Presets vs. Actions

In the world of post processing (ie...editing your photos after you take them) the subject of presets and actions can tend to be a dramatic one. I've seen post after post in various group forums on the subject which can oftentimes get heated. The interesting thing is that the drama doesn't usually arise based on which one is "better" but rather on...

  • if either are necessary at all
  • if photographers who use them aren't "skilled" and use them as a crutch
  • the theory that so many photographers end up creating and selling their own versions and are taking advantage of newer photographers as a way to make easy money

Of course, I have opinions on all of those things (which I will address a little later in the post) but I think one of the more important things to talk about is what these things are, how they differ, and if they do actually provide any sort of benefit. 

Presets vs. Actions | Cinnamon Wolfe Photography | NJ Wedding Photographer

What are presets and actions?

Presets and actions are both editing tools. They are basically both a set of "recorded" steps that you can "apply" to your photo once it's in either Lightroom or Photoshop.

Lightroom uses presets. Actions are used in Photoshop. 

How are they different?

The simplest way I can describe what a preset is, is that it's a snapshot of a series of adjustments you make in Lightroom. Let's say you were to take a RAW photo into LR, adjust the exposure, tone curve, sharpening, contrast and clarity and then snapshot what you have just done and give it a name....then you have a preset. The next photo you can simply click that preset and it will automatically do all of those steps you just did on the first photo, on the second photo. It's essentially a time saving effort to apply the same effect to multiple photos at once. 

An action in PS works very similarly, but since the options effects in PS are numerous, actions tend to be a little more complicated. Everything in PS works off of a series of layers that are "stacked" on top of your original photo. One action may have 15 different layers of things that have been "recorded" into the action and any one of those things you can turn on or off or even brush parts of that step on or off certain areas of the photo. 

One of the main differences between presets and actions is that a preset is applied to the entire photo. You can't necessarily take the preset effect away from one area of the photo and keep it in others. With actions, since they work on a layers system and you can add layer masks, you can apply different effects to the photo in different places. You have much greater flexibility and options with your editing. 

So what's the big fuss? 

When you first become a part of the photography community, it seems as if you get inundated with information about presets and actions. I know I did!! The draw to them as a new photographer makes sense. 

You are trying to figure all this technical stuff are constantly looking at other more established photographers work and wanting to make your own photos look like theirs. The "promise" of presets and actions is typically that they can take your photos and make them into works of art in one easy click. 

If I could interview 50 photographers who have been in the field for more than three years I would venture that at least 50% (if not more) bought WAY too many sets of presets or actions or both when they first started out and now they don't use hardly ANY of them!

Why? A couple of reasons. 

The biggest reason becomes very obvious once you start using them. They don't always work with every photo you have, especially if you are new and haven't really begun to nail things in camera. 

If your white balance is off or if your exposure is off, there is nothing a preset or action will to do help you, you have to fix those things first. What I find funny is that a lot of presets and actions that you might buy are essentially minor changes to white balance or exposure when a simple change in the exposure slider will do the exact same thing. I think this is where some of the "using them as a crutch" sentiment comes in. If you are using presets or actions instead of actually learning HOW to use LR or PS, it will likely end up causing you more frustration in the long run. 

However, on the converse, if you buy some presets or actions and fiddle around with them enough, they can actually help TEACH you how to learn these editing programs. By clicking on the preset or playing the action, you can SEE what has been altered to make the photo look the way it does and you can recreate that on your own, taking out the things you don't like. I show you a little bit of what I mean in the below video. 

As for photographers taking advantage of newer photographers by creating and selling these things, who can really judge their intentions? There are probably some really complicated effects (like film emulsion editing for example) that presets might work really well for, and there are a lot of places selling presets and actions that will likely sit on your computer and hardly get any use after a while, and some might end up getting more use than others especially once you feel like you have defined your "style" a little bit more. 

In the past three years, my editing style has become much more clean and bright and classic. When I first started I was really drawn to matte effects and while I still really love that style, I don't think it totally fits the kind of work I want to do on a consistent basis. I have some editing techniques down that include a base preset that I made of the adjustments I was consistently making and I don't do much more editing than that. I hardly ever take images into PS except to take out large objects or do extensive cloning or minor liquefaction. 

Here is a short video on using presets and actions in both Lightroom and Photoshop and a little more information on how you can learn to edit by using them. 

If you are interested in trying out some presets and/or actions, I would highly recommend Greater than Gatsby. They make a few really nice collections of each and they are simple to use, well organized and overall great to learn from. 

What do you think? Better to edit on your own or use resources like presets and actions? 

The First Year // Editing

While I was in the throws of learning how to use my camera and properly expose a photo, I quickly discovered that I couldn't do two really important things with the pictures I was taking.

1) I couldn't shoot in RAW* because I didn't have a program to open up those file types with and

2) I couldn't really edit a photo successfully with the meager programs I had on my computer. 

*I should mention that during this time, I also learned what it meant to shoot in RAW as opposed to JPEG. At first I was slightly intimidated because everything I read mentioned how the data for the picture was captured separately and not compressed into an actual image. I thought I would open up a RAW image and see a bunch of weird code that I wouldn’t know what to do with. I could not have been more wrong. Once I had a program that could open RAW files, all of my fears were put to ease and I realized why shooting in RAW was so important.

Enter Lightroom (LR). 

I knew LR was what a LOT of photographers used, but had heard some interesting things about PS Elements as well.  After trying out 30-day trials of both LR and PS Elements, I dove in and purchased LR.  LR was very intuitive and easy to use and I took quickly to it and began watching video after video of how to import, organize and edit my photos.

I also learned the difference in presets and actions. Presets are used in LR and actions are used in PS or versions of PS. They both do pretty much the same thing, just in different ways. They apply a set of changes to your photo based on what sort of look you want to achieve. All of the things can be done individually, but a preset or action is basically a saved set of steps so you don’t have to do everything individually to each photo each time. They can save you a ton of work.

I discovered early on that editing was really fun for me. It is where my artistic and creative side can really come out and flourish. I enjoy taking pictures immensely, but when you are taking photos of people, there is a whole other set of things you are focused on in addition to the actual picture taking, so editing gave me the opportunity to really sit and focus on being creative in the moment without having to think of a million other things at the same time.

I fell into the trap that a lot of newer photographers do as well and ended up purchasing a few different presets from some different companies. While they are generally fun to play around with, some are just not anything you would ever use for a client or not really your style. In the early days, I also think that since the preset made my photo look “different” that meant that it looked “good.” Since then I have really grown into my style and look back at what I thought looked great and shake my head and grin a little bit at my naiveté. 

I will say that using presets did teach me a lot about how to edit without them. With most presets once you click on it, you can see what it has done to your photo. You can see what happened to the contrast, vibrance etc…and by messing with the sliders back and forth you can see what aspect of the photo is changing.

In December of 2013 I signed up for Creative Cloud subscription, which gives me LR and PS for a set amount per month. All updates are available for download as well. There is a lot of controversy over this but I felt it was right for me at the time. Who knows what the future will bring. However, with the addition of PS, a whole world of editing was opening up to me by way of actions. Plus, you can do SO MANY things in PS that are more focused on design rather than photo editing that it really opens up the way to do some cool things for your business.

For the past 6 months I have learned a lot about PS. I still prefer to do most of my work in LR, mostly because it’s just so quick. You can make batch adjustments to photos in seconds. You can export quickly and with different settings that are easy to understand.

I mostly edit by hand. There are maybe three or four presets that I do apply here and there but most of my other adjustments are done by manual adjustment. The gradient tool is probably my favorite editing tool so far. I use it ALL THE TIME. Spot healing and some light skin softening brushes are also commonly used. When I do take a photo into PS its usually because there is a specific look I am wanting to achieve that cannot easily be done in LR.

During this past year I have learned a lot about myself and my art. I study intensely what others do as well and find it so interesting how others approach their art as well. It is a constant challenge to remind yourself that as an artist, you are not aiming to recreate someone else’s work, you are aiming to create your own unique vision. I feel my eye has become more fine-tuned to pick up on these nuances when looking at others work.