Stop Wasting Your Money on Lightroom Presets

Stop Wasting Your Money on Lightroom Presets

Nowadays, it seems that every YouTube photography celebrity has a batch of presets that they want you to buy. This begs the question: is it worth handing over your hard-earned cash when you might be better off investing your time rather than your money?

In the six years that I've been using Lightroom, I've never paid for a preset. In the past, I've downloaded a few free packs, clicked laboriously through every preset and decided that they were all useless: blunt tools creating over-edited results and deploying settings that I could easily have achieved myself had I wanted to ruin one of my photos. 

"Are paid presets any different?" I thought to myself and started asking a few fellow photographers for their thoughts and experiences. The response from the handful of people I asked was all but unanimous: they're a waste of money; spend your time learning instead. One friend suggested that they're great if you want to create Instagram cliches, but not much use for anything else. And there's some truth to this: in an era when photographic success is equated with the number of Instagram followers, it's no wonder that people want to buy a formula that feels like it's guaranteed to get likes and comments.

download lightroom presets or learn how to do it yourself

My own preset is far left. Two random downloads are center and right.

Photographer James Popsys didn't hold back in one of his videos last year: "If you're buying people's presets, you're buying a shortcut that takes you out of the creative process," he explained. If you like a photographer's editing, you can replicate it quickly by buying one of their presets, but how much are you going to learn as a result, and what are you going to achieve by replicating their look and feel? Sure, you can use the preset as a base from which to start, and you can begin figuring out how certain looks are achieved by digging into the various settings, but that time might easily be spent doing a few tutorials, developing your own style, and establishing a better understanding of the editing process. As a result, your future images will have more potential when you go on to apply your newly acquired knowledge.

Having still not bought a preset, I'm interested to find out about the community's experience. On the one hand, I wonder if there's a clique of well-established YouTube photography celebrities who are flogging their presets to a naive audience in order to generate some passive income from very little work and zero overhead. YouTube comments (never a great source of information, admittedly) suggest that certain photographers are churning out video after video that are more about plugging their presets than they are about offering something insightful or educational. When the first line in every video's description is a link to the photographer's Lightroom preset pack, maybe it's time to unsubscribe.

On the other hand, if there's a style that inspires you, is it worth dropping the equivalent of a pizza and a few beers to get an insight into a workflow and use that as another tool towards mastering Lightroom and developing a personal style? It's also a great way to support a photographer who has worked to carve a niche and share their knowledge. And as much as we try to be unique, we're all simply remixing what's already out there, and while a distinctive style is the goal, paid presets can be a (tax-deductible) means of taking a step towards it.

Check out the poll and leave your thoughts in the comments, please!

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67 Comments

Oliver Kmia's picture

And also, stop wasting your money on LUTs.

Jerome Courtial's picture

Funny I think lightroom presets are useless but I’ve bought some awesome luts for videos!

Oliver Kmia's picture

Which one? I'm just asking for a friend ;)

Dave Morris's picture

Not all presets are the same. You can make your own of course, we all do that. But creating really good film presets, for example, and profiling them to multiple cameras may keep you busy for a while. From my own experience of creating my own Kodak Portra simulation consistent across two different cameras it may easily turn into months or even years of shootings and adjustments.

That's why there are specialist companies like RNI who do exactly that — build film presets and profile them to the major camera models.

Such presets aren't cheap but worth the investment. They stay with you for long times and make a part of your signature style, so it's effectively no different to investing in good lenses.

aurèle brémond's picture

You can build all preset from scratch, on your own. Of course.

Getting some free preset can help you see many variations of your picture around color, contrast, WB, and so one, very fast, and help you expand your conscience of all the styles possible. For that, preset are great.

But if you don't understand how it get the rendering, it's useless : you don't get how to tweak it to get what you want.

Gustavo Lucena's picture

Can you create camera profiles to emulate film digitalized by fuji frontier?
Camera Profiles do a lot things you can not do only in Lightroom.

John Nicholson's picture

Amen. Even if they were useful (which they aren't), for them to have the desired result you'd have to start from the exact same starting point on the RAW file as the person who created it which is impossible. So now you're tweaking the preset anyway. Same as if you just did it yourself.

Kyle Medina's picture

BINGO!

Gustavo Lucena's picture

Ok... This was a little bit like Click bait!
Free presets sucks! BUT....
Vsco, Replichrome, 18%Lab, DVLOP, and others paid presets have Custom Camera Profiles that you can't create by yourself. (Unless you have plenty of time and patience.)
They Change colors, curves e tones in way you cant do in Lightroom.
Some of this can put your nikon and canon cameras with pretty same tone to start you own color sign.
So... no... If you try to create some unique visual sign use custom camera profiles presets. They are great, Most of them help maintain cohesion and constancy in colors.

Deleted Account's picture

Presets can NOT modify your files in a way not possible in Lightroom. The only thing they do is tell LR what to do, that it can already do.
I don't have much experience with them because as you wrote, free presets suck :-), so I can't find any fault with the rest of your comment. :-)

Gustavo Lucena's picture

NO
Do you used a DNG profile Editor? It can change specific hues and colors that you can not change in Lightroom with HSL.
When you create a Custom camera profile using DNG profile Editor you CAN change things that you cant in Lightroom... but Lightroom can read these custom camera profiles.

Deleted Account's picture

Sometimes I'll create profiles with an XRite ColorChecker Passport and its software but that creates an additional file, along with your preset which can only reference the profile but not create it. I think we're just debating semantics.

Gustavo Lucena's picture

no...
When you create a new camera profile, you are creating a new way of interpreting tints and curves your RAW in Lightroom.
Is not a reference, is a new camera Profile.
The xrite plug in is not the only way to create a new custom camera profile. You can do it with Adobe DNG profile Editor https://blogs.adobe.com/labs/archives/tag/dng-profile-editor

Marius Pettersen's picture

Sure, the HSL is not the answer, but you can do fine tuning in the calibration tab - which affects the camera/raw profile. Tuning the LR process version or a custom one with e.g. a ColorChecker.
I do however agree with you that some paid presets can be worth it, due to the extreme fine tuning some of them encompass. I for sure doesn't want to spend hours creating my own with this level of quality, but I do apply my own tuning after I've applied the preset - and if I tweak it enough, then I'll save it as my own version of the preset.

Gustavo Lucena's picture

Calibration painel can't do all changes like adobe DNG profile Editor, but you can do a lot of changes.

Tony Tumminello's picture

In addition, at least in the case of Replichrome, they take into account camera brand and even scanner (Frontier or Noritsu).

Felix C's picture

I did my own preset. I photographed with a digital camera and film camera at the same time. Since both were Nikons, I was able to use the same lens. You learn more info that way.

Deleted Account's picture

So you tweaked the digital file to match the film result? Wouldn't that depend a lot on who developed the film? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Tony Tumminello's picture

And the scan method!

Deleted Account's picture

Scan negatives and/or slides? I didn't think of that. Thanks!

Gustavo Lucena's picture

Replichrome and 18% Lab does that. You can choose Noritsu or Fuji Frontier scan... and this is only possible because of Custom Camera Profiles.

Replichrome: https://www.gettotallyrad.com/replichrome/icon

18%Lab: https://www.18plab.com/store/c2/Presets.html

Gustavo Lucena's picture

Please... know Replichrome, VSCO, Mastin Labs, 18%Lab... All of these emulates films withscientific process, using Custom Camera Profiles

amanda daniels's picture

I personally have purchased SMAL presets and I love them. Few things, I am still new to lightroom and SMAL is the style I love and wish to create. Now of course I do tweak each photo, I don't just apply it and be done. So for me, I think the preset helps me learn and create. Yes I have watched several lightroom videos and of course I have gotten much better, but I still like to use SMAL and then tweak to my desired look. I don't think it is cheating and I don't think it takes away from your creativity. I think presets can be used as a tool and a learning tool to help you achieve your desired look

Mike Spivey's picture

Presets are a great example of a product made to sell, not to use. I was a LR Beta Tester. I use import presets I've made but good grief! How long does it take to do a few adjustments?

Jim Cutler's picture

Do you most people don't know that presets and LUTS are just a snapshot of settings? I'm not being facetious. So many think that presets are something they are buying that's not in Lightroom.

michaeljin's picture

Yeah, but if you know what you want (let's take emulating Kodak Portra as an example), why would you sit there and do the tweaking required to replicate something like Kodak Portra when there are companies that have put a lot of time and effort already into it?

Jim Cutler's picture

Mike, that's true.

Harlan Bowling's picture

I'm not sure this matters, but it feels like a bit of snobbery to me. That's great that you've never ever used one and you make your macaroni and cheese completely from scratch every time.

At the end of the day, your photo either looks good or it doesn't. How you got there doesn't particularly matter, unless we're talking about efficiency in your workflow. To me, if a preset will save me a bunch of time and get my photo looking close to how I'd set it up anyway, then I'd be foolish to waste my time moving every slider.

Obviously not all presets are worth paying for (probably most of them aren't), but if someone creates something that saves me a ton of time in post, I'm happy to send them a couple drinks on me.

Jim Cutler's picture

You changed my thinking Harlan. Good comment.

Deleted Account's picture

The question of whether you are better off spending time or money is a purely economic question, which may only be addressed by reference to the value of your time.

We can say, oh but [intangibles], but applying the argument in the extreme, what if the difference between creating a finished product is hours and years? That intangible still comes down to the value of your time.

In any case, it strikes me that the economic question is, or at least should be, seperate to the questions of artistic integrity.

With respect to learning, that's a bit in column a and a bit in column b.

I suspect the question then comes down to whether your aim is to create product, or create art (recognising the two are not mutually excusive).

Elliot Sander's picture

I was a sucker for presets back then. The good thing is I've never gotten past the free ones or trial versions. I've stopped downloading it recently, even if it's free. Originally, I wanted these so I can have an idea of what looks good on my photos but the thing is, none of them looked good on my photos. :D

Reuben Gow's picture

Less than 1 month ago this site had an article titled "Why you should sell lightroom presets" https://fstoppers.com/lightroom/why-you-should-sell-lightroom-presets-pa...

So you think people should sell them but not buy them! Yeah good work guys.

Andy Day's picture

Hi Reuben, thanks for the comment. This happens for two reasons (depending on what you mean by "you people"). Firstly, the article you mentioned was reporting the thoughts of another photographer. Simply because an idea is reported by Fstoppers doesn't necessarily mean that the editorial team endorses it.

Secondly, Fstoppers writers have huge editorial freedom. There could easily be an article next month about why buying presets can be a really useful way of learning how to use Lightroom.

michaeljin's picture

Seems like when it comes to advice columns, the Fstoppers staff should get together and decide what their core beliefs are regarding these things because it could all be very muddled for a beginner that visits the website and is presented with a bunch of contradictions from a seemingly authoritative source.

Andy Day's picture

We assume our readers, even beginners, are smart enough to find their way through.

Chris Pickrell's picture

That's a cop out.

Although it cracks me up that the article about selling presets is a related article to this one :D

Oliver Kmia's picture

Yes, I second that. Very often people points contradictions in our "editorial line." But there isn't much line, as there is no universal truth on some topics and it's good to have different opinions. The important thing is to back your opinion with arguments. Then, people are free to disagree.

Chris Pickrell's picture

But when you disagree with yourselves, it kind of looks bad.

Greg Wilson's picture

FS just speaks BS. I'm using RNI Films for both Lightroom and Capture One and it's a genuinely amazing product. I wouldn't be able to achieve such powerful yet delicate colour transformations myself. A good preset or film profile is probably the second thing that affects one's visual output after the lens. That's why they cost on par with lenses sometimes.

Gustavo Lucena's picture

You need more information about Professional Presets. They do more than Tweak lightroom slides. When has Custom Camera Profiles you can do more with professional Presets (paid).
If you don't know, do not write about.

Luke Adams's picture

I strongly disagree with this article - especially when it comes to conversion type presets like Mastin Labs which do an incredible job at taking any file you throw at it, and give it a consistent film-like starting point to edit from. But the other major oversight in this article is that we don’t always know what we want or necessarily know what would look best. Presets can open up your mind to new possibilities and directions you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. This would happen to me all the time in various bands I played in over the years. I would bring a song idea and think I had it perfect, and then another band member would start playing something and completely open up my mind to possibilities for the song that I never saw in the first place.

Now, I do agree that the majority of non descriptive presets with names like, “tangerine dream”, “aqua bliss” etc, can quickly become a waste of time and money, but IMO, a few worth checking out are:

1) Mastin Labs. Forever changed my workflow.
2) SLR Lounge Preset System. The Brush presets included are awesome and a huge time server for common tasks and worth the price alone. The presets are kind of a unique building block system to build your desired look, but I don’t use them that often due to Mastin Labs.
3) Sleeklens. These presets do border on the gimmicky type, but they do have useful packs specifically tailored to seasons like Fall and Winter which can open up your eyes to some new directions for photos and also come with some useful brush presets.

All in all, I think the author is being very close-minded with this article, but it also struck me as a bit of an intentional hard-lined semi-trolling piece, so perhaps this was his intent anyway.

Chris Slasor's picture

I love Peter McKinnon, he seems like the nicest guy and I have learned a ton about photography and especially videography from his Youtube channel (and i'm a professional photographer and media creative). I bought his LR presets mainly as a way of giving something back and saying thank you for some of the tips he's passed on. I have to admit, most are very "Insta-Banger" in style, typical over processed looking things that all the kids would probably love to use to post their photos on the gram. But there is one very good preset that I really liked, and it gave a very different look than I would have decided upon myself. It was interesting looking at how he had got his edit to that point. I don't think i'd buy any other presets. But I bought Peter's knowing that I was just happy donating to him even if they were rubbish.

Jurre Jan de Wit's picture

Couldn't agree more with you. Did exactly the same haha. I don't use the presets anymore, but they definitely helped me finding out what I did and didn't like about them and put the best of them into my own presets.

Keagan De Villiers's picture

he makes money from views. his job is to produce videos and get paid from it so essentially watching his videos should be seen as "giving back" although you're learning at the same time as well. you shouldn't feel like you need to buy presets just because. I totally also get the business side of things from the YouTubers POV but i just find like guys like Jared Polin who never talk about presets and always encourage people to learn and develop their own skills is a better way to go :)

michaeljin's picture

YT ad revenue is garbage.

Pieter Batenburg's picture

Yes, I bought some and they weren't that great.

Keagan De Villiers's picture

WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOW!!! Finally found someone who agrees with me! I get a bit annoyed at YouTubers and start to lose just a little respect for them selling presets. I understand the business side of things is in I shoot good images, I have a decent following and selling these will make people believe their images will be as good as mine and I'll make passive income and then just make a video saying presets aren't intended to be a 1 click solution. I get that. BUT personally I don't agree with presets other than those you've made yourself because I feel like:

1. Using someone else's preset will never make an image look like how you envisioned it out in the field
2. I think it takes away from the learning of how to process images and how to achieve a certain look in post (especially for new photographers) and also you dont get to learn lightroom very well
3. Everyone's images will eventually look similar because they'll use the most popular YouTubers presets

But again I say, I understand the business side behind it. I have a lot of respect for Jared Polin though as he is one of only a few who hasn't done this

Mark Holtze's picture

I’ll preface what I’m about to say as I understand this is a way for these youtube photographers to earn revenue (support them). I won’t tell people how to spend their money either but will speak to experience.

A) I try to capture what I can in camera, slight enhancing in LR is an option but I find a lot of the presets take it far too off in one sort of homogenized direction.

B) learning the program and the art of photo editing is done through trial and error. Doing it, failing and learning is the best way to learn

C) every photo I edit is unique in how I want to edit it. If there are a few in a sample and I like it, apply settings to the photo series.

Just a few I don’t need to justify all the reasons why I don’t, but like I said, it’s a personal choice.

Aaron B.'s picture

Presets aren't worth the money in my opinion. However I do think it is important to point out that looking at how someone may apply or build a preset can help someone challenge themselves creatively by either trying to replicate it, or just use it as a starting point.

michaeljin's picture

I don't know about the presets put out there by "celebrity" photographers, but I've found Mastin Labs presets to be absolutely awesome... Then again, this is an instance where I'm purchasing presets for a very specific purpose (to emulate certain film stocks) so I guess I'm looking at it from a different perspective.

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