Lightroom presets are nothing more than saved adjustments made to an image. They become one-click adjustments that bring back the saved settings. They are mainly for efficiency in your workflow rather than aesthetic purposes. For inspiration for the latter, to get some photographic ideas, look at more photographs and try to understand what appeals to you and why. The question is what settings to save and transfer to other photographs you may have. My practice and recommendation to you are to make the presets as granular as possible; a few adjustments per preset. Yes, they will require more mouse clicks but we are talking about a few extra seconds. If you build your actions with too many adjustments, and yes “too many” is vague, you may find yourself removing some of these adjustments after you apply them.
The hidden benefit of building and using your own presets is that you will learn how to use the tools in Lightroom to produce the type of work that speaks for you, which is probably more important than the presets you end up with. Here are a few simple guidelines that I use that may help in your thinking, of course, there are exceptions. Also know that there will be others who will tell you otherwise, you decide! These are the points I try to observe:
- Don’t mix color and tonal adjustments in one preset
- Treat sharpening as a kind of tonal adjustment
- Have different sharpening presets for high, low, mixed frequency images and at different sharpening levels
- Stick primarily to global adjustments, a local adjustment like the healing or adjustment brush may not transfer well from one image to another
- There is no B&W conversion preset that equally applies to all photographs
- Don’t include steps to convert an image to B&W into presets to color-tone B&W photographs
- You can create print presets too, we call them templates but the idea is the same
An example may help. I will use a simple flower photograph, a lovely Datura. After cropping to my liking, there are several problems for my sensibilities. Let’s take a look.
The image on the above left is how the original photograph looked after cropping. You can see the two pointed leaves intruding from the top edge of the frame. That will be the first order of business to take care of. On the right, you see the healing brush fixed areas.
The next step is to fix the overall tonal contrast. For that, I used the tone curve and applied the Lightroom built-in preset “Strong Contrast”. You can see the result on the left. As you can see, the flower is better separated from the background, moving forward and without the distractions at the top. In the meantime, you may also notice that the highlight areas in the background are somewhat subdued, thanks to a gentle adjustment with the Local Adjustment Brush. You can see the selected area and the adjustments applied there on the images on the right.
The colors of the flaring edges of the flower did not reflect the intensity that I saw, so I adjusted the color channels in the Hue-Saturation-Luminance block. You can see the adjustments and the result on the left.
The skirt of the flower was still not to my satisfaction, so I added a radial filter there and another one on the bright stem area at the top. The radial filters and their adjustments are shown below.
The final image is what I ended up with. Now, of these adjustments, which one or ones are candidates for a preset that I may use on other photographs? Clearly, the healing brush will not carry over on other images, discard that. Radial filter size and positions will most likely be different for different images, drop that from consideration too. Adjustment brush falls into the same category, don’t include that in the preset. Unless I am editing photographs with the same color structure, HSL adjustments will be of no use, there goes another. And, the remaining one is the Strong Contrast tone curve. Let’s create a preset for that. I will call it Strong Contrast TC.
With the final state of the photograph selected in Lightroom, I will click on the plus sign on the right edge of the Presets panel on the left. In the “Preset Name” field I will enter Strong Contrast, and put this preset among others under the “User Presets” collection so that I can quickly find it. Then, I will click on the “Check None” button to turn off all the selected adjustments to be included in the preset. The Process Version will likely remain checked and that is probably a good thing. Then I will put a checkmark next to “Tone Curve” and click on “Create”. That’s it!
You may be asking “why go through the process of creating a preset for a strong contrast tone curve while you can actually select it from the tone curve panel?” One minor advantage of the preset is that its effect can be seen in the “Navigator” panel by hovering over the preset with your mouse without actually applying it. The second reason for going through this exercise is to think through the process of creating Lightroom presets. As you use various adjustments, you will develop a better sense of using each and become more proficient in them. And in time, you will have a preset collection that reflects your sensibilities, your artistic judgment, your vision, rather than relying on someone else to make these decisions for you. Explaining the process in detail may make it sound complicated, but once you try it you will find that it is very straightforward.