanding grading.
So,stay in your amateur shell,think about yourself as a top Hollywood colorist, but avoid to give definitive "proposals".
Guys from color.io ,you are on the right track. You just should to promote your soft to professionals and abandon amateurs because with amateurs you have less money -more hassle and with the Professionals-inverse. You can promote software at IBC,NAB,HPA meetings,in the Colorist society and on other VERY professional way,despite above mentioned shows and organizations has ben tried to be assaulted by amateurs,but in this industry still ostentatious amateurs have no place (yet !).

Ryan Cooper's picture

I don't think of myself as a top Hollywood colorist? Where did you get that from the above? I have nothing to do with Hollywood and would want nothing to do with it. There is far too much gatekeeping and elitism in that world for my taste. Case and point: The entire tone of your responses. Rather than present an argument and a use case for certain niche users, you have chosen to repeatedly denigrate all those who are not in your "club" and you are challenging the validity of their opinions based on nothing more than them not being in "your" group.

I don't work primarily with video, as mentioned above, I am a photographer. That said my background in colour theory tracks back to university where I studied film production, photography, and graphic design, though, unlike you, I actually don't have any disdain for anyone who might have learned using the internet or YouTube. It is a perfectly viable platform for learning. In fact, at this point, I'd argue it can be superior if you approach it intelligently and with dedication.

Side note, I didn't compare to something like Baselight because the two apps aren't compatible. Baselight is a massive, full-featured solution. (it also isn't something a photographer would ever use) I compared Photon to other apps that basically do the same thing as it just in slightly different ways while targeting the same market.

My position remains the same. The hyper-budget self-proclaimed elite of Hollywood is not a big enough market for a micro tool like this. You need to go mass market at such a price point. If Color.io wants to target solely a tiny market of high budget productions, they need to charge radically more than $144. (Though I still feel it needs more precision and certainly would need deeper color management features if you want to sell it is a color management solution, though not even Color.io is pushing it as that)

I'd also add that anyone who works in a given vocation for payment is, by definition, not an amateur no matter how much you want to project them as such because you think you are somehow better than them.

There are certainly those who are more advanced in a given area, for sure, but using terms like "deep amateur" doesn't speak to that. It is just elitist gatekeeping. I am not asserting that Hollywood colorists are bad. They are among the best in the world but there is a monstrous difference between "best in the world" and "amateur" with countless layers of varying degrees of professionalism along the way. All of who have very relevant perspectives and who are also potential paying customers. Those wedding photographers you mention are every bit as valid in expressing their opinion as the colorists on a film that just won an Oscar.

Regardless, sir, I wish you all the best. I've said my peace and don't intend to drag this discussion out further. I probably won't return to this thread.