Preset Photo Adjustment Follow Up — Debate is Split, Scott Chimes In

lift-and-stampIt’s been gratifying to see that the great preset debate from my earlier post is not isolated to this office, instead there seems to be a lot of interest in this topic and a fairly even split in favor of and against using adjustment presets.  The majority of comments landed somewhere in the neighborhood of “I use them in moderation in order to get initial settings or ideas, then custom tweak from there.”

This is not a bad place to be.  And yet, my presets sit to the side of my toolbar gathering dust 99% of the time.

Why?  I’m constantly amazed at the extent to which each and every photograph is an individual.  A small wiggle of the lights, camera, clouds, sun, model; any of it can change an image materially.  This doesn’t just apply to the technical values of the image, it also applies to the mood and aesthetic essence.

It is this aesthetic essence that I try to ‘read’ when I start post production on an image.  Does this feel like a dark or light image?  Is it punchy and loud, or quiet and subtle?  Does the color add value or create a distraction?  I find that the images have some capacity to direct me in my approach.

How does this ‘approach’ translate to real action?  Here are the steps with which I approach a new collection of images that come across my desk:

  1. Edit.  I don’t want to be distracted by volume when retouching.  I only want to spend cycles working on images that are fundamentally good.  To that end, I complete an edit before any retouching begins.  For more on this topic, take a peek at this post on my editing process.
  2. Start Playing.  After the edit I spin through the selects, somewhat aimlessly at first.  I might select a certain image that grabs my fancy, pull the exposure or white balance around a bit, yank another couple of sliders around.  Maybe I get engaged at this point and start a full process with this image, maybe I leave it totally unfinished and move along to play with another select.  Eventually I stumble upon an image that starts to take shape and piques my interest.
  3. Dig Deeper.  This is where a sort of conversation takes place between me and the image.  At the risk of sounding like a total dork, it’s kind of like the first dance with a new partner.  There is a give and take – a push and pull.  On one hand I’m controlling the look of the image, on the other hand it’s letting me know what it wants to look like.  I’ve seen images that look horrible in color and brilliant in black and white, I’ve seen images that are noisy and cluttered when properly exposed, but simple and refined when blown out.  Definition and clarity can make an image crisp, or can produce devastating halos that scream ‘overprocessed’.  I’ve found that the only way to really understand an image’s potential and limitations is to experiment and follow your gut.  It is my firm belief that using presets at this stage has the unintended side effect of actually limiting creativity and experimentation when they’re intended to do the opposite.
  4. Spread the Love.  Once the image that has grabbed me initially has had a significant initial work up, it’s time to see if the aesthetic works with it’s neighbors.  While I avoid presets like the plague during my initial experimentations, I have no problem applying the adjustments I’ve made to the first image to the rest of the collection.  This is sort of a hail mary play.  Sometimes it’s an acute failure; the image I worked up initially is  an anomaly and it’s optimal settings are pure poison on the next frame in the edit.  On the other hand, sometimes there is enough similarity between the images that this Lift/Stamp move across the whole shoot delivers ‘instant gold’.  Usually, it’s somewhere in between, i.e. the few surrounding images from the exact same scenario sync well, where the ones that are a few hours apart need to be reworked entirely.
  5. Rebuild or Fine Tune.  Depending on how well the Lift/Stamp worked, it’s time to either undo the Stamp and start fresh on a second image, or in the best case scenario all that’s required is some tweaking to the individual images.
  6. Export.  At this point there are a pile of selected images that share a similar look and feel and that have each received some individual love in the RAW processing.  If there is a client review to be done, we’ll create a web gallery or send over preview files.  If we’ve got to go crazy on a small volume of advertising images it’s time to get into Photoshop and make magic.

Lest this all be too simple, I should share two exceptions to this workflow.

Ongoing Projects.  Chase shot for almost three years to complete the Seattle 100 project.  By the second month of shooting we had perfected the shooting and retouching.  The lights were set up the exact same way each time we shot.  The camera settings were always the same.  The high contrast black and white aesthetic was established and fine tuned.  All we had to do was repeat until we had shot all 100 subjects.  In this instance we relied heavily on our custom preset during the initial broad retouch of images for the web.  The images that went in the book were each custom retouched in Photoshop.

Shooting Tethered.  Almost all of our tethered shooting sessions are set up for the benefit of the client or subject.  It’s a way to instantly share what’s being captured so that tweaks can be made to the shoot in real time.  While Chase and I are both able to envision what a RAW image can look like of with some post work, often the clients or subjects are not trained to do the same.  To this end, Chase and I will generally collaborate on a rough post production aesthetic at the same time we’re setting up the lighting and getting test shots at the beginning of the shoot.  We’ll then use Aperture’s ability to apply  presets while importing tethered shots.  That way, the images already look close to what we’re trying to achieve the second they show up on the monitor.  This makes the clients and talent happy.


The important takeaway is that each shoot is approached with a fresh set of tools.  Just as it’s often more effective to build a house from the ground up than to do a full remodel, I find that it’s more effective to invest more time on the front end of the post production process in order to generate a custom look tailored to the collection than it is to drop presets on the images, and then have to dig around to figure out what’s doing good and what’s doing harm.

If these methods makes sense for you, feel free to adopt them.  If you have developed a workflow that utilizes presets more heavily than ours, by all means, do your thing.  The true beauty of the proliferation of digital imaging technology is that it gives people an ever increasing set of tools for creative expression.  Heck, a couple months down the road you just might find me extolling the virtues of a great Aperture preset I just found online.  The only constant in this landscape is change.  Experiment, have fun, and make things that you find to be beautiful.

42 Responses to Preset Photo Adjustment Follow Up — Debate is Split, Scott Chimes In

  1. Tyler October 10, 2011 at 11:49 am #

    1-6 This is entirely the same approach I use, the metaphor if the dance is perfect. As is the measure of time shift to when this lift/stamp perfection/poison relationship breaks down. It’s as if, even under completely similar shooting conditions the entire mood of the shoot itself has shifted from within the photographer, model etc. and a whole new dance is required.

  2. Kris Mitchell October 10, 2011 at 11:49 am #

    Interesting thoughts – I know I personally tend to approach my images the same way, but in trying to develop a style that’s recognizable as “mine”, I tend to use presets that are specific to what I want to achieve, but even then each preset will have a sub-preset, slightly different depending on the situation (much like the dance you mention).

    That’s not to say I use them immediately on everything, because I’ve setup each one, I know what to expect when I apply it. If the image isn’t suitable for a preset I have, I use that opportunity to explore the image and perhaps create a new one.

    All in all, I’d say a healthy blend of both is used.

    Cheers, Kris

  3. Mike Russell October 10, 2011 at 12:10 pm #

    Great article! As Tyler also said above, your steps 1-6 pretty much describe exactly what my workflow is like. I don’t really play around with the presets at all either. Maybe once every few months or so I’ll try one just to see some other directions I could take the photo. But then I usually end up completely tweaking it into something entirely different or just starting over from scratch.

  4. Aki October 10, 2011 at 1:07 pm #

    “it’s kind of like the first dance with a new partner” i like u style tell new stories :)

  5. Marius October 10, 2011 at 1:12 pm #

    It is each and every modern artists dream to make his art without having to make it -Niel Goedhals late South African Artist

    I love Presets gives you a good start on a image. Its like buying a cheap mass produced painting those you get from the East and adding your own paint and vision to it and then it becomes your Art.

  6. jonathan October 10, 2011 at 8:45 pm #

    juicy post scott, great to hear your process, my biggest struggle is finding the time to get all the editing done!

  7. TIm McLaughlin October 11, 2011 at 7:45 am #

    Thanks, once again for a detailed look inside the Chase studios and sharing your editing process.

    Just a thought here: is this really a debate? Everyone seems very comfortable with the flexibility of the tools to be used (or not) to give very personal results and aside from some reasonable comments on too much retouching being unsuitable for photojournalism I don’t see much controversy. Even those who championed the individuality of each and every photo generally admitted to using a plug-in or preset on the first bulk run-through. To use a photographic analogy, general opinion seems to be very low contrast; close to all 50% grey. There is no “Don’t ever use a plug-in. It is not true to a photo – it is not true to the photographer” or “To be contemporary and meaningful today you must know and use plug-ins and presets.”

    Can you share some of the “in house” controversy – no need to name names, but I would be interested to see where the lines were drawn.

    Thanks again for your great blog and community spirit.

  8. Belinda McCarthy October 11, 2011 at 11:03 am #

    It’s always really interesting to read how top flight pros apply their workflow, thanks! I guess my workflow with regard to presets is somewhere along the same line of thought. I might shoot with a particular ‘look’ in mind that I’d like to achieve, but ir’a not until I get my final whittled down winner shots from the shoot that I’ll start to really think about what kind of post processing to apply – it so depends on, as you say, the lighting, the colours, the specific mood of that shot, the backdrop…. a million things. I’d never just chuck a preset at a set of images and think that’s a fait accompli – normally it’s a case of working the first image with different tweaks until I’m happy with what I’ve got, and then using that as a basis to get a consistent flowing look through the series of images (asuming they’re all shot in the same location with the same end effect in mind).

  9. Moritz October 11, 2011 at 3:49 pm #

    totally agree…. i have done my own presets that i liked on one shoot and work well with a few shots from a shoot but new day, new model, new location and it all changes… though i think it can be often a good idea to look at a preset again to maybe get an idea of what the shot can look like, i think the best look comes by just playing around. only time i use presets is when i use same settings, same location, same lighting and i want the same/ similar look each time… and even then its small changes on every pic.

    think especially for location shoots its changing a lot where as studio with same set up can quickly end up in creating one look every time


  10. fas October 12, 2011 at 4:05 am #

    I hope somebody teaches more basic how to use aperture.

  11. Raman Singh October 13, 2011 at 4:41 pm #

    Brilliant, Loving the detailed view from your side. couldn’t agree more

    “…understand an image’s potential and limitations is to experiment and follow your gut…” – that just somes it up for me! not really much that i can say

    Awesomeness thanks for sharing Scott!

  12. iau October 16, 2011 at 9:40 am #

    How do you reduce the empty space around thumbnails? I can’t manage to reduce the spacing in Aperture and with four vertically I only get three rows. There’s load of empyt space in between that I would like to see gone. Tried google but it didn’t give me any answeres.


  13. David October 17, 2011 at 12:22 pm #

    Funny, was on Apple’s website and came across your video on Aperture where you are selecting from presets you made to edit an image. Sure it’s more geared to showing the ease of use in Aperture for Apple’s marketing purposes, but thought it was great to look back on given this topic.

    Off topic, but maybe a worthwhile discussion: What’s your take on HDR imagining technology as well as it being built into standard camera functions?

  14. hien October 27, 2011 at 1:14 am #

    thank you very much

  15. David November 2, 2011 at 7:19 am #

    I tend not to use (saved) presets frequently, but I do pretty much the same thing as described. For each cluster I try and process one image as fully as I can without taking too long, then apply those settings to other photos in the group. I will usually have 3 or 4 styles per shoot (I try to get it down to 1 colour and 1 b/w) and have variations within that style.

    It’s invaluable for things like lens correction and noise reduction.

    The really funny part is if I end up working on my strongest images from scratch in Photoshop anyway.

  16. Ken M November 3, 2011 at 7:21 pm #

    I think it may also depend on the type of photography as well. If you have a certain look and you are a wedding photographer. To process the hundreds of images you may use presets, then on the selects and printed pieces you may dive deeper into the image.

  17. Jonny November 9, 2011 at 7:48 am #

    Very cool! A couple thoughts though… I find that the ‘magic’ for me happens when i start randomly picking preset styles that i’ve created for other photos, and suddenly the aesthetic of one of them jumps out at me. To use your metaphor, it’s the one girl sitting quietly by herself in the corner, and you think to yourself “She’s the perfect fit!”. Then, for the next 50 years of marriage (or editing), you find yourself starting from scratch a few times and building it into a beautiful relationship (picture). The point is, that initial ‘spark’ for me comes most often from randomly clicking presets i’ve made before and finding an aesthetic that ‘just fits’.

    This is why I save 75% or more of my final lightroom tweaks as presets. Not so I can carbon-copy-paste a style, but because they are awesome reminders of an idea, or a visual that worked previously, and can be broken down, rehashed, and re-imagined for a new image.

    For me, presets are a wonderful dumping ground of ideas and inspiration that is every growing and changing, and something that I can pull from and add to as time goes on.

    My 0.02c

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