The Linear Profile: A new beginning in Lightroom and Camera Raw

Several months ago I switched to using a linear profile as my starting point for RAW file conversions in Camera Raw. It’s been an interesting journey. The linear profile seems to have made Camera Raw more responsive to my edits. Linear profiles work in Lightroom (Lr) the same way as in Camera Raw (Cr). I’ve shared the technique with a few other photographers. The response is usually positive. While some don’t find them all that different than the standard Adobe Raw profiles (like Adobe Standard, Adobe Color, or Adobe Landscape), others have described the experience of using linear profiles as “not fighting the sliders anymore” and “the sliders seem better calibrated.” Using a linear profile offers a subtle shift in the RAW file conversion process that’s helping me take my images further in Lr/Cr before switching over to Photoshop. Yes, I still use luminosity masks and other techniques in Photoshop, but I’m starting with a better conversion and so have less to do to finish the image. The discussion below is partly from the linear profile repository page on my website where there are free downloads of linear profiles for various cameras. The Lr/Cr-ready profiles available there will make it easy for photographers explore the use of linear profiles and determine their potential as a creative tool.

What is a linear profile?

The linear profile is simply a set of instructions that tells Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw, or other RAW processing software how to display the data from a RAW file captured by a digital camera. The conventional profile is non-linear (not a straight line), as shown by the red curve in the attached figure. This bowed profile was selected long ago for practical reasons. Curves with this general shape convert the dull, flat output from a digital camera to a brighter displayed image that more closely resembles how we see things. The red curve in this figure is the Adobe Standard profile. Its shape is typical of commonly used profiles. Note how the red tone curve brightens essentially all pixel values while increasing shadow contrast (steeper curve) and decreasing highlight contrast (less steep curve). The resultant displayed image looks “familiar” with good brightness and contrast. Since the profile is the initial interpretation of the camera RAW data, there are valid reasons to choose one that brings the image to an “attractive” point where the adjustments in Lr/Cr can be used to refine the final result. However, a profile does NOT have to be curved. A linear (straight-line) profile, as shown by the black line in the figure, could also be used. If the profile used by the program is linear, the displayed image is typically less vibrant, but (and this is important) it also better represents the actual data in the RAW file. If the conventional profile is considered step one in the processing workflow, then the linear profile is “step zero.” The linear profile allows ALL pixel adjustments to be made entirely by the photographer, whereas, with a curved (nonlinear) profile, the first major step in developing the image is already shaped by the software and camera engineers who designed that profile. The linear profile takes a step back to offer a new level of control for interpreting digital camera data and opens new opportunities in the process

How to use a linear profile

1. Click “Auto” after applying the linear profile. Installing and using linear profiles is described in this PDF. In terms of using them, my current strategy is a combination of “Auto” and manual. When the linear profile is first applied to the image, it looks darker, less saturated, and has less contrast. This is disappointing, but entirely expected. Remember, the standard Adobe Raw profiles are designed to make the image look good, so removing them and reverting to a linear profile makes the image look not-so-good anymore. However, there is an easy fix to get back a reasonably good starting point. Just click the “Auto” button in Lr/Cr. Adobe’s algorithm for the “Auto” button has gotten pretty good, and even the darker, flatter image that results from applying the linear profile is much improved after clicking it. Using “Auto” with a linear profile frequently gives better results than using it with an Adobe Raw profile. The image below shows the difference between using “Auto” with a linear profile and the Adobe Color profile. With the linear profile (on the right), the highlights are full of texture and detail, and the shadows are not overly contrasty. The Auto-processed linear profile also has richer color and better global contrast. In this case, the linear profile clearly provides a better starting point for additional adjustments. Every image is different, of course, but a linear profile combined with “Auto” is generally a good place to begin.

2. Adjust Exposure and Contrast and other sliders. After clicking “Auto,” an Exposure and Contrast adjustment will almost certainly still be necessary, but don’t stop with those adjustments. The real beauty of using a linear profile is how much more responsive the sliders in Lr/Cr are now compared to starting with one of the Adobe Raw profiles. The various adjustments perform as expected without “breaking” the image, and the sliders often have some additional leeway before reaching their extreme positions where no additional adjustments are possible. Shadows, Highlights, Whites, Blacks, Vibrance, and Saturation can all be useful in fine-tuning the image.

NOTE: An alternate approach is to skip the “Auto” adjustment and start working directly with the Lr/Cr sliders. It’s entirely possible to outperform the “Auto” algorithm, especially once you gain confidence in the way the image responds to the various sliders when starting with a linear profile.

3. Fine-tune color. Adjusting color balance is one of the things that I find especially easy to do with the linear profile. This usually involves just small adjustments with the Vibrance and Saturation sliders in the Basic tab after clicking “Auto”, but I also always visit the Color Mixer in Camera Raw (HSL/Color in Lightroom), since these sliders now work exceptionally well to control hue, saturation, and luminance of the various colors.

Advantages of linear profiles

  • More flexibility in Lr/Cr since the sliders often provide additional room for adjustments.
  • More predictable adjustments in Lr/Cr since the image responds better to slider movements.
  • Better shadow and highlight recovery.
  • Richer, but not over-saturated, colors to work with.
  • Hue, saturation, and luminance adjustments work better.
  • More pleasing RAW conversions.
  • “Expose-to-the-right” has greater potential since applying a linear profile darkens the image.

Linear profiles are camera-specific

Each camera model requires a different linear profile. Once installed, Camera Raw/Lightroom will only display a linear profile option if there is an installed linear profile that matches the camera from which the RAW file was originally produced. Linear profiles for a variety of different camera models can be downloaded at the bottom of the linear profile repository page. If your camera is not listed, contact me to make to have it added to the repository.


I’m continuing to learn about and experiment with the linear profile for my camera. It takes a little extra effort, but I’m now at the point where I can confidently create a better RAW file conversions than I could using standard Adobe Raw profiles. There is more flexibility in the basic and color adjustments, the sliders are more predictable, and it’s easier to recover good shadow and highlight detail. Overall, the output from Camera Raw is more pleasing, and I’m able to finish the image in Photoshop faster. I hope you’ll give linear profiles a try and see what they can do for your images.

The video below by Dave Kelly reviews the basics of adding a linear profile to your workflow.

The Perfect Mask and Vignettes/Spotlights

Making the Perfect Mask

One of the most important things to understand about luminosity masks, zone masks, color masks, and saturation/vibrance masks in the TK7 panel is that that they are created using actual pixel values. The masks that are generated reflect pixel-level differences between individual pixels. These masks are not like selections made with the Lasso or Marquee tools, where the mouse draws the physical boundary around specific elements. Instead, pixel-value masks use the luminance, hue, and saturation values in each pixel to determine what gets revealed by the mask (white and light gray in the mask), and what gets concealed (black and dark gray).

This concept plays a central role when generating masks using the TK7 Go module. Pixel-value masks should not be pure white in the selected areas, like the masks created with the Lasso or Marquee tools. Instead, selected pixels should have a gradation of light gray values reflecting the underlying textures in the image. The TK7 panel does a good job of quickly generating a proper pixel-value mask based on the chosen data source (luminance, hue, or saturation). Lights-1, Darks-2, Midtones-1, Zone 3, and a “red” color mask are examples. These initial masks are usually an excellent starting point for a planned adjustment. In addition, some masks, like zone and color masks, offer modification options built into the user interface. There’s also an entire modification section in the Go module for sculpting any initial mask to better match the areas to be selected. Modification is often quite useful. Be sure to give it a try for additional control in creating the ideal mask. Here are some rules that can help.

  • Avoid pure white in the mask for areas that require subtle and seamless transitions. Pure white in the mask means that the nuance possible with pixel-value masks has been lost.
  • Aim to create masks that have light gray values for selected areas and dark gray or black values for areas not selected.
  • Look for light gray texture in the selected areas of the mask that matches the texture in the image. Texture in the mask indicates that the pixel-level differences in the image are still present in the mask.
  • Areas that should not be selected by the mask can go to pure black, but also make sure that there is a smooth, gray transition to lighter areas of the mask. Hard edges in the mask can lead to hard edges in the image when adjusting or painting through the mask.

In the video below, Dave Kelly uses a Lights mask, a Darks mask, a Color mask, and a Zone mask, and then modifies them to create a more suitable mask for achieving his goals with the image. Notice how he works to keep light gray texture in the mask in the selected areas and then how using the mask automatically insures a smooth transition of the effect as he paints it in.

Vignettes and Spotlights

One of the simplest techniques to focus the viewer’s attention in a photograph is using vignettes and spotlights. As we look at photographs, light areas attract our attention. Vignettes generally darken the edges of the frame so that our eyes don’t wander outside the borders. Spotlights, on the other hand, brighten specific areas or elements in the image to move the eye to these areas and indicate their relative importance. Both vignettes and spotlights are meant to be subtle. They are almost always feathered to insure they blend in with the rest of the image. In the best circumstance, the viewer is unaware they exist, but is also guided by them to view the image the way the photographer intended.

In the video below, Dave Kelly demonstrates four useful techniques available in the TK7 panel for building vignettes and spotlights.

  • The Vignette action adds symmetrical circular or oval darkening around the edges of the image.
  • The Freehand Vignette action also creates a vignette inside the image’s borders, but it uses a selection drawn by the photographer, usually using the Lasso or Marquee tool, as the guide for the shape of the vignette’s transition zone.
  • The Spotlight action again uses a freehand selection created by the photographer, usually on something near the center of the image, and then the action adds some subtle brightness to the selected area.
  • Burning and dodging through a Midtones-1 mask is also a great way to add vignettes and spotlights to an image that look completely natural.

In order to provide smooth transitions, the Vignette, Freehand Vignette, and Spotlight actions add a Gaussian blur to the selection based on the size of the image. The size of the blur is adjustable as the action executes. For burning and dodging through a Midtones-1 mask, simply choose an appropriately large brush with 0% Hardness to insure smooth blending.

Be sure to check out other videos by Dave Kelly on his YouTube channel.

Vibrance, Saturation, Smart Orton: A closer look at what the TK7 panel can do

I’m well aware that the TK7 panel can seem a bit overwhelming at first. Lots of buttons that do lots of stuff, and it’s not all luminosity masks. That’s why I appreciate Dave Kelly doing some videos that take a closer look at specific features and how to use them. These videos narrow the focus considerably and explore one or two techniques in detail. Knowing how the different functions work provides a sense for what is possible, and once you know what’s possible, you can decide when it might work to add that feature to your workflow. Dave’s latest videos feature techniques that I find particularly useful on many of my images: Saturation and Vibrance masks and the Orton effect.

The first video below goes over how to use Vibrance masks. Saturation and vibrance are both areas of image development that don’t get a lot of attention. Yes, we might adjust them when things don’t look quite right, but there’s a creative side to explore as well. I’ve found that Vibrance masks are often ideal for making a global saturation increase. The correct Vibrance mask in combination with a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer can add a nice saturation pop to the image without over-saturating colors that are already quite saturated. By using a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer instead of a Vibrance adjustment layer to control saturation, individual color channels can also be adjusted independently to fine-tune the effect. Dave shows how to do this. This technique is one of my favorites to try near the end of the processing workflow to make sure I’ve pushed the image’s saturation as far as possible without overdoing it.

Saturation masks are the flip-side of Vibrance masks in a couple of ways. The first is that they target the opposite pixels as Vibrance masks. Vibrance masks are brightest in areas with the least-saturated colors whereas saturated pixels show brightest in Saturation masks. Additionally, Saturation masks often work best with local adjustments (instead of a global adjustment) via a technique called saturation painting. This process loads a Saturation mask as a selection, and then painting gray through this selection onto a special layer lowers the saturation in areas of the image where the color looks too hot. It’s a very precise way to target over-saturated colors without affecting the overall global saturation of the image. Dave demonstrates how it’s done in the video below.

By combining global saturation adjustments through a Vibrance mask with local saturation adjustments via saturation painting, a new (and often better) saturation balance can be achieved in the image. The image will look better because saturation has been specifically addressed using masks that can accurately target different levels of saturation in the image.

The final video below looks at additional ways to add some finishing touches to the image: the Make-It-Glow and Smart Orton techniques. Make-It-Glow is pretty much a one-click technique that adds a nice sense of glow to the image via color blurring without blurring the image’s texture. It works well on warm-colored subjects like sandstone, autumn leaves and flowers.

The Smart Orton action takes the regular Orton effect (which combines a saturation and contrast boosts along with Gaussian blur) and breaks it into it’s component parts. Shadows, highlights, blur, and contrast all have their own layers, and users can adjust them to get whatever effect looks best on their image. It might feel a bit daunting at first, but Dave walks you through the various layers and adjustments in the video below.

Be sure to subscribe to Dave’ Kelly’s Joy of Editing YouTube channel to get the latest TK7 videos along with additional videos about Topaz and Nik filters.

Thorn-scapes and Five Lessons

“A ball of daggers” would be a fair description of many agaves, but the natural arrangements are so artful that it’s easy to look past the potential pain and simply admire the abstract design

Job, career, profession.

Hobby, pastime, passion.

Art, science, magic.

Photography can be different things to different people, and its role in a person’s life can certainly change over time.   As I was working on a recent series of images, I asked myself, “What is it to me now?”  The answer wasn’t immediately clear.  I wasn’t planning to sell these images.  The subject matter (thorns) wasn’t wildly popular on 500px. And the main reason I chose it was simply the fact that plants with spikes are plentiful in my environment.  But once I got started, I wanted to keep going.  After a few images it felt like an adventure.  The fun had started.  Now I just needed to figure out what I was supposed to learn from it?

If you can imagine a saguaro cactus as a long neck, then the spines that cover it can be thought of as neck-lace. Intricate patterns woven together to create a delicate, almost jewel-like covering. Although, in the case of saguaros, this dainty lace is actually a formidable defense. Pretty to look at, especially close up, but completely unforgiving of even an accidental touch.

One thing I quickly realized is how this choice of subjects completely separated me from the madness that sometimes engulfs nature photography.  There was no line of photographers three-deep trying to get the same picture of Mesa Arch.  No crowded bridge in Zion National Park.  No dozens of vehicles at White Pocket.  It was just me and usually a single Sonoran Desert succulent.  I could relax and search for pictures with no timeline or deadline.  Exploration isn’t always about traveling significant distances or spending lots of time reaching a destination.  This was still nature photography, but in an easy-to-reach, distraction-free solitude that invited searching for possibilities and finding something new.  Lesson one:  Stop chasing the light and focus on where it might be hiding instead.

A macro lens reveals that each individual saguaro areola is covered with nearly two dozen sharp thorns. The blur inherent with these close-up shots softens the overall appearance to some degree, but don’t get fooled. These spines are sharp and painful even if their abstract presentation seems somewhat benign.

I also soon came to understand that I had failed to fully see the plants I had walked past every day since moving to Tucson.  Their abundance suggested they might be ordinary, I suppose, and who wants to photograph “ordinary,” right?  I had a photographic bias against plants, I think. But that’s changing.  There’s nothing commonplace about common plants anymore, especially here in the deserts of southern Arizona.  There’s beauty in resilience and elegance in adaptation.  The structures that help these plants survive also impart a unique character.  Finding this character with a camera is the challenge.  Discarding previous attitudes helps.   Lesson two:  Don’t ignore ordinary.

The elegance of agaves is undeniable. Symmetry, repetition, and gentle curves. But they’re also pointed, tough, and determined. A true desert survivor that adds grace and style to the landscape.

Possibly one of the more surprising aspects when looking over the images from this thorn-ography project was that, stylistically, they are quite similar to many of my previous sandstone images.  When I lived on the Colorado Plateau, I found it easy to go out to photograph slot canyons, hoodoos, and arches.  These were extraordinary formations and seductively captivating photographic subjects.  However, many times my favorite pictures were just a tiny slice of the larger landscape.  Details and textures probably constitute a majority of my images from that sandstone era.  These thorn-scapes are all about pattern and texture also.  I do love these natural rhythms, and this series of images made me realize that this is maybe my way of visualizing subjects to photograph.  Once I see a pattern, I can start to see a picture.  Lesson three:  It’s easier finding light once you’ve found your style.

Golden Barrel cacti are commonly used in desert landscaping since they’re well-adapted to the dry conditions and don’t require irrigation. Their golden spines provide a colorful focal point. However, this image focuses on the repetitive, abstract nature these spines and not their color. I like the sense that this cactus is able to weave a fabric of thorns across it’s surface.

Processing images is something I enjoy.  I know photographers are supposed to want to be out taking pictures, but crafting an image in Photoshop is also a unique experience for me.  It’s a place where I can have a dialog with the image.  I learn where it wants to go and then find a way to help it get there.  And it teaches me something along the way.  Maybe it’s a new technique in Photoshop.  Maybe a new way to use an old technique.  Or maybe a surprising way of presenting the image that the original capture might not even suggest.  Regardless of what happens, I want to be present for and open to the possibilities.  For this series, all I knew was that I wanted to use monochrome, which accentuates patterns and textures.  As things progressed, I learned a new way to convert to black and white (calculations), new burning and dodging techniques, and received valuable feedback from critiques on  As a result, these images mean more to me now than when I took them.  Lesson four:  Taking the picture is only the beginning.  Developing the image personalizes it.

The color of the saguaro needles changes over time. The newer they are, the whiter they are. Over time, as in years and decades, they change to black. So, the tops of the saguaro trunk and arms are covered in light-colored needles, and bottoms are covered in darker needles. This image, therefore, is of a young saguaro as I was able to photograph white needles along the main trunk while standing next to it. For older saguaros, these spines would have been black, and this would have been a very different picture.

So back to the original question:  What is photography for me now?  While it’s a continuously evolving thing, after this series, I’d say that photography is a meditation.  It’s a way to gain perspective both about the subjects I photograph and my ability to interact with them creatively.  It’s also an opportunity step away from the normal flow of events and focus on a single thing in order to better understand myself and how to be fully present in the moment.  In many ways, I also see this as an experience common to other creative pursuits. I’m not sure there’s a word for it, but photography practiced in this manner seems to provide a way to experience and express a shared humanity.  Lesson five:  We are all photographers, even if we don’t take pictures.