A little over a month ago, I received an e-mail from a representative of SleekLens saying “I am writing to you today because I really like your landscape shots and would like to propose something for you. We sell professional workflows to photographers who are looking to cut down time editing their photos and get better results.” The email continued asking if I would be interested in reviewing one of their “workflows” as they call their brushes and presets. I replied with a few links to articles I wrote about presets in full disclosure and as fair warning that I was not a big fan of buying a jar of presets for they make uninformed artistic and aesthetic decisions for the user. The response was that they would really like me to review their product and said “good or bad, we’ll take it as it is.” So, I agreed and they provided me with a free copy of one of their workflows called Through The Woods Workflow for landscape photographs. Here are my thoughts. In short, they are tools, reasonably well designed, and do what they are supposed to. The question is how to use this kind of tools. There lies the heart of the matter.
The package consists of two bundles, a series of presets that install under a folder SleekLens and a series of local adjustment presets that attach to the brush, gradient, or radial filter tools. Although their website states that this workflow contains 89 presets and 42 brushes, my collection came with 51 presets and 30 brushes. Perhaps this is the review set or they have added more since they sent me the review copy. Each set also contains subgroups, like All in One, Base, Brighten Shadows, and so on. Some preset names are reasonably descriptive, like Warm Shadows; yet, others are significantly cryptic, like Love Me Tender, Dance in the Rain, or Pressed in Time! The same goes for the local adjustment tool presets. I’m sure, after using them for a while and viewing the tutorial videos these names may make a bit more sense.
I have viewed, reviewed, and tried to use quite a few other presets in Lightroom. Some of them make very obscure and hard to find adjustments, like changing the camera calibration sliders which should be off limits as far as I’m concerned. The SleekLens presets do what you can do in Lightroom with reasonable ease and their adjustments are clearly visible in the panels for further tweaking if needed. Remember, presets do not always use the adjustment sliders visible in the panels, some add a gradient and apply the adjustment locally, say to the sky. And, having a set of adjustment that you can repeat on demand sounds like a good thing to have. I will say a few more things about that later on.
Another feature of the collection is that they can be cumulatively applied, not always but at least much of the time. They call this layering or stacking but make no mistake about it no layering is involved here, just different local adjustment pins. Also be aware that you may lose some adjustments you might have made on a particular image if it uses the same set of tools, so these “workflows” almost force you to start with them.
I watched a video tutorial on this particular workflow. The “general” operating principles seem to be:
- Shadows must be opened up and everything there should be visible (why I don’t know but this is a general trend in today’s digital photography world)
- Prefer strong and crunchy rendering over subtle presentation
- If there is color, augmenting it is desirable
Although all the adjustments are reversible, the lure of the surprise may contaminate your vision; be prepared for that and question the results you obtain from a preset whether they bring you towards or away from your vision. This is true for all such plugins, they represent what someone else has thought how a scene should look like and they can be convincing!
Should you decide to use this set or other plugins that make artistic decisions the same danger is always present; someone you do not know, without seeing what you photographed or knowing how you want to present it, will tell you “this is a good way!” Keep the following in mind:
- Shadows are your friends if you learn how to use them
- The mood of the photograph is more important than the vibrancy of colors
- Strong definition of objects does not necessarily improve the photograph unless you want to introduce it
- Your visual system has a huge dynamic range, but only when looking at different parts of the scene at a time
- This is your photograph and should say what you want to say and how you want to say it
- Be open to feedback, review, critique of your work from people who know what they are talking about and can explain their reasoning
- Never hide behind “I like it this way” which is a lame response to a critique
- Although you may often hear that your photographs should not need explanation, you should be able to talk about your work beyond its technical elements
If you want to go ahead and take a look at SleekLens workflows or other similar products, keep the above in mind. I would much prefer to see you learn how to use Lightroom better and make these adjustments as you see fit. And, SleekLens also has a book on Lightroom with videos, take a look at that. But, all said, it is your painting, if you want to let a robot hold the brush, it is your choice! Oh, yes I know, it is not a painting but it makes the point better than using photography and Lightroom presets as the example. Presets can be very good efficiency tools, once you learn what each does you may benefit from using them to save time. Use them with the intention to bend them to your will and vision. But, do not allow the preset, or a tutorial about it tell you how you should open up the shadows on the beach because you can!
The presets and brushes offered in this set work as intended and seem to be supported with video and written tutorials. You may be able to apply some of these presets in sequence but not all. Like all tools, they have a learning curve and require effort on your part. If you use them, make them serve your vision rather than taking a lead from them. Their value will depend on your need for this kind of tool, as I said, there is nothing here that you cannot do yourself in Lightroom. That said, if used with care they can also be a learning tool.
Here are some comparison images. They are as they came out after applying the indicated preset and I could have adjusted the results. But, I wanted to leave them as they were processed by the preset for their information value. I am not posting them for you to choose one over the other, only to present what the plugin does. If I wanted the look of the others that appear after my own rendering, I would have, I could have done that.