Have you ever looked at a picture and immediately knew who the photographer was? Do you recognize the images of Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Sally Mann? All great photographers have their own specific style, 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 developing in programs like Lightroom. To make this process easier, quicker and more consistent, development presets are very convenient to use. They also can be shared: there are many Lightroom presets available on the market place.
And to be honest: some of those are really awesome. They enable you to turn your images in stunning pieces of artwork with just one click. In this post however, I am sharing three compelling reasons why you should not use developing presets when enhancing your images.
Let's start with getting one thing quite clear: presets will not fix bad pictures. 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 on purpose since it is part of your style).
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. Having a good base to work from will save you more time in processing than any preset will 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 operating your camera. It also will help you to gain confidence: the camera in due time will become an extension of your body, and you will always be prepared to take the shot when the opportunity presents itself to you.
Something else to take into consideration at this point, is that presets not only are based on the developers' styles, but also on their equipment. Different brands of cameras and lenses render images differently, and with scanned film we add the complexity of film and scanners used. Your image source (camera, lens, film, and scanner) might be completely different from the developer's, which will impact the way the preset will affect your image.
A final reason to create the effect you want in-camera is that in my experience real 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 try and use a real 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 saves time!
Assuming you created good images 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 specific style. 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 learn 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 do you understand why and how? Would you be able to recreate the same changes to your pictures if you would have 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 tweaking?
And what if you had it wrong in-camera? It probably never will happen...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 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 and take your next pictures.
How do you know what changes you want to make to your images that reflect your vision and style? 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.
You probably have a vision of 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 importing your image in Lightroom, and with one click adapting it to a style that has been developed by someone else.
Imagine the following: Pablo Picasso 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 Salvador Dali. Dali takes it and while keeping the general outline of Picasso's drawing creates a beautiful painting from it. So what do we have here now: a great Picasso with some Dali enhancements? Or is it actually and will people recognize it as a Dali? Get the picture? (pun intended)
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-cat. And that is just what using presets might lead to. I encourage you to dive into the Lightroom manual, learn how everything works, and use that knowledge to create pictures that show your own style and vision.
Yes. I just made a case for not using presets. But let's 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.
I 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 and style. For the same reasons I do encourage you to look at, and even purchase, presets developed by other photographers. These also can provide inspiration and guide you defining and developing your vision.
Although I keep warning for 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. And that brings me to the next benefit of using presets.
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 my final reason to actually use 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 elses presets as a base, or you can create them totally from scratch. How to do this will be something for a future post.
What do you think? Are presets a blessing or a curse? Do you use them? Have you developed your own? Share your thoughts and opinions in the Comments section below.