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.

Summary

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.