The One Question You Need To Ask Before Buying Another Preset

When should I buy a preset?

“Hey Guys. What preset should I buy to get that light and airy look?”

“Help! I bought this preset, but my images aren’t turning out like I imagined. What am I doing wrong?”

“These presets don’t work!”

If you spend any time hanging around one of the many photography Facebook Groups you will have no doubt come across many discussions and debates about presets and which ones to buy.

But there is one question in particular – and it is a big one - that every photographer forgets to ask before deciding to purchase yet another preset:

Am I shooting for the style I want?

Now what do I mean by this? In today’s oversaturated market, every photographer is looking to stand out. They want a signature look that is instantly recognisable to their audience. There is a common misconception that presets will do just that; transform any image to achieve a unique style. Just slap it on and off you go! And while it is indeed true that presets can indeed help you achieve your signature style, they aren’t really the solution to creating high quality images that will get you noticed. Presets will never replace good old-fashioned photography skills.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love presets! I use them all the time, but I always view them as a tool for providing the finishing touches at the end of a much bigger creative process. They are simply minor tweaks meant to enhance a photo. In reality, the hard work begins well before you hit that magical “apply preset” button. It is all about how you use your camera. If you aren’t shooting for the look you want, your preset is pretty much a waste of money.

As an example, let’s take a closer look at the light and airy look that is currently taking wedding photography by storm. It is by far the most desired style of the moment. I see lots of photographers trying to achieve this look, purchasing presets at great expense, and ending up frustrated with mixed results. The crux of the matter is this: if you want that light and airy photograph then you need to shoot for it not simply apply a preset. The photographers who are nailing this style are all deliberate in how they shoot; from time of day, to location, to what the bride and groom are wearing. Every decision is taken to ensure a light and airy feel before the data file even sees a computer. The preset is simply a small part of a much bigger picture.

When I see photographers struggling with presets, I can tell immediately that it has everything to do with the photograph itself and no preset is going to change it for the better. Below I’ve compiled a list of things to consider when shooting that will greatly improve your experience and outcomes with presets.

1)    Learn to shoot manual. To be fully in control of your unique style then you need to learn to shoot manual. Without these skills you will never be able to create consistency and manipulate scenes in a way you want. Everything from brightness to depth of field can be controlled when you learn to use your camera on manual. If you aren’t shooting manual, then learning how to needs to be your first port of call if you are truly serious about creating a signature look and using presets effectively.

2)    Available Light. I cannot stress the importance of light enough. It is the single biggest factor that will determine whether a preset works the way you want it to or not. Light and airy photographers are very deliberate in the time of day they shoot. They always aim for the “pink hour”; that time between golden hour and blue hour. They avoid midday light at all costs. (To be honest, most people should just avoid midday light FULL STOP) Messing about with the white balance slider will never achieve the same impact as shooting at the right time of day to capture the best light for your desired style. To figure out when to shoot, I would advise looking at photographs that really resonate with you. When are they shooting? What temperature is being created by the light they use? Can you shoot at those times? Give it a go and see how the application of your preset improves massively!

Now there is one caveat: where you are based will massively impact the type and quality of light available to you. The best light and airy photographers all seem to be based on the California coast. This is no coincidence. The light created in California is unlike any other. It is full of pink tones and lends itself well to the style. There is a softness to it that helps photographers avoid harsh blacks and shadows. If we compare this to say, London (where I am currently), we end up with a very different type of light. The light here feels cooler, the shadows are deeper and there are more grey days. I find my images are always a little less saturated in London than when I’m in California. You can definitely still get a light and airy look, but it will have a different feel about it and there is nothing you can do to change that – not even applying a preset. Embrace it! So next time you are out with our camera think about the light available to you in your specific location. Does it lend itself to the look you are going for? Work with what you’ve got and run with it.

3)    Exposure. Are you looking for a light and airy look or dark and moody? Then expose for that! All too often we follow what everyone else recommends. How many times have we all heard to underexpose to avoid blowing out the highlights? Or we tell ourselves we can fix exposure in Lightroom? Sure, we can do that. But if you expose for the look you want then you will have a much easier time applying a preset and getting the desired impact. That is because even when we adjust that exposure slider, if we underexpose, the blacks and shadows will always be just that bit heavier than if upped the exposure ever so slightly. The next time you are out with your camera, I challenge you to expose for the look you are trying to achieve and see if it helps when you apply a preset.

4)    Location. Location. Location. There is no easy way to put it. The backdrop matters! Take a quick look at photographers you admire. Where are their images set? In a sea of lush green Spanish moss, in a forest full of pink cherry blossoms, or next to a vibrant sea? Finding the perfect backdrop can make or break a photo. A preset will not fix the fact that you shot your subject in a non-descript parking lot or a bog-standard wedding venue. Backdrops have a huge impact on the image in terms of color tones and overall emotion. You need to location scout before a shoot to find a backdrop that matches your vision and compliments your preset.

5)    The “I’ll fix it in post” mentality. A bad photograph can almost never be fixed in post-production and a preset will most certainly not help. Shoot correctly and consistently in camera and always view post-processing as a way to enhance your image, not fix it.  

So before you rush out and spend another $100 on a preset that you are certain will transform your photography, take a good hard look at your current photographic technique. Is it appropriate for the look you want to achieve? Will the preset complement your photography or are you just looking for a quick fix? Think about what you can change to achieve your desired look and work with what you’ve got. I guarantee that if you set yourself up correctly in camera, presets can transform your photographic game.   

As ever, I’m cheering you on!