Presets have been a topic of enduring controversy in the photography community since the earliest days of Lightroom.
I believe presets are controversial because — over the years — I have heard a number of photographers make negative, sometimes even condescending comments about the use of presets when processing images.
Well, to be perfectly blunt, I think that’s b.s. And I’m going to explain why.
What are Presets?
A preset is simply a static file containing preset values for Lightroom’s Develop panel. There’s no intelligence or AI happening, they’re just text files with a bunch of settings.
Back in the early days of Lightroom, presets were originally created so photographers could save develop settings to expedite their workflow. But pretty soon thereafter, you saw lots of people giving away their presets for free or selling them commercially.
In the commercial world of presets, I believe there are two main types: Emulation and Creative.
Emulation presets emulate the look of film. You’ll find a number of people selling these, from VSCO to Totally Rad to Really Nice Images to Mastin Labs. These presets modify a digital RAW image to look like classic film stocks including Portra 400, Fuji 400, Ektar, Ilford Black and White, and others.
None of these emulations are the same by the way. Portra 400 from one provider will look different from Portra 400 from another. It’s highly technical and yet also subjective how the film is emulated.
Creative presets, on the other hand, don’t emulate film. They’re modern, original, and have a unique look and style of their own. These presets often originate from a photographer’s own photos.
It’s creative presets which I believe stir up the most controversy.
Why the controversy?
I believe some photographers see creative presets as a shortcut. A cheat. They make it possible for photographers to not process their own photos. They can just pay for some other photographer’s style and pass that style off as their own.
I also think some of the criticism stems from the fact that presets can keep users from learning the art and the craft of processing RAW images. Which I understand, because a digital camera captures RAW data, and then it’s up to the photographer to take that data and use software to create a photograph. It’s a time when a photographer looks inward and considers what story they want to tell. What emotion they want the viewer to feel. That work happens when processing a photo, and if you just use someone else’s preset off the shelf, you’re not connecting with your photography in a way that’s authentic and true to you and to your vision.
Well, as nice as that may sound, for many it’s idealistic. What if you’re not sure what your vision is yet? What if you don’t have a style or look? What if you’re new to photo processing?
I believe it doesn’t matter who you are, or what creative field you work in, everyone is influenced by their peers and the work of others. Oftentimes, it’s through the work of others that artists find themselves. Few if any creative works are ever created in isolation.
For photography, there’s no better way to unpack, deconstruct, and see how looks are achieved than with presets. Presets are an incredibly powerful learning tool and opportunity that otherwise would be impossible to experience otherwise.
The dark side of presets
There is a limit, however, to the usefulness of presets. Use them too often, and you may develop a dependency. This happened to me years ago when I would always start processing a RAW image by walking down the Preset column, clicking on preset after preset, trying to find one that looked right.
It was a terrible habit, and I became disillusioned and frustrated with photo processing. The only way to break that habit was to stop using presets altogether. And that’s exactly what I did.
Sometimes I’ll use a film emulation preset for something special. But in general? I don’t use presets anymore. I feel I learned enough from studying and experimenting with presets to be doing my own thing, which hopefully will give me more consistent and original results. Plus, I have learned to enjoy the process of pulling a photo out of flat, gray RAW files by hand. Processing from scratch without presets can be frustrating, challenging, but yet so rewarding and satisfying.
I have tried and used a number of presets over the years, there are two providers I would recommend.
Really Nice Images — They sell a large pack of film emulation presets which deliver great results. If you’re looking for classic looks like Portra 400, Kodak Ektar, Fuji and others, their presets are definitely worth buying.
Rebecca Lily — I own a few of Rebecca’s preset packs, and every time she comes out with one, it’s guaranteed to be good. She specializes in soft, pastel looks, which depending on your subject matter, can look fantastic. Again though, consider presets like these for their utility and as a learning tool.