What is a LUT?

Within the industry there is a lot of confusion regarding working with LUTs, with a lot of people treating LUTs as if they are some form of 'Black Magic'... which they most definitely are not.

So, in an attempt to help explain what LUTs are, and how they work, these pages describe as much about LUTs, and their use as possible, including the difference between calibration, technical and creative Look LUTs.

But if you just want to get on with building LUTs go directly to the LightSpace CMS page.

LUT Definition

3x 1D LUT

LUTs are basically conversion matrices, of different complexities, with the two main options being 1D LUTs or 3D LUTs.

As an example the start of a 1D LUT could look something like this:
Note: strictly speaking this is 3x 1D LUTs, as each colour (R,G,B) is a 1D LUT

R, G, B
3, 0, 0
5, 2, 1
7, 5, 3
9, 9, 9

Which means that:

For an input value of 0 for R, G, and B, the output is R=3, G=0, B=0
For an input value of 1 for R, G, and B, the output is R=5, G=2, B=1
For an input value of 2 for R, G, and B, the output is R=7, G=5, B=3
For an input value of 3 for R, G, and B, the output is R=9, G=9, B=9

Which is a weird LUT, but you see that for a given value of R, G, or B input, there is a given value of R, G, and B output.

So, if a pixel had an input value of 3, 1, 0 for RGB, the output pixel would be 9, 2, 0.

If the R input value changes to 2, but G and B stay the same, only the R output value changes, with the output pixel values being 7, 2, 0.

Make sense?

1D LUTs plus 3x3 Matrix

To overcome the limitations of 1D LUTs a 3x3 Matrix can be employed to control colour saturation and luma via linear scaling across the full colour space. Basically, a matrix can be viewed as a simple mathematical formula that describes the shape of the gamut, but not the internal content.

R       x x x      R
G  =  x x x  =  G
B       x x x      B

While this approach can work to produce 'acceptable' calibration results, any non-linearity attributes of the display will still not be corrected.


As 1D LUT and Matrix combinations are limited in colour control capability, 3D LUTs are preferred for accurate colour control, as they provide for full volumetric colour space control.

3D LUTs are a little bit more complex, and are based on a three-dimensional Cube with the ability to alter a given single R, G, or B output value based on a single R, G or B input value change.

This is probably best shown graphically, like this:

3D Cube LUT

Looking at the point where all three colour planes intersect (the LUT output point for the given input values) it can be seen that changing any one input colour will cause a change in all three output colour values... a change in any one colour can cause a cross colour change in the other colours.

Hopefully, you can see that as the colour 'planes' move away from the origin point (0, 0, 0) in the direction of their individual axis they will increase in their respective colour, as indicated.

Because 3D LUTs describe the precise behavior of all colour points throughout volumetric colour space they can deal with any non-linearity attributes of the display, and can accurately handle sudden spikes of colour, etc., as many of today's displays suffer from.

This makes 3D LUTs very suitable for accurate calibration as they can deal with all display calibration issues, from simple gamma, gamut and tracking errors, to correcting advanced non-linearity attributes, colour crosstalk (decoupling), hue, saturation, brightness, etc. Basically, all possible display calibration errors.

Due to the high level of colour control 3D LUT can perform, they are also used for creative Look Management, grading, etc.

However, for more simple colour transforms, such as converting between different colour spaces (Rec709, P3, sRGB, etc) Matrices are more commonly used, although the data is often converted into 3D LUT form as few creative system directly use matrices.

So, 3D LUT are way better than 1D then?

Looking at the 1D vs. 3D comparison at the bottom of this page you'd think so, wouldn't you?

Well, this depends on the LUT requirement and application...

A 1D LUT tends to have values for each and every input to output value, so they are very accurate within their 1D conversion limitations.

If a 3D LUT were to have values for each and every input to output combination the LUT would be very, very large indeed - so large as to be impossible to use. A 3D LUT using every input to output value for 10 bit image workflows would be a 1024 point LUT, and would have 1,073,741,824 points (1024^3).

So, most 3D LUTs use cubes in the range 17^3 to 64^3, which for a 17^3 LUT means there are 17 input to output points for each axis, and the values in between these points have to be interpolated, and different systems do this with different levels of accuracy, so the exact same 3D LUT used in two different system will, in all probability, produce a subtly different result.

It is very rare to get two systems working with the same 3D LUT to show the exact same result, unless the LUT size is large, and therefore limits the amount of interpolation used.

The way 3D LUTs are written can also be rather confusing.

There are still usually three columns of numbers, R, G, and B, but usually with Blue changing fastest, then green, then red.

The following is the first few lines from a 'default bypass' 17^3 3D LUT - output is equal to input:

R, G, B
0, 0, 0
0, 0, 64
0, 0, 128
0, 0, 192
0, 0, 256
0, 0, 320
0, 0, 384
0, 0, 448
0, 0, 512
0, 0, 576
0, 0, 640
0, 0, 704
0, 0, 768
0, 0, 832
0, 0, 896
0, 0, 960
0, 0, 1023
0, 64, 0
0, 64, 64
0, 64, 128
0, 64, 192
0, 64, 256
0, 64, 320
0, 64, 384
0, 64, 448
0, 64, 512
0, 64, 576
0, 64, 640
0, 64, 704
0, 64, 768
0, 64, 832
0, 64, 896
0, 64, 960
0, 64, 1023
0, 128, 0
0, 128, 64
0, 128, 128
0, 128, 192
0, 128, 256
0, 128, 320
0, 128, 384
..., ..., ..,

What can be seen is that Blue goes through its 17 point cycle, quickly, Green is updating its cycle once for 17 of Blue's cycles, and Red will update once during the whole length of the LUT, which is equal to Green going through 17 cycles.

These 42 lines continue for a total of 4913 lines...


Ok, not so easy... Think of it this way:

In the above 'cube' diagram the Red plane starts in the first of its 17 points (positions).
The Green plane is also at its first point, as is Blue.
The output value for this position is recorded as the first line of the LUT (0, 0, 0).
The Red plane stays where it is, as does the Green, and Blue moves to its second position.
The output value for this position is recorded as the second line of the LUT (0, 0, 64).
This continues for all 17 points (positions) for Blue.
Then Green is moved to its second point, and Blue goes through its 17 points again.
When Green has been through all 17 of its points, Red is moved to its second point, and the cycle begins again...

Make sense now?

So, for a LUT that isn't a bypass LUT, the position of each 'plane' is altered for each of the 17 points to generate the desired output value.

The first few lines from a real 'calibration 3D LUT' would therefore be something like:

R, G, B
0, 0, 0
0, 0, 36
0, 0, 112
0, 0, 188
0, 0, 261
0, 0, 341
0, 0, 425
0, 0, 509
0, 0, 594
0, 0, 682
0, 0, 771
0, 0, 859
0, 0, 955
0, 0, 1023
0, 0, 1023
0, 0, 1023
0, 0, 1023
0, 32, 0
0, 28, 28
0, 28, 96
0, 24, 172
0, 24, 252
0, 20, 333
0, 20, 417
0, 12, 501
0, 12, 586
0, 8, 674
0, 4, 762
0, 4, 851
0, 0, 943
0, 0, 1023
0, 0, 1023
0, 0, 1023
0, 0, 1023
0, 92, 0
0, 88, 20
0, 88, 88
0, 88, 164
0, 84, 244
0, 84, 321
0, 80, 405
..., ..., ...,

So, in essence, what a 3D LUT does is take an input value and generate a new output value, for each and every RGB triplet.

In general (and totally ignoring what has been said above about the accuracy of 3D LUTs vs, 1D), 1D LUTs have their uses, but 3D LUTs are a lot more accurate in real-world applications.

The following Marcy image shows the difference between a 1D LUT and a 3D LUT.

The initial image is a 1D LUT, and the second image shows the result of a 3D LUT, both LUTs being based on exactly the same data.


As can be seen the major differences are in the levels of saturation as a 1D LUT cannot alter saturation separately to brightness.

LUT Sizes

There is a lot of confusion regarding LUT sizes, and what the reality as to what is a good size, or not.

There are three main parts to LUT sizes...

First, the actual size of a given LUT that is to be used is primarily defined by the size any given DI system or LUT Box can use. Sizes from 5^3 to 64^3 are common.

The LUT size any given system is designed to used is based on being real-time, so as a rule of thumb higher-end system are able to utilise large LUT sizes. So, saying LUT size is an issue is factually wrong - it depends on the DI system (or LUT box) as to the size it can and will use.

The second, and potentially more important part to LUT size is building the LUT from profile data when using LUTs to calibrate displays.

Generating the LUT profile data is what takes time, as a very accurate profile of any given display will be required to generate an accurate result. The same is true when generating profile data for a film lab profile, where film negative and film print stocks need to be accurately profiled using density measurements.

Technical LUTs (not calibration LUTs) are easy to generate as there is no need to profile a display. So, any size is easy - it's just a formula to generate the resultant matrix or LUT.

This is also true of 'creative LUTs' as the approach is to make a grade and then RIP the LUT from the grade, at what ever size is required.

When making calibration LUTs you HAVE to profile as many points as possible (regardless of some calibration systems attempting avoid this by using 'guesswork' based profiling, using less points). So, the problem is the time it takes to make the profile.

The third point is how you then generate a bigger LUT from the smaller profile... You need some very good internal colour engine processing to do this during the LUT generation, and this is where LightSpace CMS is very, very good - with accuracy far beyond alternative calibration systems.

Some DI systems and LUT boxes also use good LUT interpolation internally, so can use a 17 point LUT and get very good results. Others don't! These bad interpolation systems need bigger LUTs as they can't do the interpolation themselves.

Calibration vs. Technical vs. Creative Look LUTs

LUTs can be used and applied in a number of different ways, and the three most common applications are Calibration, Technical, and Creative...

Calibration LUTs are used to 'correct' display inaccuracies, ensuring any images shown on the calibrated display as accurate as possible - allowing for the underlying capabilities and/or limitations of the display. These are the most important LUTs as their generation has to be performed with very high levels of accuracy, or all images sheen on the 'calibrated' display will be incorrect, causing the inaccuracy to ripple back down the workflow chain.

This is a critical reason as to why LightSpace CMS is seen as the de-facto standard that all other calibration systems aspire to match - it is the most accurate of all.

Technical LUTs are used to convert between different 'standards', such as from one colour space to another, which should make the LUTs simple to generate accurately.

Surprisingly, many Technical LUTs are not at all accurate, and can cause major problems when attempting to convert images between different standards. All technical LUTs generated via LightSpace CMS are accurate!

Creative LUTs are often referred to as 'Look LUTs' as they are often used to set a look by a DoP on-set during filming, as well as to endow images with a specific look emulation, such as specific traditional film stocks.

LightSpace CMS has all the tools to generate any Look LUTs required, from ripping creative grades form DI systems, to using Photoshop to set styles, to using the internal creative tools within LightSpace CMS, including the emulation of film stocks.

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