Retouching is an essential part of the photography process. A photo does not get published without some finishing applied in post production. Automation tools such as presets and actions help speed up this process, but there is a danger in using them. This article discusses the problem with presets.
I use automation tools everyday in my workflow. I have an action that converts my Profoto, 16 bit tiff file into three different file formats in different folders. I use actions for steps that require no judgment, they’re exactly the same steps every time.
In spite of my reliance on automation tools, I never use them to give my photos a look.
I first became aware of the allure of Lightroom presets when I noticed a relatively new wedding photographer getting propelled into the stratosphere. After a conversation with him, he mentioned that he was applying a VSCO preset to every image, giving his pictures a vintage, film look. Of course, this is commonplace today, but he was fortunate enough to ride the initial wave of “film like” enthusiasm.
Lured by his wild success, I thought I’d try something similar on my travel work. I purchased 3 preset packs from VSCO and processed an entire shoot of images from Thailand. I was fairly happy with the results and it also massively increased my processing speeds, but for the next shoot I did, I went back to my old workflow of not using presets or actions. I never understood why until this past weekend, a full eight years later.
My wife is a family photographer, covering mostly newborns and children. Over the past 3 years of her business, I’ve done all her retouching, but this had to stop recently after I took a full time job as an architectural photographer. My wife is now learning to retouch her images and she is being assisted by a master retoucher that I sometimes use for important shoots. The retoucher recorded a video for my wife taking her through important steps in correcting skin color. At some point in the tutorial, the retoucher realized that it was too much to take in, so she sent a corrected image with the layers all still in place. She recommended that my wife simply drag the layers from the corrected image onto the new image. This is when the problem with presets became apparent.
A preset, recipe, or action pack is effectively the same thing as dragging layers from another image. You run your preset and you’re left with a bunch of layers that you tweak to refine the look for your image.
While working through some of my wife’s images, I tried to explain what each layer did and why it was necessary. I started noticing that unless I did each step manually, I wasn’t getting the look I desired. I was getting a look closer to how the retoucher processed images. With presets and actions, you stop thinking for yourself and you follow a look that someone else has designed.
I started off this article with the statement that retouching is an essential part of the photography process. Retouching is part of your style as a photographer. If you’re reliant on presets for a look, your style is largely influenced by another artist. In addition, everyone else who uses that preset will have a similar look. I realize that you can tweak the layers and adjust the overall opacity of the preset to make it closer to your own look, but the whole nature of automation is that it removes the need to think. Unless you’re highly disciplined, you’ll ultimately end up going with a look similar to the default look of the preset.
When I think back to my Thailand images, I liked the final results. The preset helped me create marketable images at a far quicker speed than my usual method. However, I wasn’t truly happy with the images as they didn’t feel like my images. If I shared a portfolio of travel images and included the Thailand images, it would appear like a different photographer took them.
You may have noticed that I mentioned I send important jobs to a retoucher. It might seem that my argument against using presets falls flat if I use a retoucher. In this case, I've worked for months with my retoucher to get her to closely match my style. In most shoots, I send her a batch of images with my look already applied and she does the basic fixes. Additionally, I will send her a finished image from the batch and ask her to process the batch in a similar style.
All those years ago, I decided to use actions and presets to do the basic edits that I apply to every image — things like lens corrections, input sharpening, and even luminosity masking. This speeds up my workflow and removes repetitive steps. However, when it comes to the creative part of the retouching process, I work through each step manually. The “look” of my image should be determined by me.