How to Reverse-Engineer Lightroom Develop Presets


Lightroom Develop presets can be a rich source of information about other photographers’ processing style, and you can learn a lot about editing your images from analyzing someone else’s presets. To do so, you need a technique for reverse-engineering a preset. That is, you need a way of looking at the different components of a given preset individually to understand which settings actually make them work the way they do.

In this article, you will learn a simple but effective technique for doing this. Lightroom’s ability to turn on and off each section in the Develop settings will help you dissect a preset and possibly use only certain parts of it in your work.

If you are an experienced Lightroom user, you can already guess which settings the creator of a preset was using, just by looking at the resulting image. But the same effect can often be achieved in different ways, and you may still learn new things from reverse engineering. If you are a new user, this method can be extremely valuable because it can teach you a whole set of different techniques hidden within a set of presets. Of course, we assume that the creator of the presets knew what she was doing.

Overview of the Technique

The technique I will show you is based on selectively turning on and off the different sections (groups of sliders) in the Develop settings to isolate which elements of the overall look come from which settings. This is a very simple technique that can be used to analyze any Develop settings. It is not limited to presets.

Here is an overview, before I give you all the details: You start by applying the given preset to one of your unedited images. Then you turn off the different sections of the Develop settings one after the other. Subsequently, you can turn them back on by using the Undo keyboard shortcut, and you can turn them off again with the Redo shortcut. Using these shortcut keys lets you concentrate on the image itself. You can observe the image and learn how each of the sections contributes to its overall look as you successively turn them back on.

If you want to apply any specific property of that look in your own work, this will let you identify the controls used to create it. In a second pass, you can go even deeper into the settings by applying a similar technique within a specific subsection of a Develop panel.

The Reverse Engineering Technique

Let us assume you have applied a preset to one of your own images and you like the effect, or at least a certain aspect of it. So you have a preset and an image to start with. To understand how the overall effect is created, do the following:

Step 1: Reset the image

To keep any prior editing from interfering with your analysis, reset your image (see Figure 1).

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Figure 1: The Reset button lets you reset all the Develop settings to their default values.

If you want to keep the current settings for the image, you can create and reset a virtual copy (see Figure 2) to leave the original edits untouched.

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Figure 2: Create a virtual copy of the image (optional).

Step 2: Apply the preset and prepare the Develop module

Next, switch to the Develop module and apply the preset in question to your image. To make sure you are not skipping any section of the Develop settings, right-click on one of the tab titles and choose Show All to reveal all the panels in the Develop module (Figure 3 (2)). Then, right-click on one of the tab titles and choose Collapse All (Figure 3 (3)Ž) to simplify the view.

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Figure 3: If some of the Develop panels are hidden (Œ1), right-click and choose Show All (2). Then right-click again and choose Collapse All (3Ž) to simplify the view.

Step 3: Turn off the sections in the Develop settings one by one

Start from the bottom panel and move to the top. Turn off one panel after the other to disable the adjustments caused by each panel (Figure 4). This will not remove any settings from the image—it just makes them invisible until you turn them on again.

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Figure 4: Move from the last to the first panel (Œ1) and turn the small switch in each panel from On (2) to Off (3Ž).

For the Basic tab (this panel cannot be turned off), do the following (Figure 5): Open the tab and double-click (or Alt-click) on each of the section titles (Presence, Tone, and WB). This will reset all the settings under each section to their defaults.

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Figure 5: Double-click on each of the section headers (1Œ) to reset all the settings in the Basic panel (2).

Step 4: The analysis

Now, your image should be back to its original state (without any adjustments applied), but all the settings of the preset are still there and can be turned back on quickly using Lightroom’s Undo and Redo functions.

By using the Undo and Redo shortcut keys (Ctrl+Z and Shift+Ctrl+Z), you can keep your eyes on the image while you apply the original editing workflow step by step from top (Basic panel) to bottom (Camera Calibration panel). In a sense, this is like having a fast-forward and rewind function, allowing you to view (very roughly) what the original creator of the preset did. You can inspect the effect of each step closely as you add and remove it to see the before and after.

While you go back and forth in that workflow, try to understand the visual effect each section of the Develop settings has on the image.

Step 5: Refined analysis (optional)

When you have found the section of the settings that produces the effect you are interested in, you can apply the same method to the individual settings in that section: Reset them one after the other by double-clicking on the label of each setting. Then use the Undo and Redo shortcut keys to turn them back on in reverse order to see how each individual setting contributes to the effect.

Step 6: Create new presets from selected effects (optional)

Finally, after you have identified, analyzed, and possibly adapted a specific effect from the preset, you may want to store that particular effect as a new preset. To do so, create a new preset and select only the respective settings in the New Develop Preset dialog box.

Final Remarks on Reverse Engineering

In most cases, the overall visual appearance of an image is a complex combination of all Develop settings. An individual aspect of that look may very well be produced by multiple settings. For example, the way in which colors are rendered is affected by the Saturation and Vibrance sliders in the Basic tab. But it is also heavily influenced by the HSL / Color / B&W tab, by adjustments to individual RGB tone curves, and by the white balance settings.

Therefore, it may not be straightforward to isolate an effect by turning off panels. But this procedure will give you a much better insight, and it will eventually help you understand what produces a specific effect.

Reverse engineering is not only a great way to understand individual presets—it is also a great learning tool that you can use to understand the Develop module.

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7 replies
  1. Eric
    Eric says:

    Great technique. I like how your method allows us to examine the effects that the various panels have on the image, but also let us determine what some of the finer adjustments hav on the image also. Thanks.

    • farbspiel
      farbspiel says:

      Hi Eric! Yes, you can read quite a lot out of someone’s presets. If you do this with a number of presets of one person, you may even learn about their general processing style from recurring things they do. Have fun with the technique.

  2. Alex
    Alex says:

    This is a little off topic but caused by looking closely at my own presets. I wondered if you import multiple images and you used a preset on them, is there then a way to do “Auto Tone” so it adjusts each of the multiple images to “Auto Tone”; meaning you’ll have Auto Tone to each one individually; they will have there own individual Auto Tone setting. Make sense?


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