Using Lightroom camera profiles (and why Adobe Standard is a liability)

Bonus points for spotting that Adobe Standard not only loses warmth, but also does a steller job enhancing chromatic aberration. The fun never stops.

One of the more tucked away features of Lightroom is the Camera Profile dropdown. It is right at the bottom of the develop module, under Camera Calibration.

The Adobe Standard setting (which you will see if you have not made any changes to camera calibration) gives you ‘untouched RAW’; that is, without the effects of any camera post processing (colour correction, sharpening, etc).

Lightroom Camera Calibration
Lightroom Camera Calibration

This is usually an accurate rendition of the raw data that came from your camera’s sensor and amplifier stage, but there are three potential problems;

  • The final RAW will not look like the image you saw in your LCD in-camera. That may be fine for many people (especially for those who use the optical viewfinder and have no time for that lying, overly vivid LCD!), but if you’ve ever watched as Lightroom imports your RAW images and seen how the initial colourful and contrasty thumbnails end up less contrasty and colourless then read on.
  • The initial RAW image appearance is rarely where you want to end up. Sure, it is more versatile than a JPEG for post processing, but the default RAW can be a little neutral and lacking in contrast and colour. This may lead to much more work in post processing, or worse, imply ‘this is how the scene looked, don’t dare change me’! It would sometimes be useful to get Lightroom to start with something close to one of your camera styles (portrait, landscape, etc), or the colour rendition of your camera LCD (I can hear the purists muttering darkly about LCD accuracy again, but bear with me!).
  • Adobe Standard can be incorrect. For some cameras (especially for non-Canon/Nikon), Adobe don’t always get it right. I’m a Sony user, and whenever I see Sony vs. Nikon vs. Canon review head-to-heads, I wince when I read conclusions of the form ‘Sony lacked colour accuracy’. It may well be closer to the truth that the reviewer had Camera Raw/Lightroom set to that pesky and somewhat inaccurate Adobe Standard for the Sony! Yes, I know Adobe create their profiles under strictly controlled lighting, and using much larger colour-range swatch cards than most other third parties use, but all that doesn’t appear to fit with the results I get.

Even if you are happy with Adobe Standard for your camera (and many are), there are a couple of workflows you might miss unless you know about camera calibration;

  • You want to concentrate on just taking good compositions in the field, and worry about styles later. For example, you might be taking pictures of the kids in the park. You don’t want to worry about whether you should be using the portrait style or the landscape style when taking a particular shot. By shooting RAW and using the camera calibration dropdown in Lightroom, you can change styles after the event. Neat!
  • You want to use your camera’s styles, but also want to use camera RAW. When you come to import your RAW images into Lightroom, you will see your styles applied in the Import window thumbnails, but when Lightroom actually begins importing the RAWs, the styles disappear! RAW images do not include the styles (they are just as their name implies; raw, and with minimal in-camera processing). If you actually want to keep the styles, you have to reapply them by changing the camera profile from Adobe Standard to one that corresponds to your style.

Here’s an image that I imported with the Camera Calibration set to Adobe Standard, following minimum editing. It lacks the warmth in the sky I saw on the shoot (which kinda kills the composition, as the ‘cold snow to warm sun’ transition is the main deal in the shot). Of course, I could have corrected for this in Lightroom, but the issue is that when I looked at the LCD after taking the shot, colour looked fine. That plus the fact that I’d hung around on the day waiting for the sky to go that particular colour. Colour is important, or put another way, it was the only reason I’d been waiting in that damn cold for the sky to change!

RAW file (Sony ARW) using Adobe Standard in Camera calibration
RAW file (Sony ARW) using Adobe Standard in Camera calibration

For the second image, the first thing I did was to change the Camera profile from Adobe Standard to a free third party Sony camera profile (NB – Nikon and Canon users may have such profiles in the default Lightroom installation as long as you are using Lightroom 2.2/CameraRAW 5.2 or better, but you will of course still have to select away from ‘Adobe Standard’  to use them).

Update August 2013: Maurizio Piraccini Photography has posted an updated list of all Sony camera profiles (including everything from the Maxxum 5D right through to the RX100,  and including NEX). See http://www.piraccini.net/2011/02/profili-colore-sony-a900-per-adobe-lr.html

Setting Camera profile away from Adobe Standard
Setting Camera profile away from Adobe Standard

Here’s the second image;

Camera Raw using nidata's free Sony Alpha profiles
Camera Raw using nidata’s free Sony Alpha profiles

This is not the final image; there’s that odd white cloud to the top left that is drawing too much attention to itself for a start, but it is certainly a better starting point. Adobe Standard for Sony Alphas always gives a colder rendition. Check out the sunset oranges between the two images for a good example.

As the oranges are quite subtle at the reduced image size of this blog, you may also want to look at the close-up of a 100 pixel wide sky area (taken from just below the sun).

The area left of the arrows that uses my chosen profile (‘a500 faithful’) does not just have a warmer orange than the rather insipid version offered by Adobe Standard (right of the arrows), but is a different colour completely!

zoomed 100 pixel wide area of the image
zoomed 100 pixel wide area of the image

Yes, it really is that different and that obvious for the full size image!

Bonus points for spotting that Adobe Standard not only loses warmth, but also does a steller job enhancing chromatic aberration. The fun never stops.

The main point here though is that the second image (or the colour left of the arrows) is closer to what I expected the image file to look like when I took the photo, because it is closer to the image my camera LCD showed me on the day; this is the version I was working to and is the image I was trying to make look like the actual view I saw in the viewfinder.

Conclusion

The Adobe Standard camera profile is accurate for most mainstream cameras (typically Canon and Nikon), but for other cameras (particularly Sony), it may be incorrect.

Irrespective of accuracy, the Adobe Standard profile can lack contrast, warmth or colour when used as a starting point, and you may be better off starting with one of the other profiles, depending on your composition.

Adobe Standard will not correctly reflect the image in your camera’s LCD. Although the LCD is innacurate, it is the image that many photographers check against in the field, and is also at least consistently inaccurate (and therefore easy to correct once you have experience with a particular camera). It is therefore often desirable to select a profile that more fully reflect the LCD at least as a starting point in your post processing.

If you have set camera styles in-camera and also selected RAW, your profiles will be lost during import to Lightroom. The only way to get them back may be via the camera calibration dropdown. Alternatively, if you did not set styles in the field, you can experiment with them after the event using the camera calibration dropdown to add styles.

Update April 2011: Since writing this post, I have found a more accurate way of using camera profiles; you create your own profilestailored to a each particular shoot. See my post titled Colour Accuracy.

Notes

  1. The Camera calibration profile I use with my Sony Alpha a500 can be found at http://www.nibdata.com/Sony_DSLR-A500_profiles.zip. Other Sony Alpha profiles (A100, A200, A230, A300, A330, A350, A380, A550, A700, A850, A900) can be found at http://www.nibdata.com/imprescindibles.html.
  2. Canon and Nikon users already have the profiles for their camera available in the default installation of Lightroom 2.2 or later (or Camera RAW 5.2 and later) and typically won’t need to use third party profiles.
  3. You can see another shot in the same series as the image used as an example here.
  4. Camera RAW is not as some people assume, the raw output from your sensor, but the output of an amplifier stage (and associated analogue to digital converter) that immediately follows the sensor. The amplifier stage’s gain is set via your cameras ISO. As the RAW data is taken after the amplifier (mainly because the signal prior to this point is analogue), this explains why ISO is not something you can change later in Camera RAW/Lightroom even though you can change exposure. It also explains why some cameras give different colour and noise rendition (especially at high ISO, where the effect of the amplifier is greatest) even though they use the same sensor; some Sony and Nikon cameras share same sensors but have proprietary amplifier and A/D stages.