If you follow any popular photographer on YouTube or Instagram, chances are, that you’ve been pitched to buy their Lightroom presets. Some photographers actually give theirs away, while some charge a pretty penny. Which leads to the question, are Lightroom presets worth buying?
If you search the Internet for this question, you would mostly find strong opinions telling you to not buy any presets at all. But I will give you a more balanced answer with both the for and against perspective.
Ultimately, photography is an art form, and it is very personal. Some people would be content with simply clicking pictures and saving it, while some will spend hours editing it to gain the maximum number of likes on Instagram. Of course, there are others, but what I am trying to say is that without knowing the photographer, it is hard to unanimously support a single opinion.
I’ll be honest. I have used presets before, and I have even paid for some of them. If I admitted this fact on any popular photography forum, I’m sure I’d be dismissed very quickly. But, I do think there are some advantages of using presets that most photographers (even professionals) will agree with.
The first advantage of using presets is that they are great for beginners to start with Lightroom. When I first used Lightroom, I was an amateur photographer. But, I was an absolute beginner with Lightroom. I took lots of training videos, trial and error, and many headaches to understand how to get my way around Lightroom and create a certain look.
That aside, if I had access to some presets that I liked, it would have made my life much simpler as I could have tweaked the preset themselves to learn quickly.
Perhaps the most important use of presets is when you have to work with hundreds or even thousands of photos. Think about a wedding. A typical wedding is a grand event, and usually, a team of photographers can easily capture 10,000 pictures or more in a couple of days. It would be time sink-hole to individually edit all these photos from scratch. Using presets to achieve a consistent look is the way to go in this case.
This is an extension of the point I made above. Whenever a consistent look of photos is important, whether you are shooting professionally, or just for Instagram, presets can make your job much easier. All you have to make sure that your pictures are taken in similar lighting conditions, and apply your favorite preset.
Let’s face it. Lightroom presets are dead simple to use. Just import them, click a button, and boom, your pictures look “better”. I specifically said “better” because while I do believe that most beginners love the results that presets bring, most professionals feel that they produce overly-saturated, artificial-looking images. Leaving that judgment aside, it is hard to argue against the simplicity of using presets. Most beginners love them, and frankly, most presets are targeted at them as well.
If we look at the big picture, then the most important reason to use presets is to save time. You can edit thousands of photos by hand, but is it necessary? Is that the best use of your time to so? Are you getting paid to edit each image, or are enjoying the process immensely? If you could use a preset to save many hours of your time, why would you not use them?
Till now, I’ve mentioned the advantages of using presets. But, there are plenty of disadvantages as well. Here are some of the most common disadvantages of using Lightroom Presets.
There is a reason they are called presets, not preset, as whatever bundle you purchase usually has 10, 20, sometimes, hundreds of presets. Some photographers even categorize their presets based on the mood — bright sunny, dim inside, snowy, etc. The problem is, no matter how specific of a preset you use, the end result will not be exactly the look you thought you’d get. In short, Lightroom presets are not always what you see is what you get.
The reason for that is because you can’t exactly replicate the shooting conditions for the images that were used as a reference when creating the presets in the first place. If your picture isn’t shot in the exact same conditions, then the results from the preset won’t be consistent with what you expect. There is one exception though. If the presets are created for RAW images, then you might get somewhat consistent results.
If you’ve edited pictures in Photoshop, then you know that most of the time, you can reduce the effect of your edits by using simple sliders. You don’t get that convenience with presets. As presets are a collection of settings, you have to make manual adjustments to the image to achieve the desired look. And if you’re going to customize the preset anyway, then why not learn to make your own? You will get to learn Lightroom better and also develop your own distinct style.
It’s rare that you apply a preset to a picture and be completely satisfied with the final result. Usually, there is quite a bit of tinkering needed before you can reach the final look that pleases you. The problem is, without knowing your way around Lightroom, any tweaking you do usually makes matters worse. Only when you know your way around the controls can you create the perfect picture.
This poses an interesting question. If you have to edit the presets to your liking, should you be buying them in the first place? Doesn’t it make sense to just create your own?
Honestly, making your own Lightroom presets isn’t that hard. If you can tweak existing presets, then you can definitely create your own presets as well. Creating your own presets is also a great way to learn Lightroom, and to also hone your creative editing skills. Even if you decide to use some presets for inspiration, or to build upon them, it is a good middle ground between just using presets or not using them at all.
This is perhaps the most important argument against using presets. Photography is an art form, and art has to be unique. Also, art is as much about the journey as the final result. You have to enjoy the process of clicking pictures, finding your style, and then editing those images to your liking. If you simply slap a preset on the images, you are bypassing a critical aspect of the creative process.
Editing pictures is part art and part skill, and skills have to be honed and practiced. If you use just use presets and never learn to edit your pictures from scratch, you will never be able to express your creativity. That is like using other’s words to describe a story. The story might be similar, but it won’t have your voice. That being said, presets have their place, and I’ve already discussed some of their advantages. The point is to not rely completely on them. Use them as a supplement, not as a replacement.
You might have noticed that we’ve been talking about using presets, but the actual topic of this article is should you buy Lightroom Presets. For me personally, it is almost the same thing as presets usually aren’t very expensive. Many photographers do give some away for free, while some charge for it. The question isn’t about a few dollars that you will spend on the presets, the question is, do you need presets at all?
One thing is sure, you shouldn’t spend too much money on any preset pack. A good pack for $25 might be good, but anything above that isn’t usually worth it. On the contrary, if spending a little money helps you save a bunch of time, then you should definitely do it. But, it is always better to create your own presets with your own unique style—regardless of if you buy presets or not. Also, if you like someone’s work and want to support them by buying their presets, that’s a perfectly good reason to buy them as well.
I would be biased if I said that you should never spend money on presets. In fact, we’ve covered some Lightroom presets on our website already. That being said, not all presets are worth the money, but some absolutely are. These would be the presets that are hard to replicate without investing significant time, money, or without special equipment. Or, they could have a certain look that would take a lot of time to replicate by hand. An example that comes to mind is film presets, like the one sold by Mastin Labs. They are pricey (approx. $99 each), but to create them yourself, you’ll need dedicated hardware, a lot of time, skill, and patience. As saving time is the name of the game, you should definitely buy presets like these if you need them.
I hope the answer is clear to you now. Presets have their place in photography but don’t make them the only tool you have at your disposal. Use it to save time, to learn photo-editing skills, but don’t be handicapped by them. As Jamie Windsor said beautifully in a YouTube comment, “Photography is a language by which you create a story. The preset is merely the font.” Practice creating a better story, you can always choose a better font.
If you liked this article, make sure to check out some other Lightroom based content on Photodoto.