To Preset or not to Preset


05 Jan
05Jan

Shakespeare famously wrote in Hamlet “to be or not to be” that is the question. The soliloquy is essentially all about life and death: "To be or not to be" means "To live or not to live" (or "To live or to die"). Hamlet discusses how painful and miserable human life is, and how death (specifically suicide) would be preferable, would it not be for the fearful uncertainty of what comes after death. Perhaps this title sort of gets the drama of the situation we face (too much so?) and perhaps many of you have asked yourself “To preset or not to preset” as a question. If you are anything like us, you get so many ads for presets that your mind cannot take it all in. They all basically take a common line of advertising.

  • The person who developed the preset is a long time photographer, highly skilled, probably award winning/published/exhibited.
  • The presets s/he sells are sure to add to your images and make them amazing
  • Those presets will, while making you have Ansel Adams Annie Liebovitz and other famed photographers quality images,  save you tons of editing time.
  • They are all sold at massive discounts.

How can you refuse such an offer? Think about it, great, off the charts results, less editing effort, all at a crazily low cost.  

It is good to understand, as we are sure you all do, what presets are and how they work.  A Lightroom preset is a configuration of settings, designed to achieve a certain look or style to your photo. You install the presets into your Lightroom and then when you click on a particular preset while in the develop module, the pre-determined (pre-set) settings will apply to that photo. Have you ever looked at a picture and immediately knew who the photographer was? Do you recognize the images of Ansel Adams and other famous photographers? All great photographers have their own specific style or creative  signature, which makes their images immediately recognizable. This style is influenced by and achieved through several components, the artist’s vision, choice of subject matter, camera (and when analog, film) used, composition, the use of shutter speed and aperture, and the way the images are being developed and printed. Today most photographers, even when using film to capture their images, do their final edits in programs like Lightroom. To make this process easier, quicker and more consistent, development presets can be very convenient to use. They also can be shared. There are many Lightroom presets available on the market. In all honesty, some of those are great. They enable you to turn your images into stunning pieces of artwork with just one click. Below are three good reasons why you should not use presets when enhancing your images. 

1. Aim at getting the effect you want in-camera 

Presets will not fix bad images. Yes, presets will not fix bad images. If you have an image that is out of focus, blurred, or extremely over or under exposed, presets will not help you to fix any of these and make it a ‘good’ image (unless of course it actually is a ‘good’ image because you did one or all of these things quite on purpose as it is part of what you wanted). Whatever style you are shooting and whatever you want to accomplish with your final image, make sure you start off with creating a proper base to work from. Choose the right white balance, shutter speed, aperture, and focus that match your vision (envisioning the outcome). Having a good base to work from will save you more time in processing than any preset can ever do. Rule of thumb I use: If it needs more than 10 minutes of edit time at my editing speed, it does not deserve editing and should be deleted. 

Learn what your camera can do 

Creating a proper base image in-camera has an additional benefit: it will help you to learn what your camera can do. This not only will provide you with the knowledge and experience needed for properly working with your camera. It also will help you to gain confidence: the camera in time will become an extension of you, and you will always be prepared to take “the shot” when the opportunity presents itself to you. Presets are based on the developers’ style and equipment. Something else to take into consideration, is that presets are not only are based on the developers style, but also on their equipment. Different brands of cameras and lenses render images differently. Your image source (camera, lens, film etc.) might be completely different from the developer’s, which will impact the way the preset will affect your image. Real filters are better than Lightroom effects. A final reason to create the effect you want in-camera is that in my experience, real proper filters are better than Lightroom effects. Yes, you can balance exposure by using the graduated filter effect, and you can darken the sky by using the color sliders, but rather use a real high quality graduated neutral density filter or a polarizing filter while taking the picture and you will see the difference. And keep in mind that being able to use these effects in Lightroom is nice, but not having to save time! 

2. You are passing up an opportunity to learn Lightroom 

Just using pre-cooked settings doesn’t teach you anything. Assuming you created a good image in-camera to use as a base for further developing, there usually still are some things you want to change to accomplish images that match your own style, or creative signature, as I prefer to call it. And while presets might seem a quick and easy way to make the adjustments you are looking for, just using what someone else created doesn’t teach you anything. Each preset is a fine-tuned combination of several developing settings that accomplish a total effect. By just clicking the preset your picture will change, but will you understand why and how? Would you be able to recreate the same changes to your pictures if you had to do it yourself? Would you be able to change your camera settings to create the same effect in-camera, or to create a base image that would need less work? Learn from your mistakes. What if you had it wrong in-camera? It may never will happen to you…but, what if…? As mentioned above, presets probably are not going to save you. But using a preset is probably worse than going into the details of Lightroom and making manual adjustments. The preset might enhance your image a bit, but do you know and understand why? Making the adjustments manually does not only show you how to ‘fix’ image problems: it also will help you to understand what the problem is and how to prevent it when you are going out on your next shoot. 

Experiment and then, experiment more.

How do you know what changes you want to make to your images that reflect your vision, style and creative signature? Just applying presets will result in a cookie-cutter approach, without thinking. 

Experiment: go into the details of Lightroom and discover what works for you and what not. And keep in mind: every image you take will be a bit different, and might need some other changes to match it to your vision and style and creative signature. 

3. Whose image is it anyway? 

Will it be your image or the preset creator’s? You probably have envisioned how your images should look. So you go out there, making sure you create the best exposed image as possible in-camera, carefully taking care of composition, white balance, focus, shutter speed, and aperture. And the next thing you do is import your image into Lightroom, and with one click, adapt it to a style that has been developed by someone else. Wow! Imagine the following situation, a famous artist (think of one you know of) having some idle time creates a quick painting of a young woman sitting in a chair. He doesn’t really like how it looks, but doesn’t want to spend much time to make it better. He gives it to another equally famous artist. This artist takes it and while keeping the general outline of the first one’s creation, creates a beautiful painting from it. So what do we have here now: a great artist with some enhancements by another great? Which artist will people recognize it as? Do you get the conundrum? Create pictures in your own style and signed with your own creative signature. While looking at other photographers’ images is a great way to learn and to develop your own style, you probably do not want to become a “copy” of anyone else, and that is just what using presets will probably lead to. We encourage you to dive into the Lightroom manual, articles and learn how everything works, and use that knowledge to create pictures that show your own style and vision and so bear your own creative signature. 


Okay, so now go ahead and use presets if you would like to, but just do it right. Contradictory? Yes. We just made a case for not using presets. But let’s to be honest, using presets saves time, and it also supports consistency. Presets can help you to create a portfolio of images that display a consistent application of your creative vision. The trick however is to use presets for the right reasons and in the right way. Don’t use presets to have a quick fix for your image problems, or to copy a certain style. Do we? NO!! Not at all, but that does not mean they have no use at all. Presets can be great sources of inspiration We encourage every photographer to visit museums, exhibitions and websites, and to read photo books and biographies of other photographers. They are great sources for inspiration and will help you to define and develop your own photographic vision, style and creative signature. For the same reason we do encourage you to look at, and even purchase, if that is what you want, presets developed by other photographers. These also can provide inspiration and guide you defining and developing your vision. Presets can be great starting points Although we must keep warning about blindly using whatever presets are available, they can be great starting points to create images that align with your vision and creative goals. You however need to look into the details of the presets you use, and change them to meet what you want to accomplish, which brings us to the next benefit of using presets. Learn from it, understand what was done. When you have presets installed, prior to using them look into their details. Check what sliders have been changed. Look at other changes that have been applied; for example sharpness or vignette. Learn from what the developer has done and use what you learned, to tweak the preset to meet your requirements, or to develop your own presets. This leads to the final reason to actually use presets. Develop and use your own presets. When you know how to create great images in-camera, when you understand how Lightroom and presets work, and when you learned how presets can help you achieve your photographic vision and style, you should consider developing and using your own presets. Creating your own presets is fun and provides another great learning opportunity. You can develop your presets using someone else's presets as a base, or you can create them totally from scratch. How to do this will is a separate subject in itself.

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