VSCO, Mastin Lab Presets, Florabella, and Pretty Presets. If you've looked for advice on retouching in the last few years, you've probably been recommended one of these preset and action systems at least once. They're designed to give you beautiful film simulation and color tones to make your images look great using a single click of the mouse - and I hate them all.
Before I get too far into this rant, I do want to admit my own guilt. I've certainly used VSCO and similar preset systems in the past. Culling through 3000 wedding photos in Lightroom and editing 600 of them is no easy task, and anything that can help simplify the process is a huge asset. Using VSCO and other systems is a great way to speed up your process, and your time is valuable, so by all means, speed it up when you can. That said, our addiction to these systems needs to be tamed.
Secondly, VSCO is singled out on the title solely because it is easily the most popular preset system available for photographers. Between mobile apps, Lightroom presets and 6 different packs of filters, VSCO has turned the film emulation presets game into a science. This article isn't designed to address VSCO solely, but using them as a face for all filter systems available for photographers.
Cookie Cutter Photography
Perhaps my biggest issue with all of these presets is that it makes you into a cookie cutter photographer. We all have access to these same algorithms, and as a result, it's easy to make your images look exactly like everyone else. Consistency is good when you're presenting your work, and preset systems will provide you with a very consistent style and look, at a huge sacrifice - uniqueness.
And I hate the "We'll fix it in post" mentality. I like to think that my skills as a photographer come from my skills with a camera, not with my skills with a Wacom pen. However, a lot of my personal style of work comes from retouching. It's a process that takes a lot of time (sometimes more than shooting does), and allows me to tweak and colors or contrast that is identified with my work.
To me, using one click presets is a lot like shooting in Auto, or Av mode. Sure, you'll get a lot of great photos out of it, but it's not usually the best solution.
The Easy Button
Perhaps my distaste for preset systems comes from my own stubbornness more than anything. One thing I learned a long time ago is that there is no such thing a shortcuts. If you want to be successful - in anything you do - you're going to have to work for it. And you're going to have to work at it more than the next guy. All of my retouching techniques were learned because I wanted to become better. I wanted to be successful, and show off photographs that others weren't able to create. I wanted to be the best in the business.
And as a result, I know Photoshop. Nine times out of ten, I can look at a photo with a specific toning to it, and with enough time, can emulate that style with accuracy. This skill wasn't learned through clicking a series of actions or presets until I found one that looked right. This was done by adding gradient maps, selective coloring layers, dodging and burning, and then trashing it all to approach it with something new.
The easiest solution to separating yourself from these preset systems is to learn the functions within Lightroom and Photoshop. One hell of a homework assignment, eh? Certainly the tools within Lightroom and Photoshop are expansive, and you could spend a lifetime learning all the hidden tools within the system. But through that education, you'll have a better understanding on how to approach your images, and grow considerably with your own photography.
And growth is good. Acclaimed author Malcolm Gladwell once said that it takes 10,000 hours to master anything. This statement has been largely regarded as a wise way of looking at things, so why not burn through a few of those hours in Photoshop? Solely using presets within your workflow is not going to make you better at retouching, and while you're pressing that easy button, others are getting a head start on their 10,000 hours. The only way to really grow in your skills is to challenge yourself.
The greatest downfall with Photoshop comes in how completely immense and overwhelming it is. With the tools provided, the possibilities within Photoshop are endless, so finding your footing sometimes feels impossible. Here are a few tutorials that can get your started on finding the incredible power of Photoshop.
- The biggest asset within Photoshop comes from Layer Masks. Layer Masks, in short, allows you to selectively adjust parts of the image. Using these along side other adjustment layers, allows you to adjust brightness, hue, saturation and anything else selectively, giving your images those unique principles, but only where needed.
- Blend Modes within Photoshop allows your stacked layers to interact drastically different from one and another. Using these Blend Modes taught photographers how to Dodge and Burn better, the power of Frequency Separation, and get exceptional results through pure experimentation. For learning everything about Blending Modes, there is no better book than The Hidden Power of Blending Modes by Scott Valentine.
- Using Selective Color adjustments, you're able to adjust individual tones within Photoshop. While the technique takes time, it's all done in real time, allowing you to see the changes you're making to the image. Mastering this tool will allow you to mimic the color tones within popular preset systems, and give you full control of the changes made.
All this said, I own many of the VSCO packs and other preset systems. More often than not, I will have photos to retouch and I am still without a clear concept or color palette to use for retouching. Presets are a great way to quickly click through to find color grading that works well on the image, and some that do not. However, I'm never using them as a starting point, but rather, inspiration for my work that's being done in Photoshop.