Preset Photo Adjustments: Instant Gold or Drab Repetition?

Adjustment_PresetsScott here. Many of you know that I’m the primary retoucher here around the Chase Jarvis studio. I was surprised to get into a fairly spirited debate the other day with some of my co-workers. The topic? Adjustment presets and plug-ins in Aperture or Lightroom or Photoshop.

I’ve got a strong opinion on this, but this experience has once again reminded me that there are a thousand ways to skin a cat and that my way is just that, my way.

Instead of letting a debate rage inside the office and then fade out, I figured, why not make it public? I want to hear from you.

Do you use presets for the post production of your images?
Do you make your own, or download them from other users online?
Do you use them for initial inspiration, or to create your final files?
What are your favorites and why?

I’m interested to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Don’t be shy. For those of you who give a rip, I’ll follow up this post with my personal take and we’ll all be a little more informed.

Karleen says:

Oooh, I love both of those. Which would you be more comfortable in? I know that you love wearing tights and those types of tops, but the maxi would be very summery!

Hi Scott, first of all i answer you from Italy, i always follow yhis site and try to catch a lot of inspiration, so… thank you very much for your and co worker job :)

A) I use it, but just for bring “the base”
B) Make by my own on 60-70%
C) Like the A answer :)
D) IN Lightroom 3 my favorite is “HOT POTATOE”, give me a specific tone of green in a lot of mine picture

Great article, Thank you again, Alberto.

Jim says:

Look at all the beautiful poems, sonnets, plays, and other works of literary art that exist in the English language. They are all unique and beautiful, and all done using 26 “presets” in the form of letters. Each one does a specific role over and over, which makes them easy to use. If everyone did their own thing for language, there would be no way for anyone to read everything out there.

Thant’s not a perfect alalog to the photo world, but I think it starts to shed light on my personal view. I have a small pile of presets that I can call on time after time. They stremline the workflow and allow me to quckly apply some basic stuff so I can focus my true creativity into the detail work more rapidly.

To me, that’s the big thing about presets: you can’t just end there. To use yet another analogy, presets are like the interstate system. They’re fast, efficient (usually!) and they get you just about anywhere you want to go. But how often are you able to drive off the interstate and immediately park and get out? Not very often. Presets can get you to the right neighborhood, but you still have to use your artistic ability, taste, and experience to navigate the last few blocks of the journey. Just like the Interstate rarely gets me to my final destination, a preset rarely delivers my final product.

Russell says:

I do 99% of my editing in adobe photoshop RAW because I shoot in RAW, and all my effects are done by hand, no presets :)

Thank you for the sensible critique. Me & my neighbor were just preparing to do a little research about this. We got a grab a book from our area library but I think I learned more from this post. I’m very glad to see such great info being shared freely out there.

Oh my goodness! an amazing article dude. Thanks Nevertheless I am experiencing subject with ur rss . Don’t know why Unable to subscribe to it. Is there anyone getting an identical rss problem? Anybody who is aware of kindly respond. Thnkx

I just got some of VSCO film emulator ACR presets and they are different from any other preset or action I’ve used. Been using them just a few days, but think I’m in love! Any other ACR preset I’ve tried looks like trash.

I found presets about the same time that they found me. It saves time = true; however, most photos need a little fine tuning after applying a preset. I always apply to TIFF files, and not RAW. RAW files need to be the best photo they can be. To me, that means applying the KISS method to editing a RAW. Now a TIFF (or JPEG for less important work) is something that can be played with. A little boost to a blue sky, some color minips, etc. The thing that is important is to have a preset theme that is consistent with the theme you shot. People that apply a buckshot approach to a shoot creative confusion when it comes to the flow of the shoot. You would not randomly change up your lighting scheme from dynamic to flat, so stick with a consistent look in your editing. Oh, and change it up… no one likes a drab portfolio.

James says:

I usually start with a preset and then tweak it as needed. I do download presets online and then create some of my own as well. I have turned otherwise bland pictures into striking images using just cropping and presets. I sometimes go through my old photos and see one that would be good as a high contrast B&W, or turned at an angle and cropped close. Sometimes I can get several totally different moods out of one shot, just using this technique!

But what I NEVER do is just pick one preset and then apply it to all my photos, except for basic camera calibration stuff. I used to do that to provide B&W and Sepia-Tone versions of all photos for my client, but now I figure the printing lab can handle that if that’s what they want.

Volen says:

Thank you guys, you are making me think. I’m not using presets. You cannot really have a preset working equally well for every picture so I’m post processing every picture individually.

Moritz says:

i use one preset on regular base with shots that i am doing at a club… its my own preset and a bit of a 3d looking black and white… still needs a tweak here and there on each shot, mainly exposure changes, curves, clarity and sometimes white balance (still makes a huge change in b/w shots)
besides that i done a few presets but i never use them again as they most of the time end up just working on a specific day/ shoot… so look at the pic, adjust and play with it… then sync the settings to the next few frames, look at them and adjust again till i am happy with all the pics


This article is incredibly timely for me…I think when you are starting out working with RAW files in Lightroom, the presets are helpful to see the possibility that lies in moving each of the sliders. But, once you truly understand the push and pull, you pretty much have to drop the presets. Other than the basic adjustments that you create to save time…There are just too many variables involved in each unique exposure to apply a color preset. I am amazed that people sell presets with the promise that their photos (with the preset) will turn out like the example on the website. It just isn’t possible. Use presets to work smarter, not as a crutch.

Aaron says:

Lightroom doesn’t really know how to deal with my cameras raw images like Nikon’s software but I want to use lightroom so I created an import preset that really gets my images to that nice starting point similar to the jpegs I see on my screen while shooting… And then go from there.

Joe Morgan says:

Interesting debate. It will depends on what i am working on. For most of my sport work, especially equine, I have created a set of presets that do the basics for me I then do final tweaks manually.

Hi, i have posted a similar item on my blog, the “magic button” preset, yet again is it a cop out using presets, another way of taking the craft element out of producing images or is it using the technology thats availible at our finger tips,have i been a photographer too long, remembering old school techniques, x processing, hand printing etc.
The presets are there so using them is a good way to start, remember we are in the communication game, it should be about the image, full stop!!!

matthew says:

I have a few subtle presets of my own that I know work well on certain images but they’re often just starting points.
If I can find Aperture presets to download, I will because it helps me learn.
BTW, heres my presets: ;)

Andrew says:

Also, I like to use Lightroom presets for B&W conversions.

I have 3-4 that I regularly use, and I know how they work with colour.

That way, when I’m shooting I can “see” in the final result, knowing that I’ll get pretty consistent results. I see it as similar to knowing how certain B&W films give different results. I don’t mean that I try to recreate specific films in post, but that I have effectively created a few of my own B&W films that I can choose between.

Robert says:

Knowing when to use presets is akin to being a good chef you just need to know when and how much (opacity blend, etc) they should be used.

As others have stated presets on photos from events like weddings, etc are essential for doing some first round editing, any other way and you’d be stuck in front of the monitor forever and probably out of business / divorced.

doug stremel says:

Haha. This is just another discussion evolution of the film vs. digital, no PS vs. lots of PS, real vs. unreal. And that’s great. It always amuses me how some photographers have such hard-and-fast rules and others feel the need to reveal they only “tweak” in processing. Come on, live a little. Adjustment presets and plug-ins are yet another tool to free and inspire creativity. And some of the presets designers do some really crazy cool photoshop shit that I couldn’t figure out in a million years. I buy/download them, deconstruct them, use them, share them, and of course, throw a lot of them away. It’s all good.

As for the Hipstamatic haters – take a deep breath and chillax a little. Photography should be fun, and for a lot of newbies and right-brainers and even pros, it’s a fun tool that helps them see the world in a new light.

Make pretty pictures. Have fun. Drink beer. Repeat.

Mark Byrne says:


As Aperture is my primary tool ( and often the only post tool I use ) I’ll approach weddings and portraits with the intention of getting through as many of the 1500+ wedding images as fast as I can while delivering the best quality I can achieve. Some images require a lot more processing and more time, lots of images just don’t.

I’ve created my own presets mainly for black and white processing. Colour images I tend to adjust one image then lift and stamp images with similar exposure and lighting values. e.g group formal shots, ceremony shots, wedding speeches etc

What was once a solid week of editing and photoshop is now mostly just over a weekend.

Portraits are much faster !

shaun. says:

presets, like many things in photography are just tools that we use to achieve the desired result. Do I use presets, yes all the time! I’ve saved some of my commonly used adjustments as presets and that saves me a fair bit of time. I’ve downloaded some off the web to learn and use as a starting point, and if it is great for what I need, hey, it might be the end point too.

Look forward to your take on this Scott!

MPC says:

I use presets that I have created and ones that I have acquired. They work, they speed things up they help with maintaining a consistent look. I used to feel bad sometimes about the “push the button. the computer does the rest” ease of it all. Like was that creative act or what? Coming from a film background, I had to labor for hours in the darkroom to get “the look”. Presets seem to easy sometimes. But at the end of the day we have to ask ourselves, does the image work? If so, does it matter how we got there?
Just saying.

Thatcher says:

Yeah buddy! I use my own and tweak it for each photo. Just creating art. Stay true to yourself and create from the heart!

Paff says:

Hi Scott,

Yes, I use presets that I make myself and I fine tune them for the specific image.

Cheers :)

Paul says:

Yes I use (my one) presets for the “basement” of post production, for more contrast, less saturation sharpening, and to enlighten shadows and get a higher contrast especially in the middle tones.

fas says:

I am yet to understand the whole concept clearly.

crosby ignasher says:

adjust the first photo in a set which has the same lighting then use the lift and stamp tool for photos with the same lighting, then i make minor adjustments after that. i do not use presets at all

Scott… I “Auto Tune” or as I like to call it “T-Pain” everything… I mean it worked for him in the music industry, perhaps it could catch on with photos?

All joking aside, It really depends on the situations I’m in. For the PJ stuff that I shoot, especially stuff on deadline I can’t ethically do much to it other than adjust color/white balance, shadow/highlight correction, and perhaps a little burn/dodge. I do this all individually on every image because if I’m ever asked by an editor about manipulation I want to be able to explain exactly everything that was done. I also prefer to let the editor who is working off of a color corrected monitor calibrated for that publications presses make the bulk of the adjustments. Also as I mentioned before, if its on deadline time is important, so I really can’t do much to the images and get them out efficiently.

That being said for covering sports especially indoor or at night I have pre-sets created for each venue. I’ve gone in and done lots of exposure testing, white balance testing with grey targets, etc… when I ingest, the preset for each venue gets applied to every those images, meaning I don’t typically have to touch anything other than a quick crop, and writing a caption which speeds up the process even more.

On the commercial/advertising side of things its just as varied. If the shoot calls for a specific look/feel I may spend some time creating a preset to get me in the ballpark of the overall look the client is going for. I will typically create a set of versions with this preset applied for proofing purposes, but will then go back and work the un-touched files individually for those going to publication, which typically goes pretty fast since I know the recipe for the preset.

For personal stuff I have created some presets that will re-create the same look and feel of some of my favorite film stocks, again these go on versions, and sometimes I may go from the preset, or just start from scratch. I think this goes back to my early professional days working for a daily newspaper where the image techs would go in and setup presents in the software on the Kodak RFS 3570 scanners for each type of film stock we used (Mostly Fuji Press 100,400,800 and 800 pushed to 1600).

I think sometimes that the presets can hinder a vision of what an image can be, but I also think that from time to time it might take you in a direction you never thought of by playing around with them and trying new things. That being said, I don’t think I’ve ever sent an image out to a client without doing a little tweaking to each individual frame.

There’s a lot of good conversation going on in here. Can’t wait to hear your thoughts.

ghislain says:

I’ll be honest Scott, I have issues to create presets…. Big time…. I’ll need to really work on this and review how to make good one because I’ve never been able to create my own…

Caitlin says:

Coming from a photojournalism perspective, I don’t often use presets. Many publications consider these edits as altering reality.

For fine arts or personal work, I prefer to edit images on a case by case basis. That said, I definitely see the merits of using presets for keeping tone/color/style consistent, or for the time they save when dealing with a huge volume of images+tight deadlines. I could also see using them if you’ve specifically tweaked the settings yourself over hundreds of shoots in similar conditions (ie snow). However, if they become something that you slap on all your images and not something that’s a starting point, over time the same presets can make your work stale–or to borrow your words Scott, drab repetition.

What worries me most about downloaded presets is that photographers using them don’t need to understand the technical process behind creating that effect. As a fine arts teaching assistant, I saw many of my students use downloaded presets. When asked how they might create the effect on their own, the deeper understanding of how light works wasn’t there.

Does this matter? Maybe no one cares how you get it, if you can get the look you and/or the client wants by the deadline. But I think there’s something lost in the process of creating if you are using downloaded presets.

Rob Spence says:

Great topic Scott.

I believe presets are imperative if a photographer wants to develop an individual, consistent style, but one needs to create their own and not lean only on the out-of-th-box, one-click solutions.

With digital imaging, the workflow is not complete until the image gets through the processing stage. Learning how to create your own presets is as vital as every other step of the process.

Saneesh says:

Yes I use presets- Esp when I have go over lots of photos from an event or different variations of the same..
I make mine also adjust/edit few.

I don’t use presets, primarily because I usually don’t like photos that have been heavily post-processed — my work tends to stay simple and straightforward. There’s some great post/retouching work out there (Scott), it’s just not for me.

Besides, it does seem like a lot of photos these days start converging in post-processing style, which of course diminishes the impact, and makes it feel more like a fad.

Mindaugas says:

Every picture is a different story, so i try to analize the idea and the emotion of the photo, after that create specific adjustmens that represents the final image, i think retouchers have to think at first, WHAT AM I TRYING TO DO, and then apply presets other adjustments

Q: “Do you use presets for the post production of your images?”

— Only one I use is an action I recorded to setup my layers when I do skin retouching. Otherwise I have 1 go-to action that works in some photos otherwise each photo is so unique even within one shoot that actions/presets are almost useless to me.

Q: “Do you make your own, or download them from other users online?”
— I do rarely use Noise Ninja when I think it really should be less grainy

Q: “Do you use them for initial inspiration, or to create your final files?”
— Finals only

I actually don’t use PS/LR or Aperture, opting for Capture NX2. But when I do find myself in Photoshop I don’t use presets (although I have played with them once or twice). I’m sure there’ll be a few people wanting to jump on my choice of software, but I like it. Not having to launch a filter to get access to UPoint controls, and the fact that NX2 imports the NEF files accurately maintaining any picture controls used in camera. I also like the way Color Efex Pro 3 integrates with NX2. Just my 2 cents.

I’ve built a number of presets in LR simply as a shortcut to changes I find myself making to most photos. My “Good Starting Point” preset addresses lens correction, bumps up blacks, adds some sharpening & Noise Reduction. I also use presets to address single changes (like Camera Profile) and then I can just move over the preset and evaluate the best option in the preview box. It’s quicker than actually making and evaluating each selection on it’s own. But after the first step or two.. it’s all manual adjustments.

I don’t use them often. I want to be a photographer not a post production expert. Too bad, I think that is were we have gone. I see fewer good photographers and more people who shoot to “work on it” in post. I agree with Zack A, when he says, “If you catch yourself saying you will “fix it” in Photoshop, smack yourself in the face real hard.” Or something like that.

Maybe its just because I come from a newspaper/photojournalism background but my goal is to do as little as possible in post. For my newspaper work that means making sure the color is correct, the tone/contrast is correct (as close to what the eye saw) and maybe some cropping. I take that serious even though I know some don’t.

Do I do post work on my portraits, sure some. Do I use the latest presets or actions that everyone else is using, Hell no! Would I make more money if I did? Probably, especially in the portrait/wedding photo world.

Is there anything wrong with post production. No. There is some cool stuff I see among all the bad. Is is photography? I don’t know. Just my opinion & thoughts.

Jorn says:

I don’t use presets, but I do use plug-ins for Photoshop. A plug-in allows me to create the look and feel I want for an image without having to spend hours in photoshop to create the same effect.

I thinks it’s different for people who only retouch, than for people who shoot and retouch their own images.

jean-francois says:

I Think presets are a great learning curve to help you achieve your style. Creating your own allows you to manage your time on any project. At the end, the question is:”Are you satisfied? “

Hans says:

I´m using an import preset which is very basic and make adjustments for every photo on my own.
I used presets from the net to understand how to achieve a certain style, but I always alter them further.

I use lightroom and I use presets as an inspiration source. I do move the sliders but at the end I don’t deviate that much in different styles(presets). For B/W I use silverfx and there I use some of the presets

Maybe I ought to use em a bit more to create a different look and to honor of the people who made them :)

I find myself looking at presets as in:”aha, that looks cool (or not), wow thats also possible” maybe later i start using them…

Andy says:

Aren’t all pre-planned or preconceived ideas on some level a preset? Most people who say they don’t use them, when pressed, admit they have a standard method for B&W, grungy colour, portraits, etc. etc. although it is often a bit different, depending on the image. Look for the “I hate presets… to get my look I ”

Personally, I used them a lot to learn how LR processing works, but now have my custom presets I use as starting points, depending on where I want the image to end up. My final images are (I think!) never a standard custom preset. That said, I will use Sync Settings judiciously on a shoot once I’ve nailed the look I want. “Saves time you could spend with your kids” to paraphrase Zarias :)

Andrew says:

I often use Lightroom presets as a base, mainly of my own creation, and then go from there. I find it is a quick way to check that my original vision for the post will roughly work out how I would like it to.

My favourite is a B&W filter I created after being inspired by Hedi Slimane’s work. The results themselves are not actually that similar to Hedi’s… but the preset has taken on a life of it’s own, and has actually helped to inspire me to develop a new vision and style in my photographs.

I might not have started shooting this way at all had I not created the preset.

1. My processing technique is determined by the assignment. Larger jobs with more images and shorter deadlines require custom made presets to help speed things up.
But I am of the belief that every image is different and therefore a pre-determined adjustment would not be appropriate.
2. I make my own.
3. They are used to create a final file. I find inspiration in places other than presets.
4. My favorites are those that fit the theme of the image, dont distract but compliment the image and of course the ones that develop an interesting name. Current favorite custom preset..jalapeno’s revolt!

Phil Stefans says:

I love presets. I use them as a bit of creative inspiration when I’m working on a photo, trying different looks on.

That being said, the preset is only the begininng for me…lots of agonising over fine adustments before exporting to CS5 for a bit more panel beating…

As a wedding photographer, presets, especially in Adobe Lightroom are an invaluable time saver. We make our own for everything we commonly need to adjust: exposure, noise, sharpening, B+W conversion, etc. etc. We also have a large number of processes automated using actions in photoshop for creating our galleries, proofing discs, hi res discs, you name it. Final touch up is always done by hand in CS4. With out presets we use, there is no way we would be able proof an entire wedding in less than 8 hours (2 shooters).

I highly recommend everyone make your own presets for what you do and how you work.

James Bryant Yu says:

i download then use it sometimes..

Alejandro Alarcon says:

I make my own and use them when I have to edit tons of pictures in a row. In the case of more serious photoshoots, I do quick tests with presets to get an idea, and then I move to photoshop to get things done in a more clean and detailed way (in my opinion)

david says:

I’m in love with Silver Efex Pro and Alien Skin Exposure 3. But I don’t use them right out of the box, I mix and match, adjust to create custom filters. I add Photoshop adjustment layers like curves, selective colour and the B&W layer mask trick Scott showed on this very blog.

I have heard it all…I’ve heard that if everyone uses the same plug-ins and presets that every ones work would be the same or that it’s cheating if you don’t know how to do everything purely with Photoshop. The way I look at it is that in the film days, just because everyone used the same film, that didn’t mean all the work looked the same. Was it considered cheating if you had a lab develop your film? Of course not.

What’s important is the final result and not how you get there. If a plug-in gets you the look you want then use it…Just like you used the format/film that gave you the look you wanted in the film days.

I only use a could of presets. One for black and white and one to put a curved white border on my images for my blog. I created both myself. I think presets are seen as a four letter word, but they are a powerful way to speed up your workflow. I think it is best to make them yourself. Purchasing them leads to creating images that look like everyone else’s. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

steve says:

sometimes it can be a good starting point if you know the look you generally want. after narrowing images down from thousands to the keepers it gets easier to look at each exposure individually.

I routinely use the WB (Daylight, Cloudy, etc) and B&W (Red Filter, Orange Filter, etc) presets that came with Aperture 3, but usually as a jumping off point that I’ll fine tune on a per-image basis. I’ve never bothered buying or downloading any other presets.

G Allard says:

I have a couple tiny custom preset tweaks on import in Aperture just to get in the ballpark. After that, I feel that every photo is different and deserves its own custom treatment.

I use a mixture of Aperture’s presets, that I’ve adjusted and made my own, and some that I’ve downloaded off the net.
Also if I’m working on something in either Aperture or Photoshop, and I think it looks good, I’ll start making presets and actions so I can easily pull that back again. Especially if the photo is part of a series where they all have to look consistent.

I think consistency is key here. Why start from scratch every single time you edit a photo? If you have a certain style or look you want to go for, and you’ve done that before, why not use the preset you made last time?

Of course, too much of anything is bad. But I tend to start with a preset, and move on from there.

Keri says:

I do have presets that i’ve downloaded and ones that i’ve made but generally i’ll do a rough tweak to the first file in a series, apply that to the others and tweak the ones that need tweaking from there onwards.
Far from the most efficient way of working i don’t doubt, but i’m not a pro and it works for me. If i mange to get to a semi-pro or pro level then i’ll obviously tweak my workflow accordingly but what i do works fine for me and my photos at the minute :-)

Ben says:

I can understand the artistic concerns surrounding the use of presets. I don’t do any batch processing, but I think scrolling through my presets in Aperture is helpful in quickly guaging what styles might work on a particular picture. My primary program for photo editing is Aperture 3. I HATE Adobe products and rely on the Nik Software plugins to fill the gap with their U Point technology. I currently use Color Effex 3 from Nik and you can’t really do presets, but they just released version 4 and that will let you build and share “recipies” which I expect will save me tons of time.

No presets for me…
Unless there’s a bunch of photos that look alike and probably will need the same work. than I’ll make an action or a preset but it doesn’t happen often.

Melaney says:

I love that you brought this up and it’s really interesting to read everyone’s responses. I, personally, never use presets. I color correct, skin retouch, burn/dodge, drastically alter (whatever needs to be done) each individual photo. Every one of them is different and needs individual attention. If I moved to the left a foot for one photo the lighting may different, so different adjustments might need to be made. It takes a lot of time to work this way but every image gets attention and I control everything.
I am still on the fence about presets. I can see using them in certain situations but I do believe they create a repetitiveness that can be very irritating. I don’t like all of my photos to look exactly the same.

Tyler says:

I have this debate with my business partner (and wife) all the time. I like to create my own, she wants to buy sets of actions. I think that it really depends on your level of comfort and confidence with the tools. I don’t think that it reflects one’s level of professional skill as a photographer, but I always tell her that she should at least know what they are doing and then use them as a time saver or a starting point.

Chris Nemes says:

I use one external presets – for BW conversion, but it’s adjusted. I have yet to find a preset that I found acceptable out of the box. That’s why I use on my own adjustments and when I nail what I think may be a nice flavored look, I save it and try to see how it would match on other similar subjects some other time. My presets, if I use them, need adjustment almost every time.
Do I use presets? Rarely. Most of them home-made.
Do you use them for the final product? No
Favorites – BW conversions

Love presets. They are a great starting place for a photo, and sometimes a way to combine multiple effects by blending different versions of the same image. Usually don’t apply a preset and leave it there, always a starting place.

Philipp says:

I save presets of some shoots and try them on other shoots – may they work, maybe not. If they doesn’t work even after making some changes, I will start on the beginning and try something complete new.

So I use them sometimes, sometimes not. I decide from case to case.

Jon Coe says:

Presets are a great tool when dealing with common situations that require a common ‘look’ or style. They can also be a great boilerplate tool, and can be awesome for learning a new technique or style. Standalone fix-alls? Absolutely not.

James says:

i do not have a staff to do work for me, so I’m of the opinion that presets/plug-ins/actions are great for getting art out there fast. It is for those really special shots that I spend my time doing manual tweaks and pops. My really special shots are accidents, so I do manual on maybe 1 in 20. And once in a great while, I will take a shot that is perfect as is. No post production necessary. Kind of like what we had to do when there was that film stuff.

Aidan says:

I take some inspiration from other’s presets (which I currently have downloaded on my laptop), but I will not use one of them for the final image. I have about 15 presets I’ve made and use regularly, always tweaking them still to specific photos. I feel like there is a loss of personal touch and artistry if the photographer just uses someone else’s presets and doesn’t bother to try on his/her own.

I use presets in Lightroom.3. I used to use presets creted by other people. Now I developed my own presets, with a distinct look and feel. I have a basic one that I apply when importing the photos into Lightroom. After I adjusted all the photos I create virtual copies and apply one preset for black and white and/or one for split toning for the best images.

S. Allman says:

Don’t care how you get there – it’s all about the finished image. No one cares or knows if you use a preset, but they do care about how the image looks. Personally, if the photo looks dull I move my lights or my feet to improve it first.

Chris says:

I think they’re somewhere in the middle. I’ve never seen a preset that worked great on all shots. So definitely not instant gold. But they can be useful in a few situations. Like to get you close and let you tweak for the desired result. Sometimes having a few presets can help you decide what will suit an image best, or as I’ve seen you guys do, to give the client an impression of the style when tethered.

Personally I don’t often use them, but when I do, it’s normally my own.

TC says:

I rarely go straight from presets. I use lightroom/photoshop for basic retouching combined with combinations of Nik plugins to get the stylistic look I want on a pic by pic basis. My jobs have a pretty small throughput (almost always less than 1000 pics/job on the high end) so I’ve got that luxury I guess. I’ll often use some of the Nik presets within a plugin as a starting point and adjust from there, with pics that catch my eye getting more attention than the others. Whatever “look” I’m going for with a job depends on a lot factors and varies a lot from job to job, so strictly using presets doesn’t really work with my post workflow.

Andrew Mills says:

I currently do not use them, but that doesn’t mean to say that I won’t.

Presets are just another tool – some photographers have a style that they are known for and that is often why they are booked. Presets can help maintain consistency in delivering photos with that signature look.

Tom Bricker says:

I was looking for the button for a preset reply, but I guess there isn’t one. Now what do I do?

Dennis Pike says:

I use em, I download em, I create em, I tweak em. I am a wedding photographer and do not have the luxery of spending hours on a single image. It’s all about getting the best results as quickly and effciently as possible.

Rab Cummings says:

Every one of my wedding images gets some love. Over the course of any give year that adds up hundreds of thousands of sliders moves and clicks in LR and PS. I see them mostly as an ergonomic tool to speed up the flow and reduce wear and tear on my body. If you have to process fast there is no reason to do the same thing over and over again. I create my own presets and actions.

Frederic M says:

I do not own PS (too expensive for me). and only use Aperture with Nik plugins. I downloaded a lot of presets but I don’t use them a lot. I use the buitl-in W&B ones but that’s all.
I created some for RAW import but most of the time I remove them from the picture before post processing.
I will never buy a preset pack

Kevin Fulton says:

Personally, I use presets constantly for starting points, edit them to my liking and create a new ones. I put them in the same category as fonts, stock vectors, or music samples. You try your best to come up with something that’s 100% yours, but when you’re stuck creatively and that deadline is getting closer then, on occasion, you turn to the “the dark side”. Sometimes even the most creative people need help ;)

Gregor Schwarzacher says:

No, I never really use them, since I believe that everyone can use them with ease and my style ( if you wanna call post “style”) gets lost in them….. though I look at them, its a good way to gather ideas and inspiration… So to answer the question, no I dont use presets at all…
But to create presets is also an option… I never did it though.. cheers from vienna

Rob Andrew says:

I don’t like presets. I have PS actions but all of them are pretty much geared toward making skin retouching faster/easier. Why use an action or preset on your work that anyone else can use?

David hintze says:

I do a lot of motorsports photography, and use presets a lot based on weather conditions. I have presets that work for sunny, cloudy, clear, etc, and use those as starting point in my editing that reflect my style. I’ll go through each individual photo after applying a preset and tweak each one for cropping, exposure, and minor color correction.

Clint Fraser says:

Don’t use presets as I feel that each image is different and therefore needs different attention. It does take a ton of extra time but to me it’s a part of photography.

I believe that actions serve a short purpose; either to provide a quick boost of creative inspiration, or to act as a shortcut in the workflow. Is it easy to sit back and let the preset do the heavy lifting? Hit apply and call it a worked up image? [yeah.. we’ve all been there..] Far too easy! But once the understanding that these presets are, more often then not, someone else’s vision, working toward imparting a personal touch on that image seems imperative to a pure [photographic] conscience. {but that’s just a chunk of my brain}

Till says:

I can’t stand presets. For me it’s important to actually DO the retouching, because the process is important. It’s not just getting the final picture, it’s creating it. If I use a preset and it’s not what I want, it’s very very difficult for me to go from there. It’s much easyier to do it all on my own, because this way I think along the process, which makes it easier for me to see where I want to get.

I use plug-ins though. Can’t live without silver efex pro anymore. :)

Jared says:

Presets are a handy way to get started, but never my final solution.

Joey Buczek says:

I don’t use presets all that much. The only thing I use occasionally are some frequency separation actions in ps. My favorite thing to use is an adjustment layer.

Diesel_Film says:

I use the presets a lot, but only as a starting point. They’re almost never exactly what I want right out of the gate, but they almost always get me in the ballpark. When I’m adjusting an entire shoot worth of images, this is crucial.

jennifer says:

@ Kev Holloway – +1 Hipstamatic hater here! Using the instant “make it look cool” button does not make your cell phone snapshots more interesting. Want the look of vintage film? Shoot vintage film.

It seems photogs on the low end of the production scale all got hip to buying actions and presents in the past year or 2 and it feels cheap to me. I’m not a fan. I can recognize slick high end production when I see it and the third party preset clones stick out like a sore thumb.

Ryan Unger says:

I think that sometimes presets are a good place to start but most of the time it ends up looking a lot like picnik every time… over saturated with a completely black opaque vignette, or sepia, because it looks “cool”.

When I was in the Darkroom all by myself printing photos I didn’t have a button to push to give me the “perfect” photo…I had to work that photo out…right exposures, proper chemical mix, water temperature…blah blah blah…I had no ‘Command+Z’ to help guide me through. Obviously things are different but I really like to see MY work with MY blood sweat and tears rather then someone else’s that I could care less about.

But then again its so easy to push that button and sink into a hole of self doubt of whether or not I am actually giving my all to something I am called to…just sayn, thats where I am.


Feather says:

When I first discovered actions I went crazy and used them on everything. As I get farther along in my photography I find that none of them really give me the look I want. I have made a few of my own consisting of some of the more basic adjustments I use regularly for a time saver.

Mike says:

I create my own presets only when I’m processing multiple images from the same shoot that are all to have a consistent look. I rarely if ever bring them into images from a different shoot. And I refuse to buy a preset package. Most “looks” presets offer can be replicated by anyone in lightroom or aperture. I’d rather take the 5 min to figure out how it was created so I know what I like and what I don’t that’s contained in the preset and then use the knowledge of how to create various “looks” to do work on images that a bottled preset isn’t appropriate for.

Alexandre says:

Sometime I use preset as to scout different look possible. I always make some change. I habitualy edit lot of image at same time in lightroom and do final adjustment for some of them at the end, Beeing consistent in a shoot is important for me but different shoot inspire me different look as the light and color are different. Final touch pass trough Photoshop where I use most of the time Niksoftware plug-in.

I find them useful to get a quick and dirty preview without going down and tweaking a bunch of images but in practice what I do are two things:

1. For a really big shoot where I don’t want to edit each image but most will be delivered (an event, let’s say). I’ll do a basic preset just for contrast, exposure, color etc. Then I’ll go in and and edit the better ones by hand.

2. Create presets for specific scenarios as a baseline before going in and doing further adjustments. Let’s say, every single one will need a definition (Aperture) adjustment. That sort of thing.

theon says:


We never got your take!


I’m interested to see what the community has to say on the topic before I offer my 2cents. I’ll follow up with a post detailing my outlook on the subject.

marcus says:

I love playing with presets, both my own and others, because they provide inspiration for working a photo that I might not have even considered. My usual workflow is to process the image the way that I envisioned, then create a virtual copy then scroll through the presets panel, watching the preview for anything that looks interesting. When I find something interesting I’ll apply the preset, then tweak from there. I still have the image I originally envisioned, but playing with presets like this helps me to expand my vision the next time I’m shooting. It’s also helped me produce some of my favorite images.

Mark French says:

I have downloaded hundreds of presets over the years of having Lightroom as my primary workflow portal. I have used these to help start an edit but I have developed a set of about four presets that I will use and one main preset that I apply on ingest before culling my jobs. That one thing has taken my workflow from a couple of days of work to a couple of hours of work. I can see what my photos look like on my primary preset and then tweak and edit and clean the photos after culling out my best photos.
Presets make my life a TON easier; they give me a launching point and help me maintain a consistent aesthetic across my photos.

I use them mostly as a starting point. What I do a lot is sync settings between images to have the same look for some of them.

Christopher says:

Initial inspiration man. For sure. They don’t always mesh well with the raw shot. I have a look, then tone it up/down. I like seeing what the photo *could* look like, then I’ll make it my own. I also save my favourite cross tones, and black and whites.

Nice shot btw. Was auto focus used out of interest?

I use a mixture. Depends on what I want. If a preset does what I could initially spend hours doing then it’s a no brainer. If there’s not a preset for what I want then I create one. There’s always a little more than just using a preset though. Things like sharpening, retouching or adding vignetting I normally do separately because most presets I use alter the color and nothing more. But I think it’s a silly argument, there’s no right way or wrong way to do things, use a preset, don’t use a preset, who cares? As long as you get what you want at the end of the day. I wouldn’t label them as instant gold or drab repetition, they’re helpful for amateurs new to P&P, a good starting point for some and inspiring for others looking for direction and experimentation.

Moto says:

I’m about to look at presets for a batch process on our latest wedding but we’ve had to do a lot of edit to get consistent enough images for batching, Generally the lighting varies to much through a wedding shoot for us to be able to use a magic button.

I do see the benefit though, particularly if you have a regular “look” like a lot of pro ‘togs do.


Tyler P says:

I actually have used them in the past. and when I did I tweaked them to fit the image I wanted to convey. I prefer not to use them now however, I see each photograph I take as an original work, from shutter click to export. I think presets take that away for me.

A. Vahidi says:

The only presets I tend to you are for contrast (I typically apply a linear contrast and then adjust as needed). From time to time I will also use a B&W adjustment layer which I will sometimes adjust depending on whether or not it gives the photo the look I’m going for.

I don’t really have any issues with people using presets, I guess it depends on what works best for you and your vision. I can say that in a few cases I have edited one photo using a few presets and then edit another nearly identical photo completely from scratch and have come up with 2 similar looking images, so I guess it all just depends on what works for you.

Leroy says:

I have a few presets I created after I realized I was doing the same primarily steps in most of my photos. I prefer more photo and less shop, so I try to keep my manipulation to a minimum.

Henrik J says:

More often than not i think happy amatures use presets because they find it hard to achieve the feeling they want and instead end up with an image that looks somewhat like they want but are a dime a dozen.

Using presets is fairly individual and i myself have never used them. I like the fiddling around to get the right feel in final images.

Again, this is just my way of doing it.

Lucas Gray says:

It really depends on the shoot.

When i shoot a wedding and have 5000+ images to sort through and pressure for a quick turn around, presets are a must. That being said once i narrow down my final collection i will usually touch up all the images by hand; at that point its down to (hopefully) less then a thousand. This process can be monotonous, so in the middle of using the same preset over and over again, if I come across an image i really like, i will spend some extra creative time with it. Usually this will result in me revamping the original preset, as well as me feeling a little better about myself.

I usually start with a preset I have found online ( mostly) that I like and change it up to better fit my needs. I don’t particularly like this idea since it takes some of the originality out of my images but practically speaking I would be lost in a sea of images for years if i didn’t, not to mention with more than a few angry brides after me. Its always a little disheartening though when i come across an image from another photographer and i can tell we used the same preset, but i suppose that is the business. Its next to impossible to come up with a truly original look, so as long as i am happy with the final product i can let go of the fact that its not entirely original. Besides – in the end – the image itself should be the original part, i would like to spend more time and energy creating an original image more than an original preset; that notion contradicts itself anyway.

K Sundaram says:

It is general mix depending on which project i am working on. I like to use presets to give a quick insight into how a picture wil look (e.g. high contrast B+W). Sometimes I will use a preset as bas and work from it making my own adjustments. I create my own and also download other ones online. I think there is nothing wrong with using presets even if they are of others since we all get inspired by other peoples work somewhere along the creative line.

clopix says:

yes I do use presets.
the zero’d presets is my starting point for all the images i’ve taken, from there adjustments such as as highlight recovery, sharpening and noise reduction, or chromatic aberration are also automated according to lighting conditions. From there on most of the images are treated individually. Some actions will or will not be automated depending on the Job (for social events for example, they must look the same). But I almost always make individual adjustments. As far as inspiration sometimes others/built-in presets are my starting point or some of my older work, it all depends.

Will McGregor says:

It depends on the situation but i have done all of the above.

If i’m doing nightclubs i do a batch process of my own preset set of that event in lightroom.

I do download presets for lightroom and PS (Nik software stuff) but i’ll always refine them to my taste or have them as a starting block (or finishing touch).

If i’m doing a low volume job where i’m providing 10-15 images (which almost never happens) then i would do most of them individually. I think presets are kinda like actions in photoshop, you use them to cut down on your editing time. If the final amount to be sent to the client is low, then yeah, taking loads of time on each image is awesome, but if shooting a wedding and you need to provide 400+ final images then spending hours/days on each one individually just isn’t possible unless they are paying 20G’s upwards, and the price point in scotland is a maximum of around £1500-£2000 for a full day wedding.

I can’t say I have ever downloaded a preset, so any presets I have we’re created by me and the only reason they exist is through the course of an edit, in which the final result was effective or appealing to me. Since their creation, their only use can be compared to any photo editing app found on a smart phone – A quick, yet effective “spice up” of a photo for casual use online or whatever. Rarely the exact equation to a piece of art or commercial media. Mostly fun.

Kermit Purcell says:

A lot of my pictures are from weddings and natural light portraits so lighting is always inconsistant. In LR3, I’ll import with a color/clarity/contrast/sharpness default to get closer to natural skin tones and have a good baseline. From there I have a few presets for each different item I’m trying to fix. ie. I have +.30 , .00 , and a -.30 exposure presets so I can quickly fix exposures. These all use shadows, highlights, exposure, brightness, etc to get the changes. I have things built like this for quick tweaking of skin tones, noise reduction, sharpening, vignetting, lens distortion, grain and a few B&Ws. All of these adjust independantly of the others.

This typically will get me where I want to be. It’s quick and I don’t heavily process my files. Also, I typically edit only one of a group where the pictures have similar wb/background/subjects and then I sync that group to the edited picture.

Using this method I’m clicking presets 90% of the time instead of scrolling up and down the editing bar on the right.

Raman Singh says:

I create my own presets in Aperture if i know what i’m looking for from a particular shoot. Then individually fine tune each image.

When it comes to Photoshop i don’t use Plugins. why?.. To be honest i haven’t really looked into Photoshop Plugins… interesting, time to start researching… Thanks Scott!!

How about you scott?


Thanks for joining the conversation. I’ll put up a follow up blog post once you all have had a chance to chime in.

RIcky B says:

I think presets are great. I use them quite often. THey are always a starting point though. I almost never set a preset and then say thats the final image. I choose one to get the image going in the direction i want to take it, then tweek from there. Good topic!!

Jay R. says:

Interesting debate! I certainly look forward to reading your follow-up from a professional’s point of view. For me, presets are only the starting point to my photographs (if i decide to add more than the typical post in the first place). I’ll occasionally use an Adobe preset but 99/100 times if i go with a preset it will be from the Totally Rad collection (because, well..they’re effing rad!). I use those presets as a starting point then take initial inspiration and tweak from there. It’s incredibly helpful Totally Rad provides a light/med/dark preset as well so i can see what changes are being made and adjust to the specific look i want. If i’m not using their presets i’m playing around with Lightroom’s split toning to get the look i want; each time i start from scratch on these images. I have not made a preset based on my own adjustments.

I view it the same as i view all photography; everyone (should) strive to be creative in their own entity. Photographers pull inspiration from literally everything; an awesome Phoenix song on your iPhone that just played, a picture perfect scene laid out in front of you, an epic scene from a Guy Ritchie film, or another photographer’s work. It’s all inspiration. When i’m creating a post adjustment you can bet your buttons that no matter how i do it i’m being inspired by something to do so. It shouldn’t matter where that inspiration is from (another phtographer’s image, a scene from a movie, or a Totally Rad preset) as long as you’re striving to be creative a.k.a. do some things yourself, bro. That’s what it’s all about anyways, right? So a long winded explanation of how presets = inspiration to me (but not my final version!).

Jus Medic says:

Honestly I almost never use presets and have never edited a photo just by applying some preset or plugin. Every image is unique and in my opinion needs a different work. I do have a few presets that I have created like vintage look/old look that I apply to specific images, I find images from summer from the sea side to look nice with this look, but again this are mainly my personal projects/personal photos, for the clients I have never used a preset.

Kev Holloway says:

The same debate is raging at our studio, where we don’t use canned presets, but one of us (me) has a hate on for Hipstermatic.

Canned presets aren’t tweaked to an individual feel that every image deserves. You also lose the curiosity driven trial-and-error process of learning the opportunites and limits of colour grading. Often we find a colour treatment then discuss how to light for that, working backwards. It’s all learning, and the final result neds to match the content and purpose.

Canned presets are the antithesis of that, and it’d be a shame to lose sight of both that knowledge and the curiosity.

On the far end of the the scale you have Hipstermatic – the cocaine of all photo apps. It’s freely available, people think it’s cool, and it alters your perception just enough to make you believe that all your shit is worth putting out there for all to see. “Oh look, another 47 images of my cat with a retro colour treatment. I should put these on Facebook”.

But that’s just my opinion…

Tihomir says:

I used to download presets and never used them. Now I don’t even download. I’m having my own presets. Actually it’s a single one I prefer to use. So in case I start using a freshly installed software without presets, I know very well where I’m going and I can go without presets.

My favorite presets are the light setups :) They do the best job.

I do use presets within Lightroom, both my own and ones that I have found from a handful of professionals around the web.

Mainly I use them for initial inspiration and then tweak photos from that starting point. Sometimes though the preset is exactly what I am looking for.

My favorite presets are a few of my own of course, but outside of that I really enjoy Matt Kloskowski’s presets the most!

Presets aren’t cheating, they just make things faster. If I find a setting that I like in a certain situation, I am going to save that preset in order to get a similar look the next time a have a fitting photo. If that is a desired look why would I spend hours on end trying to recreate the process when I can just click one button and bring up a previous setting that I have saved.

I think presets often are a good starting point, especially for black&white, cinematic style and sometimes even HDR. Hierher every image you shoot is a whole new story so in my opinion it’s best to always make modifications on your own and also never be afraid to work entirely from scratch if none of your presets is able to achieve the look you’re after.

Danny Ngan says:

I have a bunch of Lightroom presets that I use as starting points for retouching. Sometimes the preset works perfectly, but, more often than not, the image requires additional tweaking to get the right look.

Many of my presets are downloaded/purchased from 3rd party sites. I rarely use them as-is though. I’ll use them to figure out how different looks are achieved, and then I’ll roll my own based on how I shoot and retouch images.

I use LR presets at my salaried job because I have to shoot dozens of products that goes on the company’s eCommerce sites -consistency and speed are important.

My freelance gigs are another story since each image is unique in itself. Every image gets personalized attention. The most I’d do is “Lift and stamp” or “Sync” settings (mostly contrast, saturation, and vibrance) to process proofs for the client.

I don’t use presets. I approach each edit uniquely. I know my own post processing basic recipe in my head that I use for a starting point but from there I let the image take me where it needs to go. I am not anti preset but I just feel like if I depend on them, they will become a crutch.

Jan Hruby says:

I make my own presets with basic adjustments like contrast, definition and raw processing settings. Then each picture gets its own adjustments. Never made picture just by aplying a preset to it. Best use of them is to store your favorite edits and speed up editing.

Rod Clark says:

One of my favorite moves is to start with a specific preset (I’m not saying which one), and then I make one very specific adjustment (again, not saying which one), and that’s how I get my secret sauce. Maybe, I could just take the preset, make the adjustment once, and make it my own preset, but thus far I haven’t. As far as using the presets, I typically find them as good starting points for playing, but I never use them straight up.

Oliver A. says:

Do you use presets for the post production of your images?
I do use presets for the post production of my images. Personally I use it as starting point and adjust from there. But I don’t use them for all of my images.

Do you make your own, or download them from other users online?
I do both.

Do you use them for initial inspiration, or to create your final files?
I use presets as the starting point, build from there, and let my initial vision for the photograph dictate the final files.

What are your favorites and why?
I like using Nik Software’s Efex presents for lightroom and Kubota Presents. I like those two the best because they provide a wide variety of presets. Also both companies make it very easy to incorporate into the workflow.

Kip Beelman says:

I’m a wedding photographer, so my process may be a bit different than what y’all are used to.

After culling my images, I send the .NEFs to Colorati in Carlsbad, CA via Next Day UPS. In 5 business days I have a .zipped email with level and color-corrected .XMPs to my specification.

After that, a batch process that I’ve built to work with the level and color-corrected files gets run. The batch consists of customized versions of:

Boutwell Magic Glasses from Totally Rad Actions (sharpening)
Exposure 3 by Alien Skin (film simulation)
Contrast adjustment
Daily Multi-Vitamin by Kubota (color and contrast boost)

It’s the look I like for my vision in a wedding context. It took hours and hours of trial an error with each component of the mix, but it saves me MASSIVE amounts of time to consistently create the look I’m known for. As such, I’m a big fan.

I start with OnOne presets that I like but I’m not married to them. I find each image needs a little something different, and there is a BIG bag of tricks. :-)

I make my own presets based on the type of job as a starting point and then adjust per client/job/image.

Enzo says:

When I first started editing my photographs I was a huge fan of presets because I didn’t know yet how I could get the effects I like by myself. When I used them I downloaded a bunch from various sites and started using them on my final works. My favorites are the ones that give a “magic bullet mojo” look! Right now I’m discovering how to achieve the editing I want by myself.

Sam Taylor says:

When i shoot live events, I often sync up all the photos with each other and adjust at the same time in Camera Raw. I then go back and individually adjust each image to suit my eye.

In terms of fashion – i cant ever recall when i’ve done it – not particularly against it, just never felt the need. Plus i shoot such different lighting set ups and locations that a preset can destroy one picture and be perfect for another.

Michael says:

I use presets to replicate my favorite black and white film in Aperture. But it’s always a just starting point, not a one click fix.

Chris Ridley says:

I don’t use any presets at all to be honest, I just make my own adjustments in Lightroom myself on an image by image basis…

Brian Klepper says:

I make my own presets that are specific to me, client and the project if necessary.

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