Why nobody should be buying presets by other photographers.
The most difficult part about writing this was determining the best analogy to use. After passing up on a few contenders, I circled back around to pillow talk because it seemed more apt. What better thing to compare photography presets to than to a bunch of sweet nothings?
I roll my eyes at the hordes of YouTube photographers pushing their photography presets. I've muttered under my breath more times than I care to count at photographers I actually respect who've succumb to one of the biggest money-making scams around. Throw a dart at a grouping of your favorite photographers - you'll probably hit one who's pushing a presets pack regularly priced at $59.99 but which are now on sale for a limited time for $39.99. The hilarious thing is, these presets - all of them - hold no intrinsic or artistic value whatsoever. Let's take a look at presets and why they are in fact, sweet nothings to be ignored.
It's merely another revenue stream for the photographer
Let's point out the obvious first. There is only one reason why photographers push presets: to make money. Nobody is doing this from the bottom of their heart so that their customers can improve their photography - there's nothing altruistic about the gesture. It's all about money. Nothing more needs to be explained on this front. Scooby-Doo and the gang can sit this one out.
Professional photographers rarely use their own presets that they sell
How do I know this? Because the professional photographers I follow and have studied don't share images which look like they've come out of a cookie cutter or like they popped out of the filter gallery of a smartphone's gas station restroom toilet. They take pride in the work done in their cameras in the field and additionally take pride in their post-processing work. They'd never subject their images to the ridiculously arbitrary sets of global adjustments they're pimping out on their websites.
Presets example images are already great-looking shots
Case in point is the header image I've borrowed from the Internet (under reuse license). The original shot was taken during golden hour with the sun low in the sky and with light beautifully filtering in through the trees. In this particular case, you could apply just about any crappy preset and this image will look "great". This is one example of how presets can be misleading in their promise to deliver great end products. More pillow talk. More sweet nothings for the buyer.
"Presets are just the starting point."
I've heard one too many photographers say something similar when they make a video demonstrating their presets. Even Jared Polin, who used to hate presets, jumped into the presets game only recently and pimps his Fro Packs.
I was curious to find a positive review, and I've included this below. What I want to point out is this. If you look at the settings on any of the examples, you'll see for yourself there isn't anything magical about the presets. They're all adjustments any photographer could have made, should be making in post independent of some other photographer's formula.
My rebuttal to the "presets are just the starting point" mantra is, au contraire! Your best starting point is your RAW editor, whether that be Photoshop, Lightroom, Capture One, etc. In the amount of time you spend tweaking a preset to make it work, you could easily edit your work according to your own aesthetics.
How "creative" is it to rely on presets in your work?
Both the short and long answers to this question is, not at all.
What about film simulation presets?
What about them? They're just presets, or in more advanced versions, added effects via plugins. The header image I used is an example of a suite of film simulation. Like I already pointed out, the example image is already a decent image. But let's look at this phenomenon for a moment.
Once more I'm afraid there is a horde of photographers, some of them who shoot film or used to, who have attempted to replicate certain film looks. Again, these are merely presets and plugins which can be replicated in most RAW editors. But really, if you want a film look you should be shooting with actual film. No excuses. Take the time, spend the money, learn the craft, and print your work. Be a film photographer.
As a side note, I've seen photographers who shoot film and then scan their negatives in order to process them digitally! They don't even bother to learn editing in the darkroom like the photographers they admire. To top it off, they don't even print their work. Here's some first-class pillow talk, ladies and gentlemen: the look of film is even more important to some photographers than the actual medium and process which produced the image.
When should a photographer use presets?
There are legitimate uses for presets. The one which makes sense is for when a photographer has shot the same location in mostly the same lighting conditions. Pro photographers working weddings may also find it huge time-saver to use presets to render bulk work to give it the same "look" or continuity. Same thing for landscape shooters or even street photographers who are producing multiple images within the same environment. So here's when it's appropriate to use presets: When you, as photographer, make them for your own work. All the sliders are addressing the same conditions. This is when the slogan "presets are just a starting point" makes practical sense. A photographer can shoot 1,000 images and apply the same basic presets which are otherwise time-consuming to replicate for each image. These basic adjustments may include tweaking of the exposure, highlights, shadows, curve adjustments, and color balance, among others.
It boils down to this. There's no need to waste time and money on the pillow talk of another Instagram or YouTube photographer. They're trying to make money off the backs of beginner insecurities. I personally believe this is wrong. Photographers should be instructing others on the usefulness of creating presets for one's own work.
This is why my hats off to people like Unmesh Dinda, whose tutorials are extremely useful in a great many things Photoshop. I've included one of his videos below for creating LUTs in Photoshop. Below this, I've shared a Lightroom masterclass video by Mark Galer. I strongly believe that photographers should learn the art of editing before they invest time designing their own presets. To learn presets design prior to understanding basic post processing is a lot like wanting to learn how to cliff dive before learning how to swim.