A lot of photographers look down on presets in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and actions in Adobe Photoshop. This isn’t without reason. When people first start learning to post-process images, they often get too heavy-handed and overindulge in bad presets they found online. I cringe when I look back at some of my earliest images.
Once people move on from slapping a heavy vignette on every image, they normally stop using presets or actions and start from scratch with every photo. This is far from a bad thing—every picture needs to be assessed individually—but there is an element of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Presets and actions can, and should, still have a place in your workflow. Let’s look at how and where they should fit in.
For this tutorial I’m going to be addressing both Lightroom’s presets and Photoshop’s actions. However, to keep things simpler I’m going to refer to both as presets unless there’s a reason to draw a distinction.
The Good and the Bad of Presets
Not all presets are created equal. Although it’s easy to find countless terrible, image (and soul) destroying “Vintage” presets that add contrast, heavy toning and an excessive vignette online, you can also find well-designed presets that accurately recreate the look of a specific film.
If you want to emulate the look of a classic film like Kodak Portra 400 or Fuji Superia 100, VSCO offers Lightroom Presets that do a lot of the heavy lifting. Similarly, if you do a lot of heavy retouching work in Photoshop, Retouching Academy provides actions that speed everything up.
Finally, you could make your own presets and actions—something I’m a big fan of. While you may not have the deep understanding of Photoshop or Lightroom necessary to recreate the work of VSCO or Retouching Academy, there are plenty of other steps that can be turned into presets.
Whether you’re using high-quality presets from professionals, presets from your favourite photographers or ones you build on your own, they all have a place in a digital photographer’s workflow.
Presets in Your Post-Production Workflow
Presets and actions fit into a workflow but, in and of themselves, they aren’t the workflow. The mistake that most newbie photographers make is to assume that adding a preset is all that is required, rather than one step in the process. Even if you add a preset that makes a huge amount of changes to an image—such as a VSCO film preset—you should be prepared to tweak and change things to make it work well.
You should view presets and actions as building blocks to use in the creation of the final image. Film photographers often had “recipes”—favourite combinations of films, developers and settings. They would never apply the same recipe to all their images, but if they were trying to achieve a specific thing, they would often have an idea of which of their favourite techniques they would use to get there. Think of presets in the same way.
There are a few places that this approach to presets fits into a digital photographer’s workflow.
1. Correction: Use Presets to Bring Your Images to a Neutral State in a Consistent Way
The first step of post-processing digital images is importing them to your computer. The second is to evaluate them.
When you’re evaluating images, you want to do it from a neutral state. You don’t want the photographs to have too much of anything, whether it be exposure, colour, contrast or anything else. You want to be able to objectively look at what you have on your hands before deciding which direction you want to go in.
For example, a RAW image that looks quite cool and contrasty may lack a lot of shadow details. Unless you minimise the contrast, you won’t see that, and the final image will suffer.
With Lightroom, you can automatically apply a preset to every image on import. This is a great opportunity to apply a neutral preset that will bring every image to the same place so you can evaluate it. In creating your own neutral preset, there are three things I’d recommend you consider including:
- pulling the Shadows slider up and the Highlights down
- applying automated lens corrections
- applying the Camera Neutral setting in Camera Calibration
You should tweak these as needed.
I have different import presets for my most used lenses and their most used purposes. For example, the import preset for portraits shot with my 85mm f/1.8 pulls Shadows up by +100, Highlights down by –10, and applies the Camera Neutral setting. It does nothing to lens correction as the minor distortion that occurs at 85mm is more flattering in portraits than Lightroom’s correction.
For my 17–40 f/4, I use different settings. Again, the preset applies the Camera Neutral calibration, but this time it also makes automated lens corrections, and pulls Shadows up by +50 and Highlights down by –50.
I’d recommend that you create similar import presets yourself. They make it significantly easier to evaluate your images.
2. Adjustment: Use Presets to Create a Consistent and Identifiable Look
One of the things that differentiates great photographers from merely good photographers is the consistency across their body of work. An Ansel Adams image looks like an Ansel Adams image. A portrait by Peter Hurley is easy to spot. This consistency has to come through at every stage of the process—including in the edit.
This consistency can be subtle. You don't need to edit all your images in exactly the same way, but you should approach them from the same place. Presets are one of the easiest ways to add this consistency.
If you like a particular contrast curve, duo-tone combination or black and white conversion, save it as a preset. This way, it’s always available for you to use.
This is particularly important if you’re deliberately working on a series of images that are meant to be related. If you’re creating a series, you should take the time to identify some areas where the images need to be consistent. For example, if you are converting them all to black and white, you probably don’t want some to be high-contrast and low-contrast. They will seem out of place in the same series.
Saving a default black and white conversion as a preset will give you a base from which to work. You should tweak this base. It’s unlikely that all your images will have exactly the same conversion, but they will still be coming from the same place and so will be more consistent than if you’d approached each individually.
3. Control: Presets for a Specific Look
Sometimes you don’t just want a consistent look—you want a specific look. This is where presets like VSCO’s film presets come in handy.
If you’re a film photographer who’s moved to digital, it can be hard to recreate your favourite films in Lightroom or Photoshop. Each individual film has such unique characteristics that they require a huge amount of work in Lightroom to recreate. VSCO’s film presets do all the hard work. If you want to create a series of images that look as if they were shot on Tri-X, it's simplest to use presets.
The important thing to remember is that presets are just a base. Even if you’re applying a VSCO film preset, you still need to tweak everything to get it right. You’ll also need to perform local adjustments.
If you’re going for a specific look for your images, presets come into their own.
4. Efficiency: Use Presets to Speed Up Multiple Steps
While this point can apply to Lightroom, it’s a little more relevant to some of the more involved Photoshop techniques.
As you dive down the rabbit hole of things like compositing and retouching, you’ll find you’re using techniques that involve multiple steps. The pick of the moment is frequency separation, which requires messing around in three or four dialogue boxes to get it right. With a frequency separation action, you can bring that down to a single click that takes a fraction of the time.
There are countless other areas like this where simple, single-purpose actions become a useful tool. Want to apply a high-pass layer for sharpening? Create an action that goes through the four or five steps all at once. Need to add multiple layers for dodging and burning? An action can do it in an instant.
These presets are one-click solutions, but only to a single, super specific problem. Applying the layers necessary for frequency separation won’t get you anywhere if you don’t do the actual frequency separation by hand!
5. Workflow: Presets Help You Build Your Own Post-Production Style
Presets get a bad rap because people assume too much of them. They aren’t a full solution; they’re part of a workflow.
This aspect, however, is actually one of the most compelling reasons to use presets. You need to adjust and tweak every preset you apply, but the tweaks and changes that you'll find yourself making will also form a pattern. Presets are a useful base to build on to develop your own consistent, creative post-production workflow. As you gain experience with a particular set of presets, you'll begin to see how the workflow itself can be refined and improved. This is very hard to do if you approach every image in an ad-hoc way.
Unfortunately, there are countless terrible presets and actions available for free online. Finding and identifying good presets requires a bit more effort but is worth it. There are plenty of places presets can fit into your workflow. You should have at least a few import presets that neutralise your images so that you can evaluate them from the same place. Similarly, to add consistency to your work, you should save your favourite recipes as presets. You can also use them as building blocks to speed up more involved techniques.
If you use presets, I’d love to know where they fit in your workflow. Please let me know in the comments.