No, Your Presets Did Not 'Save Your Images'

No, Your Presets Did Not 'Save Your Images'

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!

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I say NO to Presets, not one adjustment fits all. Besides, my eyes can't stand over edited photographs. I remember trying to 'recover' crappy pictures, which got me thinking. Maybe I should spend more time behind the lens learning exposure than sitting in front a computer frantically sliding adjustments to no eval.

Andrew Richardson's picture

It's all about your needs. I have presets built for specific lighting situations and venues that allow me to apply them to hundreds of images from a specific shoot. Then I can simply tweak exposure and cropping as I got through because my white balance, toning, sharpening, etc. are already mostly dialed in.

Maybe it's because I work quickly in LR, but I have never used a preset. That is not to say that I have not used the "Previous" button with wild abandon. But I find using presets dumbs down the process of finding the right balance in the image and where I want it to go... Because I'm old, I liken using a preset to choosing your film and loading it before you know where and when you will be shooting. So now I have 1000 ASA tungsten balanced film loaded for a daytime shoot. OK, maybe not that bad, but if I'm working with a series of images in the same place I try to find the best one of the group and spend time working with each of the sliders individually pulling the best out of that shot, then using "Previous" to see how the like images react to those setting, then resetting the whole thing or tweaking from there... But this is only when I have shots taken in the same place, same light, same direction, same subject. Once any of those things change, I'm back to scratch working the sliders. I really don't believe presents do anything but line the pockets of those selling them, and in many cases create lazy habits that take you down the wrong road away from creating your own look and feel. And even worse, can cause you to forget or never learn what each and every slider does and how it will affect your image. Click here for "X" look... bla!

But that's just my 2 cents.

Joel Meaders's picture

Regarding concert photography, I have a large amount of presets I've created over the years for various purposes. Call me lazy but I can import, cull and edit shots from an entire festival within a matter of 1-2 hours max because of my presets. Why spend time manually adjusting every single selected photograph when the outcome/style will largely be the same?

I spend the first half culling, selecting and applying presets. I spend the next half fine-tuning the sliders and brushing if needed, then exporting to spec and sending them away to whatever publican hired me.

Andrew Richardson's picture

Exactly. Having a tool that you understand and know how to use can be an invaluable resource.

Travis Alex's picture

MMMM...this is more of a personal preference rant then anything informative. I enjoy my custom presets, and I also enjoy tweaking them even more. I will admit there are a lot I got rid of, and some that I redid, but I have a few that are really great.

I do agree that one preset won't fit all situations, however, it's easy for someone who knows what they are doing to make it work and work well.

Just like anyone can pick up a camera and shooting, anyone can download a free preset and apply it, it's the user, not the item.

Anonymous's picture

I am a somewhat new photographer... I love it, and Fstoppers is a great resource....however, many of the authors here come off as EXTREME snobs.....thankfully Andrew Richardson did a pretty good job with this article and stressing that his opinion is based on the mis-use of presets. I have read so many articles on if you should or should not use presets and blah blah of the best and actually more informative ones is this one...where the author actually explores there accuracy in pretty good detail (guess what...they are pretty accurate...)

HOWEVER, the issue i see is the mis use of the term Preset.....sure that is what it is, and that is what LR calls it but as the author and commenters point out, presets can be user made not just stock bought. So saying "the preset didn't save you photo" is wrong, especially like in the second and third examples where if the author saved a "preset" of those settings....then in fact, the Preset DID save his photos. Granted the one with the kid is a good shot either way.

What should be said in ALL of these articles is, VSCO, Mastin Labs, etc. make presets (which can AND SHOULD BE.. AND READING THE VSCO MANUAL TELLS YOU TO... USER ADJUST THEM ACCORDINGLY.... its only a starting point...) These presets are NOT FILTERS.....people have mistaken VSCO as a FILTER like in instagram, that you choose to use or not to. Sure you can probably tweak them there (i DO NOT USE INSTAGRAM AND NEVER WILL SO I DONT KNOW...) but for the most part you are putting a picture control on a jpeg. (not sure for mastin labs) but VSCO specially says, to adjust exposure and WB manually first, then apply the preset...THEN USER ADJUST.

I guess why I am writing today is, I would like people to stop using the term preset as a bad moniker. Pros create them all the time to save time (as the author points out). And just because you use a preset someone else created (VSCO) that does not mean you are bad or not a good photographer. You have to learn how to use them just like anything else.

The main reason I have used VSCO and the main reason I was compelled to get it in the first place is when I found out that these were not baked in looks, but ACTUAL other words, like the author states here....VSCO used LR to create these, I assume then the people at VSCO are masters at LR and i admittedly am I find it EXTREMELY valuable to have access to PROFESSIONAL level presets that I can then study and learn from. I have learned a TON from applying that preset and tweaking the values. I leaned how to use the HSL and split toning soley from this and probably never would have found those on my own without a tutorial of some kind.

Presets are fine, and they DO save your photos (semantics) ....VSCO and Mastin Labs are NOT FILTERS....they are Presets and need to be USER ADJUSTED accordingly. =

Andrew Richardson's picture

I think you made a great point here! There is a difference between a "preset" and a "look" that you buy from a company. Educating ourselves about the difference is important as presets are tools that we shouldn't disparage simply because they're a "preset". Really good point.

Geoffrey Badner's picture

I bought a batch of presets once maybe 5 years ago. 90% of them I never used. The remaining 10% I tweaked and added into a collection of my own presets and now use them as starting places for 1 of 4 different "looks" I'm trying to cultivate (3 color and 1 b&w). Nothing is straight out of the box.

Beyond that, I use presets, or "develop setting" I think LR calls, them when shooting tethered to tweak the images as I shoot.

It drives me crazy when people make these comments about their presets and how its a life saver for them. It might save them a minute or two in LR but it in no way saves the image like you said. People who make these sets you can buy are really scamming people out of good money. If you are a true professional you should make the decisions you make about an image because you think it's best for that image. Not every image needs a sepia overtone and I'd argue that most look like crap because of them.

I'll now get off my soapbox.

Andrew Richardson's picture

I would disagree that people who make paid presets are "scammers". Kirk Mastin spends a lot of time and money working to get his presets to match their counterpart film stock as closely as possible so you can shoot hybrid and have all of your images match up. That's time and knowledge that I don't have, and is a worthwhile investment for me as a tool to use.

That being said, there's a plethora of garbage presets being sold out there that just plain look bad, but any market is going to have its fair share of low quality products so that really doesn't bother me too much.

Andrew, I agree about the kinds of presets you speak of from Kirk Mastin and his film presets. Personally, I don't really think of those as presets although you are correct, they are a preset. I was more referring to the low quality, just push a slider up and down to take out all the contrast we seem to find pushed by many in the market.

David Stephen Kalonick's picture

The only presets I dig are B&W variations. Most color versions do awful things to skin tone and eyes. If I have an image that I want to use a preset with, I mask back the skin and face in photoshop.

The only presets I use in capture one are ones I've created myself, but on point 1 in this article, lightroom presets (such as VSCO) often have a custom camera calibration profile too, so it's a bit more than just the sliders.

I think that those comments are just ads made by the preset creators, just like those comments that say "Learn this easy trick to earn 112$/h by working from home". A least some of them.

Chris Martin's picture

I rather quite like the VSCO presets personally but don't use them extensively when I'm editing in LR. I read that some folk use presets to get consistency across their shoot, rather than use presets I prefer to use the "Sync" feature in LR. I will do a base edit and get my 'look' within a single photo and provided that the other photos are of the same set and are shot under the same conditions I can sync the settings from my first photo and apply them to the rest of the photos. This way you get the speed efficiency of a preset with the tweaks of playing with the dials by hand, without having 1000s of custom presets and struggle to find the one you need.

In theory, if you're shooting a wedding, you would do a single edit from each lighting situation/scene and apply them settings (using the sync feature) to the other photos within that scene then tweak/tune each photo to get it where you want.

To be clear, I do support presets and I do have a hand full of my own edit presets to quickly adjust the vibrancy/saturation, noise levels etc... when combined with the sync function, this workflow saves me alot of time.

Richard Neal's picture

As a wedding photographer with up over of 500 images to edit I rely on presets. I dont own any packs though, I create my own. I have a basic look which I apply to any venue to match my usual style (thats usually why people have hired me) then I tweak it for each wedding venue if needed, then tweak it again slightly for each image if required. I say this sort of workflow is essential for anyone looking to maintain consistency.

If its a one of image or something completely non wedding related such as corporate then it would be a whole different matter

I have a ton of presets that i rarely use. I always ended up making adjustments after using a preset. It felt quicker to simply avoid most of my presets. I'll have to revisit presets again...

-Chris Hooper