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October 26, 2023

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You’ve probably seen ads for “one-click editing” and making your editing “fast and easy with one tap.” They show you beautiful photos, screenshots of expertly curated Instagram feeds, and plenty of before and after examples.  You may have discovered that when you buy these, it’s not always that simple. Often, your photo won’t look anything like the “after” you’re looking for. Such a bummer! But it’s not the preset’s fault; presets are not magic. Let’s demystify presets so you can use them in a way that makes your photos look just the way you want. 

What is a preset?

If not magic, then what is this one-click sorcery? A preset is a set of adjustments that you can save to apply repeatedly without making the individual adjustments on every photo. A preset could be a simple set of contrast adjustments or a larger group of adjustments made to stylize an image’s colors and mood. 

Presets are specific to Lightroom. You could do something similar in Photoshop, where these adjustment sets are called actions. For our purpose here, we’re talking about Lightroom presets. Lightroom is the best app for batch editing. Photoshop is another favorite program, but it’s generally for more image-specific work and creative edits like composites or retouching.

Presets are also a fantastic way to experiment with finding your own style. There are endless ways to edit photos creatively, and it can be tricky to find your visual voice, especially when you’re getting started with photography. With presets, you can try on many styles and see what adjustments were made to get there.

What is a preset not?

The most crucial points you need to know are that presets are not a fix for sub-par images and will not make all photos look like they’re the same style. Presets don’t remove the need to capture a great exposure; they won’t fix a bad picture. Don’t rely on presets instead of learning how to shoot and edit, or you’ll always get frustrated when your photos don’t look how you want. Learn about light and composition and editing will be icing on the cake.

I once had a client who hired me to do a brand photoshoot who came to me after and ask me to create a preset to make his previous photos match the new images I had created. *Facepalm* 

The misconception was that a preset would produce the same result regardless of the starting image. Everyone talks about having a consistent Instagram feed and brand look, and while presets can absolutely help with this, it begins before you get to the editing process. Let’s take a look at how this works.

Why presets are great.

Presets are a fantastic way to save time and help you make consistent edits, and hone your personal style. But the truth is (here it is!) that you may be better off creating your own. 

You might be thinking, “But, Raquel, I thought the whole point of presets was to make editing fast and easy. Now you’re saying I have to make my own?” 

Here’s the thing––where presets are really awesome is in your photo editing workflow when it saves you time tinkering on individual images. So they really have to work well for your shooting style. You either need to choose someone else’s editing style that matches yours or make your own.

It’s easier than you think! Here’s how it works: Think about the adjustments that you make all the time. For example, maybe you shoot in a particular spot in your house, say, at a specific window to achieve consistency in your lighting. (If you’re not doing this, you should.) 

Now when you shoot by your favorite window on an overcast day, the result is always a little blue and flat. When you edit, you’re likely making the same 5-10 edits on every image. You always go into the exposure panel to pull the highlights down, bring the shadows and whites up, bring the blacks down, and bump the clarity. 

Then you go to the HSL panel (Hue, Saturation, and Luminance) to pull some blue out and bump up the luminance. Those first 5-10 edits are a great starting point to create a preset. (I happen to have one like this called Blue Window.)

Now when you’re editing a shoot from that spot, you can start your batch edit by applying the Blue Window preset and save yourself metric tons of time! The remaining adjustments will vary depending on the intensity of the light that day, the subject’s colors, etc.  

What’s really going on with a preset when it doesn’t seem so great.

Remember my client who wanted to run one preset over all of his images and have them pop out the other side looking like they came out of a Rube Goldberg branding machine? He’s not alone with this idea; he didn’t have the photo knowledge about how it works, and that’s what I want to help you understand.

Let’s go back to the idea of consistency in your brand photos and your Instagram feed. As soon as I describe this, it’ll seem obvious, but it gets overlooked all the timeYou have to start with your look or style in-camera.

If you want bright and airy photos, you need lots of light and light-colored backgrounds and props. If you’re aiming for dark and moody images, you’ll want to practice shaping your light for that moody effect. You won’t achieve a rich, dark photo or a crisp, bright one from a preset alone.

Like I said, it’s not the presets fault if you don’t get the result you want–– they’re not that kind of magic. Thanks a lot, right? Don’t be discouraged! This is to say that if you’re going to go with a preset, there are some things to look out for and a few tips for choosing presets that work for you.

Tips for choosing a preset that works for you.

Choose the wrong preset, and you can end up with some pretty garish-looking photos. You might love, love, love the way someone’s photos look and get excited about buying their presets only to find that your images look, well, crappy when you use them. Choose the right preset, and you can be a content-batching pro.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: when shopping for presets, pay as much attention to before images as after images. This means a couple of things. First, stick to presets in your genre. If you shoot portraits, look for presets intended to work on skin. Often, a lot of contrast and clarity are added for food or travel photos, which look absolutely ghoulish on the skin. 

Consider the description of the preset. A good seller will describe what the adjustments are created for and even tell you when you want to use them. You’ll start to notice how specifically they’re designed. Here’s an example of how I’d describe one of my own presets:

This preset is for luxurious, moody food photos. It creates a clean separation between highlights and shadows with matte, soft blacks. Whites are bright and neutral, with desaturated greens. Works best with dark, warm food shots.

See what I mean? If you have a bright, cool-toned photo, this wouldn’t be the best choice. If you’re not fluent in the language of photography yet, compare your pictures to the before photos. Ask yourself, do they have similar colors and exposure? If yes, give it a go! If not, keep looking.

More truth about presets

As impressive as it sounds, one-click editing is misleading. No matter how well made the preset, chances are you’ll want to make your own adjustments no matter what. Often, it’s as simple as sliding the exposure a touch one way. And if you have a preset that only needs some fine-tuning, you’re on the right track! 

If it’s much more than that, you’ll be glad to have some know-how in identifying what exactly needs to be adjusted. Editing should be fun and creative, not frustrating! 

Like anything in photography, once you understand how it works, you can easily explore your own techniques. Once you find your own style, I’ll bet you’ll want to make your presets to show off your vision and style.

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