This is a pet peeve of mine, so I am going to thank you in advance for indulging me. There seems to be a rampant misunderstanding in certain levels of the photo community as to what editing presets are, and what they actually accomplish. I (like many of you I would assume) am a member of various photo-centric groups on Facebook. In particular, I am a member of groups for people who have purchased Lightroom and ACR preset packs from a variety of creators. Almost daily I see posts in these groups that go something like this: "I thought my photos were beyond hope, but then I applied "WHIMSICAL PRESET NAME" and they were saved! These presets are amazing!!!1!111!!!" Sound familiar?
I have no problem with presets, I have several that I use on a majority of my shoots (shout-out to Mastin Labs!), or that I have used as a foundation to build up a certain look. I also have loads of presets that I have tweaked and developed myself. There's an outdoor location I enjoy shooting in that is like a giant box of green, and I've made a preset to pull the green tones out of my subject's skin when I shoot in that location. Applying that on import saves me a lot of trouble. So yeah, presets are great timesaving tools. But I am beginning to wonder if there is a fundamental misunderstanding amongst some groups of photographers as to what their presets are actually doing.
Remember that post I mentioned above that I see on a daily basis on Facebook? The "before" images that are included with the post are almost always underexposed with a wildly inaccurate white balance. People even reference how awful the white balance was before the preset "saved" it. These posts lead me to believe that there is a large contingent of photographers who lack a basic understanding of both photography and editing, who don't have a clue what their presets are actually doing to their images. In an effort to shed some quick light on that subject, I've pulled together these quick facts:
1: A Preset Does Nothing to Your Image that You Could Not Do Yourself.
Do you know where companies like VSCO design their presets? In Lightroom and in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR). I can recreate the majority of "preset looks" I see simply because I understand what all of those funky sliders in the Lightroom Develop module do, and I have spent hours and hours messing with them so I have a working understanding and not just an intellectual one. The amount of editing that is possible in Lightroom is substantial; you can tweak your color toning on a pretty minute level. By playing with and mastering these controls, you will learn that all the preset is doing is saving you time.
Everything that a preset does can be achieved using the sliders in the Develop module.
2: A Preset Will Not "Save" You from Your Own Mistakes.
No preset is going to make up for harsh shadows or blown out highlights. Typically when I shoot an image I already know how I am going to edit it. I see the scene and the lighting that I am working in, and I am able to know how I want the final image to turn out. Doing a shoot without any intentionality is a good way to produce disappointing images. Slapping an aggressive fade and vignette on your photos after the fact is not going to cover up the mistakes you made when you were actually shooting it.
Left: Original image, underexposed with some color balance issues. Right: Random VSCO filter I selected.
Left: Original. Right: My edit, cropped, toned and exposure corrected.
3: You Are Not a Slave to Your Presets.
I see lots of comments in these Facebook groups of people complaining about how someone's skin, or the sky, or hair, or whatever, look when they apply a preset. Well you know what? You can fix that. If you don't like something about how one of your 12,000 VSCO presets make your image look, then change it. You have the control and no preset is going to fit every single image, it's just not going to happen. Learn how to get under the hood and fix things yourself, and stop expecting your presets to make every photo perfect with zero effort.
Left: The original preset settings. Right: What I actually wanted.
It might be tempting to think that I am saying that presets are trash and that "real" photographers don't use them. I want to stress that I am absolutely, 100% NOT saying that. I use presets all the time; they are a fantastic time saving tool and a good way to maintain consistency in your editing. What I am saying is that by educating yourself in all aspects of photography, instead of trusting a crucial part of your work to a preset, is only going to make you better at what you do. When you can perform basic maintenance on your own car, taking it to a mechanic becomes a luxury instead of a necessity, and the same is true for editing. By understanding how your presets work, you will have more control over your images and will no longer be handing that control of to someone else. Hurray for learning!