Lightroom presets are a great way to create quick and effective edits, but if you’re relatively new to photo editing, it might be useful to know how to make the most of them and when they should be avoided.
Whether for an individual image or a large batch of photos from an event such as a wedding, Lightroom presets can be a good way to get started with an edit. Relying on them too heavily or using one when it’s not needed can be a mistake, restricting your knowledge of Lightroom and stopping you from learning. Here are some tips for how to put them to good use and when to hold back.
Creating a Consistent Style
As you develop as a photographer, you will start to create your own style, perhaps gravitating towards certain subjects, types of lighting, locations, or people. Within this style, it can be useful to have a distinctive look and feel to your work that gives it a sense of uniformity. This allows people viewing your work to recognize it as yours and can make your portfolio come across as something that is coherent and works together with a specific aesthetic rather than something that feels varied and scattershot.
My Instagram isn't consistent very often, because I'm lazy.
You might already know that an Instagram profile that uses the same style of editing looks far more organized and professional compared to one where every image seems to sit on its own. Similarly, a client receiving a large body of photographs — whether it’s from a sporting event or a wedding — will feel that they are working together if the editing is consistent.
This is where Lightroom presets can come in handy. With presets, you can quickly give the same look and feel to a body of images without having to spend a lot of time editing each photograph individually. As photo editors go, Lightroom is both accessible and powerful, and applying presets has been made straightforward, allowing you to tap into some sophisticated elements without having full knowledge of how they work.
Presets can dramatically speed up your photo editing. If you’ve just shot 3,000 photographs at a friend’s wedding, you suddenly have a huge amount of editing to do. Once you’ve filtered the day down to, say, 300 photographs, you can apply the same Lightroom presets to all of those photographs and give them the same look and feel.
You can then go through and edit those photographs individually, tweaking aspects such as exposure and white balance. In addition, if you’re trying to figure out what edit works best for a particular client or event, having a selection of presets immediately available can be a quick way of trialing different styles of edits in order to help make a decision of how to start.
For example, once I’ve imported a batch of images and separated the wheat from the chaff, I typically click on a few presets to see how some of the photographs respond. I might choose something that gives the photographs a lot of grain and muted colors. Alternatively, I might opt for something cleaner with brighter colors and lots of contrast. By clicking between a couple of different presets, I can see dramatically different results without having to wade through endless sliders.
If you’re new to Lightroom, facing the seemingly infinite number of panels and sliders can be daunting. Exploring how Lightroom presets work can be a great way to start understanding how this software functions.
When you’ve found a preset that works for a photo or a batch of images, spend time looking at how it is creating specific effects. Start opening up some of the editing panels and figure out some of the changes that the preset has introduced.
The only pack of presets I've ever bought, Kodachrome, as created by Jamie Windsor. There's some magic happening in the HSL/Color panel.
If you’ve never checked out split tones, you might find that a preset is bringing some blue into the shadows and some orange into the highlights. You can toggle this panel on and off to see the impact that it has, and you can easily start playing with the Split Tone panel's shadow and highlight saturation to see its effects.
Why You Shouldn’t Use Lightroom Presets
Lightroom presets can be a blunt tool. Knowing how to make the most of presets can also mean knowing when to avoid them or at least understand their limitations.
One Size Definitely Does Not Fit All
Every photograph is different, so simply because a preset works well for one photo doesn’t mean it will automatically work well on another. Spending money on a preset from a famous photographer doesn’t mean that it will be a one-size-fits-all solution.
For example, if you apply a preset that has a cold, desaturated feel to it — perhaps putting a lot of cool blue into the shadows — it might undermine the gorgeous portrait that you shot during golden hour. A lot of the vibrancy produced by the low sun will be taken away, and all of that gorgeous warmth could be lost.
Other aspects such as the dynamic range within a photograph will also have a huge bearing on how a preset will respond. If you’re ready to get your head around something a little more complex, be sure to check out this in-depth video which explores the limitations of presets and offers a sophisticated solution.
Going Too Heavy
What doesn’t help is that a lot of presets available online — particularly those which are free to download — are quite heavy-handed. The stronger the edit, the less versatile a preset may be. If you’re trying to develop your Lightroom skills by using a preset as a starting point, opting for a preset that creates a more subtle effect will probably be more productive in the long run.
It’s worth also noting that heavier edits can be distracting, and editing will never make up for a weak photograph. If you’re starting out, consider that if the first thing a person sees is your editing, you’ve taken it too far.
I had my own reminder with this recently. Posting this article made me realize that I’d become blind to the heaviness of the vignettes that I was adding to my shots, prompting me to try and look at my edits with fresh eyes. Taking a break from your editing is essential, and I might spend weeks tweaking and prevaricating before I’m happy with the result when working on a specific image.
Presets Make You Lazy
Presets can be a handy shortcut, but an overreliance risks making you lazy. If there’s a very specific look that you’re after, there’s no problem, but as soon as you need to tweak an image because a preset doesn’t quite work or a client wants something that isn’t covered among your list of installed Lightroom presets, you might suddenly find yourself a bit lost.
In short, presets can give immediate results, but ideally, they should be a tool for learning, not just a means of getting a quick edit to go on your Instagram.
Becoming a Clone
While we’d all like to become the next Alex Strohl or Chris Burkhard, replicating their edits with a couple of Lightroom presets is not going to be enough.
Though it’s great to take inspiration from those we admire, there’s a lot to be said for creating your own style. Of course, with so many photographers out there producing endless amounts of work, this is no easy task, but that’s not a reason not to try.
Have a look at the Instagram @insta_repeat, which pokes fun at photographers all replicating the same shots of canoes and yellow jackets in front of waterfalls. As well as the identical setups, note how similar much of the editing is. Of course, there’s a reason why these styles are popular, but it’s worth trying to develop your own look and feel within this space, rather than replicating the orange and teal, crushed blacks, or muted greens that are in vogue right now.
Spending Too Much Money
As discussed, drawing inspiration from your favorite photographer by buying their presets is a good way to get started, but it’s not a complete solution.
Keep in mind that the presets that you have bought are not magic. That photographer is (hopefully) drawing on several years of experience in order to produce and sell that preset, but there’s no reason why you can’t do the same once you have the knowledge.
All it requires is a bit of research and experimentation. Rather than spend $100 on a huge pack of presets from which you might only use a handful, you can spend time instead of money developing your own. As a bonus, at the end of the process, you’ll know much more about Lightroom as a result, and you can put the money that you saved towards some new gear instead.
Lightroom presets are quick and easy to use, but it’s useful to understand when to use them, how to learn from them, and when they should be avoided. While they can be a blunt tool that turns you into a clone, presets can also be a useful means of creating your own style.