For a long time, I have dismissed the concept of using other people’s presets in any image editing software. Originally, presets where intended to allow you to keep track of your own edits, and not as one-click shortcuts to copy someone else’s style.
That’s simply not how image editing works. Finding the best adjustments for any given image is a complex task, and it heavily depends on the nature of the image. Applying a tailor-made set of adjustments to another image – maybe even an image by another photographer – is essentially a random process: Maybe you’re lucky enough to find one that looks nice on your images. But more often than not, it’s not a fit!
That’s why I think the ‘industry’ revolving around selling preset packages that seemingly allow you to edit a photo with a single click, is deeply flawed. But having said that, there are a number of ways in which presets can be very useful beyond merely keeping track of your edits. This is especially true for Lightroom, which has a very sophisticated ecosystem of presets. If you use those features in a clever way, they can really super-charge your post-processing work. In this post, I will give you 6 tips on how to achieve this.
The tips in this post are small snippets taken from my new book Unleash the Power of Lightroom Presets. Check out this video to learn how this book can help you improve your post-processing in Lightroom through the use of presets.
For a free download of the 72-page Light Version of Unleash the Power of Lightroom Presets, please scroll to the end of this post.
About presets in Lightroom
In most image editing applications, presets are implemented as an add on that simply lets you store and apply a given set of adjustments. Lightroom, however, is deeply routed in the concept of presets. There is a preset type for just about anything you can do in the software. The most prominent type of presets are Develop presets that let you store Develop settings. But there are also local adjustment presets, import presets, export presets, watermarking presets, metadata presets and some other preset types that you can use the streamline different processes in Lightroom.
Develop presets are the preset type that you use to store image adjustments. This is what most people think of when they hear the term Lightroom preset. While most other image editing applications only allow you to store a snapshot containing all settings, Lightroom lets you choose which subset of adjustments you want to store as a preset. This is actually a very simple extension of the basic principle of a preset, but the implications are tremendous. This idea of partial presets lets you build preset systems that allow you to use presets as building blocks in a very intuitive, straightforward, and visual way.
Tip 1: Use other people’s presets to learn
In a recent post about How to Reverse-Engineer Lightroom Develop Presets, I have shown you a technique for analyzing all those presets that you already have acquired from external sources. By using the panels in the Develop module, you can dissect any preset to see how exactly it achieves a certain look. You can go down to the individual sliders to find out what the original creator of the preset did and how it affects your image. This is a great way to learn about Lightroom, Lightroom adjustments, and the post-processing style of your favorite photographers.
So, next time you use those pre-fabricated presets you have, don’t just use them – pick them apart to learn something.
Tip 2: Use those other preset types too
Many of the preset types in Lightroom can work together and integrate with each other. If you you use all those presets in a clever way, they can help you automate many of the routine tasks like importing or exporting photos.
OK, I know that import presets (for example) may not be as sexy as Develop presets. They do not have much to do with creating stunning images – or do they???
Not so fast! Firstly, you can actually embed an Develop preset in an import preset to have it applied automatically. Secondly, if you get your act together and exploit the full potential of those lesser-known preset types (like import presets) you can free up a lot of your time by automating routine tasks. Just think about all the creative work you can get done by using that time.
Tip 3: Use presets as a starting point – not as the end point
The mistake that most people make is to think that you can just apply some preset and you’re done. Nothing could be further from the truth. You may be lucky and find a preset that perfectly fits your image and your creative vision for that image. But that’s rather unlikely. Instead, you will probably introduce all kinds of problems by using someone else’s preset – problems that you will need to fix.
So, you should rather see a preset as the first step in adjusting your image. Try to find one with features that you generally like, and then start adjusting those setting to get the rest of the image right.
And don’t forget Tip 1: Try to figure out how that effect you liked was actually created to spice up your own Lightroom skills.
Tip 4: Be systematic about choosing a preset
If you are avid collector of presets from other people, chances are that your presets panel is a big mess, cluttered with hundreds of entries with names like “Crazy turtle 17” or “Mystery tunnel”. You may not see the forest for the trees anymore.
So, how to you find the gems among those presets? How to you discover the handful of presets that really fit your image and your taste? Certainly not by clicking trough them randomly, right?
Instead, you can create a bunch of virtual copies of your image, go though your presets, and whenever you find a good one, apply it to one of your copies. Then, when you’re through your preset list, use the Survey mode (View > Survey) to inspect all those copies and select the one you like most to refine its adjustments.
Tip 5: Use preset systems
The common way of using Develop presets is to acquire or create a preset collection. Such a collection is simply a bunch of unrelated presets, and you can apply only one of them at a time since each will overwrite the adjustments applied by the previous one you applied.
But there is a much smarter way of using the concept of Develop presets – a method that actually presents an full-fledged alternative way of editing your images. I am talking about Preset Systems. In a nutshell, a preset system exploits the fact that a Develop presets can be partial. That is, only a selected subset of settings take affect when you apply such a partial preset.
By setting up a clever set of partial presets (or preset components), you can use them like building blocks that you can freely combine to adjust your images. It’s like a set of Lego blocks. So, instead of moving around the many sliders of Lightroom’s Develop module, you compose a set of component presets while you can preview the combined effect in the Navigator panel even before you apply them. It’s fast, intuitive and fully visual. But many people don’t even know that preset systems exist. Go figure!
To see live how a preset system works, check out the information accompanying my own Easy Preset System. There is one hour of video tutorials and lots of sample images there to explain the concept.
Tip 6: Use local adjustment presets to edit selectively
If you’re not using local adjustments in Lightroom, you are loosing out. The Graduated Filter, Radial Filter and Adjustment Brush tools add a whole new dimension to Lightroom and allow you to edit specific areas of your images selective (not affecting other areas). For example, you can darken down the sky with a Graduated Filter without affecting the foreground.
These tools become even more powerful through the use of local adjustment presets. You can use them to create specific adjustments (e.g. for the treatment of the sky in your landscape photos) and reuse them over and over again. The special properties of local adjustments also allow you to stack several adjustments (and therefore presets) on top of each other to strengthen an effect or to compose different effects. This can make your image editing work highly targeted, quick and effective.
If you have been using Lightroom presets the old-fashioned way (buy-and-apply), you are loosing out. There are very sophisticated and powerful features waiting for you to explore them. In combination with features like Virtual Copies and Snapshots, these preset features enable some advanced techniques that can make your Lightroom workflow creative, fast, and simple.
With the tips in this post I was only able to scratch the surface. If you want to learn everything about Lightroom presets and how to take your post-processing to the next level, check out my new book ‘Unleash the Power of Lightroom Presets‘. It has 210 pages, 11 chapters, and 140 figures to help you unleash this power.
Download the Light Version for free
The 72-page Light Version of Unleash the Power of Lightroom Presets, contains the first two chapters of the book. You will find some of the tips from this post fully covered in this Light Version. Have fun with the book!
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