Should I use presets to edit photos?

Post processing, or editing, photos is as important as taking the photo. There are a number of applications that are popular for editing photos and a common feature they include is to save and use presets. Everyone getting into editing photos eventually gets curious about the presets and wonders if they should use presets to edit photos. This isn’t an easy question to answer. 

What is a preset?

When editing a photo, everything that can be changed, or rather that has been changed, can be saved into a preset to define a “look.” They are a template of a style for editing a photo. They’re useful for keeping a series of photos with the same look and feel or if you want to replicate a look at a later time. Since presets can be saved, people have begun making their own and selling them online.

Popularity

Presets are marketed in two different ways, as film emulation tools and to help beginner photographers enhance their photos. With the popularity of Instagram’s “retro” or “vintage” photo filters, people of all skill levels began to find ways to replicate the look in their regular work. This sparked a growing demand and interest in the film look of filters and presets. A resurgence of film photography has also contributed to this as some photographers are curious about the film look but might be uncomfortable shooting film. 

If you’re searched for anything photography-related and been on Facebook, you might have seen advertisements to automatically enhance your photography with Lightroom presets. The sample image doesn’t show a stylized photo, but a before and after image of a poorly exposed photo and one that has been properly corrected. These are targeted towards photographers that aren’t very experienced in photo editing. There are a variety of presets that range from promises to magically fix any problem to stylizing your photos like Instagram and most are meant for either the lazy or inexperienced. There’s nothing wrong with that, but be sure to know why you’re using a preset. 

Why use them?

I am mixed on using presets and you should form your own opinion. Don’t worry, I won’t judge. I believe using the beginner presets is a great way to learn post processing, if you don’t rely on them. Some people learn better by seeing how things work rather than trial and error or just diving in. A preset can show how a photo can look and the settings applied from the preset are reflected in the sliders and other tools of Lightroom, Capture One, or other photo editor you use. This means you can apply a preset and see what the author did to create that look. Best practice is to adjust those settings to ensure a correct exposure and contrast , plus it aids in teaching you how the various settings affect the image. 

The film presets are OK too in that they offer you to replicate an image style that hasn’t been seen much for quite some time. They’re also trendy right now and grant you access to act on the trend. However, trends are never permanent. They come and go over time and change in popularity. Trends can also leave you looking dated after they pass. To avoid this, try to be tasteful in the presets you use. 

Another reason presets are helpful is to save time. When you have dozens or hundreds of photos to edit, applying a preset to them can minimize the work needed while keeping them all looking consistent. Exposure and perhaps white balance on a few photos might be needed rather than editing each photo. Ideally, you’d create your look and feel yourself on the first image or maybe over the first couple in different scenes, then save it and apply it to the rest of the images. This process could start with applying a preset and modifying it, then copying it to other images. 

Why not to use them?

I already brought up the idea that presets can be trendy and leave your work looking dated. That’s not the only reason not to use presets to edit photos. They can become a cop-out for learning how to use the photo editing software. If the presets do a good enough job that further adjustments aren’t made and you’re too afraid to make adjustments, you’ll never learn how to post-process photos. 

Additionally, if one set of presets becomes overwhelmingly popular and, hypothetically, a large number of photographers are using it, there’s little differentiation in look and feel of your work. You could blend in with the already saturated photography industry rather than stand out. This goes along with trends. By sticking to what’s trendy, you conform to everyone else and don’t stand out. Standing out and showing talent can lead to more work, sales, fame, etc. 

Finally, presets take away from you developing your own style. What often defines an artist is how his work is presented. When someone else defines a cookie-cutter style for your art, you lose a part of your identity. Your work is being presented in the eye of another artist — the one that created the preset. Sure, you can modify it or you can argue that you chose it as your style, but someone else created the style. It becomes a mixture of your composition and someone else’s style. By editing your own photos completely on your own, you’re more likely to develop a look and style that defines you as an artist. 

Let me know what you think. If you use presets, how do you use them?

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