It might be controversial to say that buying Lightroom presets is a waste of money, but hear me out. I’m not saying that Lightroom presets are not a good idea. They’re fantastic! 

They’re just not a shortcut to stunning photos, and here’s why…

Why a Lightroom preset won’t work on all photos

A preset is a recipe, it’s like taking a bunch of ingredients and baking them a certain way to get a pie or a cake.

You use flour, butter, and milk for both, but in different quantities. You also add a little bit of this and a little bit of that and then bake it a certain way, in a certain container to get either a pie or a cake.

It’s the same with Lightroom presets. While all photos start with the key ingredient of light, there are many other variables that affect the final look of a photo. However, no matter what your subject is, or the style you want to shoot in, you can’t do it without light.

Most importantly though, light is not just light…

1. There’s different types of light

Even if all you know about light is that natural light and flash are different, already you know that light is not just light. 

You also know that on a cloudy day there are little to no shadows, but on a sunny day the shadows are harsh. The light therefore also affects the look of photos differently.

Further reading: Light quality & quantity of light – essential knowledge

Lightroom tutorial on how to use presets effectively

Taken on a heavily overcast day in winter and processed with my free Lightroom Classic Granite Beach preset, which you can get by filling in the form above.

2. The color of light changes

Even non-photographers know that natural light is different at midday versus sunset. I’ve never seen anyone post a picture of “a midday” on Facebook, but I’ve seen more sunset photos than I can count. The colors are different.

So why would a preset applied to a photo taken at sunset on a clear summer day look the same when applied to a photo taken at midday on a typically overcast winter day?

Further reading: Understand light characteristics for consistently great photos

How to color grade photos in Lightroom Classic with presets

Shot in direct light, late in the day then finished with the same preset used in the photo above and adjusted for the different lighting conditions and color palette.

3. Color palette

The subject, and in the case of portrait photography, what the subject is wearing, as well as the background of a photo determines the color palette of the photo.

So when you apply a develop preset to a photo with a suitable color palette, the results will be better and closer to the original style of the photo the preset was designed for, or as is often the case, advertised with.

You can get the preset here, but keep on reading to find out more about making the most of presets.

Lightroom presets are not a quick fix

Buying Lightroom presets may seem like an easy choice. At first. Until you use them on your photos and the disappointment sets in and you realise you’ve wasted your money.

I get it. You follow a photographer on Instagram or YouTube, or wherever, and you love the look of their photos. So when you see that they’re selling presets used on images you love, you think this would be a great way to get the look.

Well, it is and it isn’t. 

You stand a good chance of replicating the image if you know:

  • The original colors in the scene – environment, as well as subject
  • What type of light was used – purely natural light or flash or flash and natural light or even some other kind of light, like neon shop signs
  • Was it in direct light or diffused light
  • What direction the light was coming from
  • When it was shot – time of day and even what time of year
  • Where it was shot – indoors or outdoors

You don’t need the exact answers to all of these questions, but you do need a feel for the circumstances of the photo to understand the impact of a preset on it, and therefore how it will alter your photo.

Plus, you need to know Lightroom (both Classic and CC) well enough to know which settings to adjust to adapt the preset to your photo.

Effect of Lightroom presets on different photos

I processed the photos on the left. Then I applied the same preset to both photos in the middle, and a different preset to the photos on the right. You can see that they all need adjusting. The middle ones in particular have some blown out highlights on their faces and the photo on the bottom right has gruesome skin tones.

When and how use Lightroom presets

So, after all that… No, Lightroom presets aren’t always a waste of money and yes, they’re a great idea, but…

1. The best reason to buy a Lightroom preset is to:

  • pick it apart to understand what tools were used and how they were tweaked 
  • so that you can take from it what you need 
  • and then apply that knowledge when editing your photos. 

2. The best time to use presets is:

  • every time you process your photos, 
  • as long as it’s a preset you’ve created, or adapted, to speed up your workflow, 
  • knowing exactly the impact it will have on your photos.

3. When you’re ready to create a consistent style:

  • Use your own presets 
  • for particular lighting conditions, moods and colors.

Changing a preset in Lightroom classic

After basic processing, I applied the same preset to all the photos in the top row. For the the second row, I adjusted the preset for each photo, taking into account the light, color palette of the photo and time of day. This created a series of photos that are individually accurately exposed and also work well together as a series, even though they started off looking very different. See below for originals before any presets were applied.

Photos processed in Lightroom Classic before applying preset

What type of Lightroom presets are good

Lightroom presets don’t just change the color of a photo. They’re time savers too. You can use presets to speed up your workflow at every stage of the post production process. 

You can set presets in Lightroom Classic:

  • On import to apply copyright metadata, set a color profile correct lens distortion and also make basic adjustments
  • In post processing to color grade photos and apply a certain look to a shoot
  • In the final stages of post processing before exporting for print to different media
  • On export from Lightroom

Rather learn how to use Lightroom properly so that you can create your own presets that work exactly how you want.

Either spend the time it takes to figure out Lightroom and watch Lightroom tutorials on YouTube. Or, if you don’t have the time and want a quick solution, instead of buying presets before you know the software, take an online course.

Learn to fish, rather than having to buy fish every time you want fish.

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If you have any questions about Lightroom Classic presets, let us know in the comments.

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By Jane Allan

Jane is the founder of The Lens Lounge and a professional portrait photographer living on the “sunny” south coast of England. Obsessed with light and composition. Will put her camera down to go landsailing.

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Why buying Lightroom presets is a waste of money