Why I Don’t Use Presets

One of my images with a popular preset applied. The white patch on the right is burning my eyes! that highlight was not blown out in the original image.

My feed’s always flooded with ads for photography presets, also known in the social media world as filters. These pre-made sets of editing actions can be mass-applied to a whole photoshoot at once. Some photographers use presets as a tool to save time and give all their work a consistent look.

When a stylized preset is applied, the image can become more about the preset than the actual image itself. For this reason, presets can help increase the impact of images that are lacking in interest or quality. But they fall far short of hand editing when they meet with great image quality and attention to detail.

Clients and colleagues have complimented my processing and asked if presets are a part of my workflow. So, I wanted to take a few minutes to write about my approach to processing, and explain why I don’t use presets.

If you’ve ever followed a photography feed or even talked about photography near your phone, you’ve probably seen preset ads. Brixton film, Jake Olson, who else sells presets? There are so many out there. The example photos look dreamy–bright, rich, deep and intense, or soft, muted, and tranquil. Surreal in a really good way. It’s easy to think that mood was created by the preset alone.

But, no. A professional photographer shot those images, and although the preset was applied, many other actions were also taken to create that final product. When presets are simply applied wholesale, one-and-done style, the effect is not always so dreamy.

Left: My hand edit; Right: a popular preset with no other edits

When I began studying as a photographer, I was incredibly fortunate to have a very patient and technically-minded mentor who taught me in depth how to shoot and edit for the best possible image quality. It was a major milestone for me in my path to begin shooting professionally when I was accepted as a contributor for Adobe Stock and Getty Images–two separate commercial image sources, each with a strict insistence on impeccable image quality. My artistic editing springs from that foundation of technical excellence. I start with a clean image, and branch out to create a little fantasy in my editing without losing that integrity.

Consider the images above. On the left, in my hand edit, I kept the blacks dark and the whites bright, making space for the midtones. I clipped the blacks gently to give a soft matte look. I softened the green but left it a natural hue. I augmented the direction of the light. I removed some distractions from the background and minimized the prominence of the textures in the road and grass. I pumped up her hair and subtly straightened her posture, and I processed her skin first by hand and then by applying my custom look with a sophisticated skin texture algorithm.

Left: My hand edit; Right: the same popular preset as above.

In this detail crop of the same image, you can really see the difference in the level of detail between the hand edit and the image with the preset applied. The preset made her white shirt look blue and her face look orange. Her hair is not flattered, and her eyes are darkened so much that the light in them is almost totally lost. The preset brought out unwanted detail in the background and flattened her face, making it appear more broad. The same broadening and flattening effect can be seen in the preset-applied image below right. The skin tone is unnatural, and popped details in the gate steal attention from her face.

Left: My hand edit; Right: another popular preset–her face is flattened and broadened by detail loss.

I love an artistic, stylized edit, but presets don’t give me that. For my workflow, they remove detail and rob the processing experience of its intention and artistry. There’s nothing a preset can do that I can’t create by hand, which gives me so much more freedom to create.

Left: My hand edit; Right: original image straight out of camera with no edits

Presets do serve as a great reflection of popular culture. In 10 years, we may look back on them with nostalgia the same way we look back now on Glamor Shots, In Living Color, and JNCO pants. SO cool at the time, right? So NOW. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the love may not last.

As much as I enjoy being gently swayed by the changing tides of style, it’s important to me that I stay rooted in classic beauty. I want to make sure the work I’m creating will still be relevant and just as enjoyable in 10, 20, or 50 years. And, above all else, I want my portraits to be about the person, not the processing.

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