Lightroom presets – a startup guide

What are Lightroom presets?

Lightroom presets are small files that store specific adjustments you make to an image in Lightroom. These settings can be recalled by one click on the saved preset. Using presets can be a fast and effective way of editing you images.

However, there are a few things you need to be aware of with presets. Presets are powerful, but they also have some drawbacks. In this article I will guide you through the most important things to get you started with presets in Lightroom

What you will learn

  • What is a Lightroom preset
  • Different types of presets - there is more than one
  • Global and Local presets
  • Preset limitations
  • Why and when to use presets

Will presets make you a better photographer?

The answer is probably no. It is easy to be mislead to think presets are shortcuts to make your photos better - with one click. This is not at all the reality. You still need to make good photos in camera. Lightroom presets is a help to add a final touch to your images.

No photos look the same so applying one preset to all your images will obviously not work. If you have bought or installed free Lightroom presets you have probably experienced the problem. Lightroom presets you can download from the Internet are often one-click presets.

lightroom presets
One-click presets

In one-click presets a bunch of Lightroom adjustment are built into the same preset. In many situations this doesn't work. One-click presets made by others simply don’t look good applied to your images.

I have tried a whole bunch of Lightroom presets over the years. I have scrapped most of them again because they make no sense for me to use.

But I have also collected some real good presets that helps me in my everyday editing. These presets are well thought through and made by photographers knowing how to build useful presets.

One problem with presets made by other photographers is they create the presets based on their own photos. When the result is satisfying they save the settings as a preset.

As photographers we have different styles. Presets made for portrait and wedding photographers might not be as useful for a landscape photographer.

Another issue is images do not come out of the camera with the same exposure. Some images are darker while others are brighter. If the preset significantly reduce or increase the exposure as part of the command, it will mess up your photos.

Therefore in my opinion Exposure is one of the settings that should not be a part of a one-click preset. I rarely include exposure adjustments into my Lightroom presets.

I always make the exposure adjustment to my taste before I start using any presets. I will cover some of the other limitations with presets further down the page.

Different types of Lightroom presets

Most users of Lightroom are familiar with Develop presets. But there are several other presets that can save you time when you process your images.

You don’t utilize the full power of Lightroom unless you use these presets as well. Some of them are extremely useful. In addition to the Develop presets the other most useful types of presets are:

Import presets

These presets are automatically applied to your images when you import the images into Lightroom. With Import presets you can add specific common keywords to your photos. You can add specific metadata like your name and copyright information. You can add lens profile corrections specific for your camera and the lens you use.

If you have a standardized workflow, you can tailor the Import presets in detail. Doing this properly can save you a lot of time later in the process.

Export presets

Export presets is another extremely powerful type of presets. You can create presets which contains the desired size you want to export the image to, how much sharpening you want to add and a lot more.

Another cool way of using Export presets is you can include the destination of the image into presets as well. The destination can be your hard drive, an external disk or Internet sites like your blog or web page. You can export images directly to your Facebook and Flickr accounts and other social media sites.

With Export presets set up correctly you will save a lot of work when it is time to show your images to the world. You simply drag the photo to the relevant Export preset and boom it is transferred to the right location, with the correct size for its purpose. Pretty neat, right?

lightroom presets

The image above shows the Publish Services menu. You can drag the images you want to export here. The size and sharpening you have decided will be applied to the image automatically.

lightroom presets

In the Publish Manager dialog box you can apply different settings to your images

Develop presets

Develop presets are by far the most popular and known presets in Lightroom. With a few exceptions, you can store most changes you make in Lightroom in a preset.

But keep in mind not all settings are suitable for presets. Develop preset can do a lot of things with your images - both good and crazy things.

Develop presets are available, not surprisingly, from the Develop module. If you are familiar with Lightroom you know there are settings that are global and a few that are local adjustments.

Global presets

Most of the sliders in Lightroom are global. Typically when you make an adjustment to one slider the effect is applied to the whole image. But Lightroom has three other very powerful filters that work locally on specific parts of your images.

Local presets

The Gradient filter, the Radial filter and the Adjustment brush are all intended to make small (local) adjustments to you images. These three are my favorite tools in Lightroom. Unfortunately and of obvious reasons those three tools will not work well in Lightroom presets.

The gradient filter is maybe an exception in landscape photography. In images with a well-defined horizon line, you can add preset with a gradient filter to enhance the sky.

For the two other filters, it is different. Let's say you brighten a rock in one image using the radial filter and save this as a preset. The chance is small this local adjustment is located in the exact same place in your next image. The same applies to the adjustment brush.

It is not possible to store the Adjustment brush, the Crop tool and the Spot removal tool settings in Lightroom presets.

Local adjustment brush presets

The local adjustment brush, however, has a separate type of presets which are useful. The Adjustment brush presets can only be used when the Adjustment brush is activated. New Lightroom users often overlook this feature.

lightroom presets

Stacked presets

As I have already mentioned many of the Lightroom presets you can download are made as one-click presets. The problem with this type of presets is you can not add several of them after each other and build up the desired effect.

Unless the presets are built for stacking, the adjustments from one preset will overwrite the settings from the previous one. However, with properly made stacked presets you can. You can go through the whole editing workflow by clicking one preset after another till you get the desired result.

Limitations of Develop presets

Presets are absolute.

Let's say you have two underexposed images. The first is 1-stop underexposed and the second is 2-stops underexposed. There is no way you can create one preset that will correct the exposure in both images.

Ideally would have been to create a +1-stop exposure preset and added this preset twice to adjust the second image. The +1-stop preset will adjust both images 1-stop. While the first image will be OK, the second will still be underexposed, now with 1-stop.

The only solution to this is to make two presets, one +1-stop and a second +2-stops. This is typically what is done in stacked presets. You can build presets with incremental adjustments.

In which situations are presets useful

For fun

As a beginner with Lightroom you will find it is fun to play around with different random presets and see which effect they make to your images. Expect many presets not to be of much value.

Another thing I don’t like with many of the presets you can download are all the crazy meaningless names the creators put on their presets. These names don't tell you what effect the presets is supposed to have.

Sometimes it seems the creators of presets have spent more time on creative names than making good presets.

Learning and inspiration

As a beginner, playing with Lightroom presets can be inspiring and a good way to learn the effects of the different sliders. If you find an effect you like you can look at the sliders and learn which settings are used.

Presets as a starting point

Since I started to use Lightroom in 2010, I have bought and downloaded a lot of Lightroom presets. Some of them are quite good but very few of these presets works without small tweaks. I use them as a good starting point and make the necessary adjustments depending on the image.

Time saver

If you have downloaded or created your own preset with an effect you like, you can quickly add the same effect to many images. This is useful if you have many similar images from a portrait shoot or wedding and you want to add the same effect to several of the photos.

For landscape photographers, most images are different, so this is not that useful. In my workflow I rarely batch process my images. Each image needs to be processed individually. I have a few sets of useful stacked presets which I use regularly.

Live preview

Another great feature and time saver is the preset preview window. If you use the preview window you don’t need to click all presets to see the effect. You get an idea from the preview which preset will work or not on a particular image.

lightroom presets

Save your favorite settings

Lightroom has a huge amount of sliders and options to fine tune your images. During the editing process you might create effects you are really happy with and save them as presets.

This way you don’t have to memorize what you did to get the same effect again with another image. Next time it is a simple click on the preset. Remember to give the preset a good and relevant name so you can find it later.

Lightroom is an extremely powerful image editing tool for all kind of photographers. On of the best resources to learn more about Lightroom is Lightroom Killer Tips.

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