The Annoying Problem With Lightroom Presets
If you want Lightroom presets, they aren't hard to find. There are plenty of sites hawking free Lightroom presets. On the other side of the Internet, some of the most profitable sales come from Lightroom presets. So which do you choose?
Lightroom Presets: The Promise
You can't really blame Adobe for the problem with Lightroom presets. They solve an obvious problem. A Lightroom preset is akin to an Excel Macro. It allows you to automatically repeat the steps you took to change an image, create a print or many other options in Lightroom.
Anyone who ever had to deal with dust spots on their sensor can appreciate the impact of automation. Use the spot removal tool to clean up one image and then you can sync it to all the other images from your shoot. It's simple and wonderful. I'll do it during a tethered capture session so every photo I shoot is clean, has the right white balance, and metadata.
Presets take these actions beyond merely syncing data. You don't need a reference photo to use as a template for syncing to other photos.
Therein lies the power and the danger of presets. You don't know when or how they're going to be used on other photos. Photos that have absolutely no relation to the source image you used to sync with other photos.
Lightroom presets promise to make things fast and easy. Amazing how often most mistakes follow the path of fast and easy.
Lightroom Presets: The Painful Reality
Here's the problem. Lightroom presets are misunderstood. Instead of useful tools to automate changes and corrections, people think of them as lifesavers for bad photos.
It just doesn't work. You can't take a bad photo, sprinkle some awesome sauce on top, and come out with a piece of great art. You can't even get a mediocre piece of art that way. What you get is like a batch of Buffalo wings with bad sauce, and too much of it.
That's not to say that presets are bad, but rather to say there are bad presets. Lots of them. Most of them. Man, a lot of them truly suck. Most Lightroom presets make Instagram filters look better by comparison.
I get the appeal of them. They don't require any commitment of time. Just pick one, apply it, and you're done. Never mind that the model's skin is now green. That's art.
They don't really require any knowledge of post processing, either. Why bother learning how to adjust those sliders to taste when you can crank out a special effect?
Maybe that's why so many Lightroom presets are free. People don't expect much.
The Right Way To Use Lightroom Presets
Presets have never really been my thing, but I love automation. My view is that photos are unique. The development for one doesn't necessarily make it right for another. Even something as seemingly straight forward as a Black & White conversion isn't a one size fits all affair. Different images, different tones. They require different processing adjustments.
There are plenty of vendors cranking out presets for sale that work reasonably well on their sample image. They give them incredibly unhelpful names like Yin/Yang, Aqualung and Chocolate for Dinner. What the hell does any of that mean? Do I use it on a portrait, architecture or travel?
These vendors treat art as if it were immutable.
Nothing could be worse for your images. Doing so relieves you of your own creativity, the very thing that makes you an artist.
Instead of looking at presets as canned art (which is every bit as delicious as canned possum), we can go back to looking at Lightroom presets as tools.
Consider creating your own Lightroom presets as a series of actions that work in a complementary fashion. Create some with different exposure settings. Then create another set for various stages of Clarity. Make presets for the Adjustment Brush that do the same thing, so you can easily scale back highlights or selectively add Clarity.
When you combine too many settings together in a Lightroom preset and slap it on the market for global use on images that you've never seen, you're adding to the decay of photography.
You have incredible power at your fingertips in Lightroom. Just remember one thing. With great power comes great responsibility.
Just say “No” to bad presets and make something unique.