Why You Should Use Lightroom Presets and When You Should Avoid Them

Why You Should Use Lightroom Presets and When You Should Avoid Them

Lightroom presets are a great way to create quick and effective edits, but if you’re relatively new to photo editing, it might be useful to know how to make the most of them and when they should be avoided.

Whether for an individual image or a large batch of photos from an event such as a wedding, Lightroom presets can be a good way to get started with an edit. Relying on them too heavily or using one when it’s not needed can be a mistake, restricting your knowledge of Lightroom and stopping you from learning. Here are some tips for how to put them to good use and when to hold back.

Creating a Consistent Style

As you develop as a photographer, you will start to create your own style, perhaps gravitating towards certain subjects, types of lighting, locations, or people. Within this style, it can be useful to have a distinctive look and feel to your work that gives it a sense of uniformity. This allows people viewing your work to recognize it as yours and can make your portfolio come across as something that is coherent and works together with a specific aesthetic rather than something that feels varied and scattershot.

Consistent style on Instagram

My Instagram isn't consistent very often, because I'm lazy.

You might already know that an Instagram profile that uses the same style of editing looks far more organized and professional compared to one where every image seems to sit on its own. Similarly, a client receiving a large body of photographs — whether it’s from a sporting event or a wedding — will feel that they are working together if the editing is consistent.

This is where Lightroom presets can come in handy. With presets, you can quickly give the same look and feel to a body of images without having to spend a lot of time editing each photograph individually. As photo editors go, Lightroom is both accessible and powerful, and applying presets has been made straightforward, allowing you to tap into some sophisticated elements without having full knowledge of how they work.

Speed

Presets can dramatically speed up your photo editing. If you’ve just shot 3,000 photographs at a friend’s wedding, you suddenly have a huge amount of editing to do. Once you’ve filtered the day down to, say, 300 photographs, you can apply the same Lightroom presets to all of those photographs and give them the same look and feel.

Lightroom - one project, one preset

You can then go through and edit those photographs individually, tweaking aspects such as exposure and white balance. In addition, if you’re trying to figure out what edit works best for a particular client or event, having a selection of presets immediately available can be a quick way of trialing different styles of edits in order to help make a decision of how to start.

For example, once I’ve imported a batch of images and separated the wheat from the chaff, I typically click on a few presets to see how some of the photographs respond. I might choose something that gives the photographs a lot of grain and muted colors. Alternatively, I might opt for something cleaner with brighter colors and lots of contrast. By clicking between a couple of different presets, I can see dramatically different results without having to wade through endless sliders.

Learning

If you’re new to Lightroom, facing the seemingly infinite number of panels and sliders can be daunting. Exploring how Lightroom presets work can be a great way to start understanding how this software functions.

When you’ve found a preset that works for a photo or a batch of images, spend time looking at how it is creating specific effects. Start opening up some of the editing panels and figure out some of the changes that the preset has introduced.

Lightroom, Jamie Windsor Kodachrome presets

The only pack of presets I've ever bought, Kodachrome, as created by Jamie Windsor. There's some magic happening in the HSL/Color panel.

If you’ve never checked out split tones, you might find that a preset is bringing some blue into the shadows and some orange into the highlights. You can toggle this panel on and off to see the impact that it has, and you can easily start playing with the Split Tone panel's shadow and highlight saturation to see its effects.

Why You Shouldn’t Use Lightroom Presets

Lightroom presets can be a blunt tool. Knowing how to make the most of presets can also mean knowing when to avoid them or at least understand their limitations.

One Size Definitely Does Not Fit All

Every photograph is different, so simply because a preset works well for one photo doesn’t mean it will automatically work well on another. Spending money on a preset from a famous photographer doesn’t mean that it will be a one-size-fits-all solution.

For example, if you apply a preset that has a cold, desaturated feel to it — perhaps putting a lot of cool blue into the shadows — it might undermine the gorgeous portrait that you shot during golden hour. A lot of the vibrancy produced by the low sun will be taken away, and all of that gorgeous warmth could be lost.

Lightroom presets

One golden afternoon in the forest, two very different presets.

Other aspects such as the dynamic range within a photograph will also have a huge bearing on how a preset will respond. If you’re ready to get your head around something a little more complex, be sure to check out this in-depth video which explores the limitations of presets and offers a sophisticated solution.

Going Too Heavy

What doesn’t help is that a lot of presets available online — particularly those which are free to download — are quite heavy-handed. The stronger the edit, the less versatile a preset may be. If you’re trying to develop your Lightroom skills by using a preset as a starting point, opting for a preset that creates a more subtle effect will probably be more productive in the long run.

It’s worth also noting that heavier edits can be distracting, and editing will never make up for a weak photograph. If you’re starting out, consider that if the first thing a person sees is your editing, you’ve taken it too far.

When a Lightroom preset is too heavy-handed

If people see the edit before they see the photo, you've gone too far.

I had my own reminder with this recently. Posting this article made me realize that I’d become blind to the heaviness of the vignettes that I was adding to my shots, prompting me to try and look at my edits with fresh eyes. Taking a break from your editing is essential, and I might spend weeks tweaking and prevaricating before I’m happy with the result when working on a specific image.

Presets Make You Lazy

Presets can be a handy shortcut, but an overreliance risks making you lazy. If there’s a very specific look that you’re after, there’s no problem, but as soon as you need to tweak an image because a preset doesn’t quite work or a client wants something that isn’t covered among your list of installed Lightroom presets, you might suddenly find yourself a bit lost.

In short, presets can give immediate results, but ideally, they should be a tool for learning, not just a means of getting a quick edit to go on your Instagram.

Becoming a Clone

While we’d all like to become the next Alex Strohl or Chris Burkhard, replicating their edits with a couple of Lightroom presets is not going to be enough.

Though it’s great to take inspiration from those we admire, there’s a lot to be said for creating your own style. Of course, with so many photographers out there producing endless amounts of work, this is no easy task, but that’s not a reason not to try.

Have a look at the Instagram @insta_repeat, which pokes fun at photographers all replicating the same shots of canoes and yellow jackets in front of waterfalls. As well as the identical setups, note how similar much of the editing is. Of course, there’s a reason why these styles are popular, but it’s worth trying to develop your own look and feel within this space, rather than replicating the orange and teal, crushed blacks, or muted greens that are in vogue right now.

Spending Too Much Money

As discussed, drawing inspiration from your favorite photographer by buying their presets is a good way to get started, but it’s not a complete solution.

Keep in mind that the presets that you have bought are not magic. That photographer is (hopefully) drawing on several years of experience in order to produce and sell that preset, but there’s no reason why you can’t do the same once you have the knowledge.

All it requires is a bit of research and experimentation. Rather than spend $100 on a huge pack of presets from which you might only use a handful, you can spend time instead of money developing your own. As a bonus, at the end of the process, you’ll know much more about Lightroom as a result, and you can put the money that you saved towards some new gear instead.

In Conclusion

Lightroom presets are quick and easy to use, but it’s useful to understand when to use them, how to learn from them, and when they should be avoided. While they can be a blunt tool that turns you into a clone, presets can also be a useful means of creating your own style.

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20 Comments

Teresa Oldenbourg's picture

So...what happened to just 4 hours ago, you posted saying why we should use capture one over light room? This is the kind of thing that upsets people. I know you have sponsors but, maybe at least dont have the same person doing such hypothetical post.

Andy Day's picture

I use both. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Furthermore, even if I were to prefer Capture One, what is to stop me from explaining the benefits and pitfalls of using presets in Lightroom? I'm confused. Because I think one is better (which, incidentally, I don't), I'm not allowed to suggest how to make the most of the other?

FYI, I'm not in the pay of either company, and nor is Fstoppers for these two articles. As required by basic editorial standards — not to mention the law — all sponsored posts published on Fstoppers are clearly marked as such.

Greg Wilson's picture

My thoughts precisely. Also both posts are of zero value.

Andy Day's picture

I'm sorry that you also thought my article was hypothetical.

I am confused. Is there some law that says a photographer can’t write about different brands of editing software?

You obviously have a chip on your shoulder and I doubt if you have even read or watched any of this. In other words, you're just a troll.

Greg Wilson's picture

Why You Should Stop Writing Useless Posts With Clickbait Titles. May Be It's a Good Time To Stop Wasting Your Life, Learn Something New and Become Someone Useful Like a Healthcare Worker, a Teacher or a Software Engineer.

Andy Day's picture

Keep it coming, Greg! I get paid per comment. 😁

I found the article helpful. To follow your own advice, you could write some articles yourself rather than sniping at those who do

Hanaa Turkistani's picture

ITS VALUABLE INFORMATION AND TUTORIAL ANDY ,,THANKS FOR SHARE
I ALWAYS DEPEND ON PSD BUT U MAKE ME WANNA TRY SOME PRESETS IN LR
, MANY PPL NEED THIS !

Tom HM's picture

Thanks Andy. After a few years of using Lightroom, I've pretty much come to the exact same conclusions as you. Also, I've had Jamie Windsor's preset page open in another tab for far too long whilst deliberating whether to press go. I reckon I'll go for it. What's the worst that can happen, right? I'd have at least supported a creative who's videos have given me a lot of value.

Andy Day's picture

Hey Tom, glad it was interesting, even though you're a few years into using Lr. And yes, I was in a similar situation regarding Jamie's presets and I'm super pleased at having pulled the trigger. I won't use a fair few of the presets (though I genuinely appreciate the hard work that went into them) but I'm really enjoying the ones that I like. And beyond that, I like supporting Jamie because I'm such a huge fan of his videos.

I don't use presets. If my images need heavy editing, as you say in this article, they are not good enough to use. I see Jared "Fro" Polin push his presets all the time, yet I'm not particularly drawn to the concept.

Andy Day's picture

Hey Howard. I think it's useful to think of presets as a means of speeding up a workflow rather than a heavy-handed way of brutalising an entire set of images. Most of my own presets are really subtle, perhaps a way of tweaking the black point across a set of images, or bringing in a gradient with a range mask to tone down the highlights in a sky without ruining other parts of an image. If you're ignoring their potential completely, I fear you might be missing out on a powerful feature.

Interesting article, thanks. I’ve been using Lightroom for six months and have yet to use presets on any of my images. I quite enjoyed the process of learning it from first principles. But this article has inspired me to use them as an educational tool to understand how they were constructed. As I am an enthusiast and not a professional, having a consistent house style for my images is not essential.

Andy Day's picture

Hey Stephen! I wrote this article with photographers such as yourself in mind. Glad it was of use. 😊

AND now pepole are mad that he uses C1 and LR? really?

Thank you Andy, despite all complaints I read, I found it helpful. People forget there are photographers of all skill levels at FStoppers. If I could get one phrase out of your article would be: "If people see the edit before they see the photo, you've gone too far."

Andy Day's picture

Hey Marcel. Glad you enjoyed it. 😊