Using presets is killing your photography - here's how to bring your photography to the next level and never use a preset again

Using presets is stopping you from finding your style and it is crushing your individuality… 

If you look on Instagram or do a quick Google search, you’ll know that there are thousands of Instagram presets on the market claiming to ‘make you look like a pro’. You’ve probably looked through your Instagram stories or sponsored posts and seen countless advertisements with before and after shots showing you how you can transform your photography. You might have bought them to use, you might even have created them yourself, applying the same pre-set to every shot you take. Whilst those who are making them are doing so to increase the revenue of their business usually based on their popular online presence, these presets are actually stopping you from finding your own style, becoming more confident when taking photographs and blocking your creativity and enjoyment. 

In the Instagram and online business world, where photography is one of your biggest features, there have been countless articles written about the importance of having a perfectly manicured feed. The idea is for you to create a strong brand where your images flow effortlessly to a theme, not just in terms of content, but in terms of colour. Whilst I completely agree that planning and preparation is key, I believe that this has been taken too literally with the overuse of presets and that your consistent feed can be created instead from a unified style (which you’re not going to be able to learn how to create if you let presets do all of the work). 

I’ve seen so many photographers who have a whole range of pre-sets set up which work in a particular area, but then they visit somewhere with a completely different feel and they are faced with a different kind of light or a different composition. Because they’re so stuck on the pre-sets they use, they create images that are far from as good as they could be. If you’re taking your photography seriously and moving towards making money from your work in any way, this plays havoc when you have a commercial shoot in a different location and you can’t get what you want, because you’ve developed your style on all of your images looking the same in terms of colour. Suddenly the preset you’ve been using looks horrible on the shoot you’ve just been paid to create and you’ve got to have a very sticky conversation with your client because you don’t know how to move forward and they are not getting what they signed up for. 

When you use presets and work in this kind of regimented colour style ‘one style fits all’ approach, a few things happen. Imagine going to a new place that you’ve been incredibly excited about for a while. You get there and you very quickly realise that the colour style that you’ve developed doesn’t fit the place at all. You’re used to using a preset that lifts the blacks to soften the image, and warms everything up, yet you’re shooting a snowy alpine scene bursting with mid-afternoon light. It doesn’t work. It means you’ll most likely process your images afterwards and feel really uninspired by the images you’ve got. Even worse, you’ll probably take some of the enjoyment you could have had in the area and instead be annoyed that you haven’t got what you wanted. Even worse, imagine only visiting places that fit with your pre-sets and missing out on some of the most incredible landscapes the world has to offer. 

I know it can be very easy to stick with a pre-set and finding your own style can be daunting. If you’re honest, you’ve maybe even thought about it before, but you’ve had this voice creep into your head telling you that if you try and find your own style, nobody will like it. As human beings we all want to be liked, and if your intention is making a business out of your Instagram, blog etc as an influencer, its within your interest to have an attractive feed. However, I want to give you a reality check, using presets will not make things better for you or your business, it might take you a little way, but it won’t take you where you really want to go. In actual fact, they’re probably making things worse. In an online world where there are hundreds of thousands of other people doing the same thing as you, if you blend into the crowd, you’re going to get lost. 

And you know something else, if you started creating work that was more original, more developed in a style that was unique, you’d be doing the world a favour. 

What if you could develop your own, unique style that was identifiable with recurring motifs and themes? What if you could stand out in a saturated place? Or better yet, what if I told you that you could take immense satisfaction from the confidence you feel in any environment by really encapsulating what is there rather than dulling down just to fit a theme? What if I told you that from a business point of view, developing your own style would actually be the thing that makes your work irresistible to brands and will be reason why they decide to work with you over someone else? 

Here are my tips for finding your style and breaking free from pre-sets forever:

Tap into the feel of the place

When you first arrive at your destination, and for the first few hours there, really take in the look and feel of the place. How does it smell? How does the light change through the day? What is the quality of the light? How does shadow change on the mountains? Is there haze? Also, really think about the feeling that you get from the place. Until this becomes second nature to you, it’s really useful to jot these things down. They might change over the time that you’re there, but you can develop on these. Start to think about ways that you can really use your photography to emphasise and draw light to the feelings and little moments that you’re noticing whilst there. Concentrate on capturing the feelings and emotions that you’re experiencing. This will become easier for you the more that you do it but think about how you can use things such as composition, camera angle, exposure and aperture to really bring the scene into its own. Do I need to make a double exposure to add depth to the sky whilst keeping detail in the mountains, or do I purposefully want to underexpose the mountains to make the sky more of a feature? (In that instance, I would a suggest you try both ways so that you can experiment in different ways later). Keep an open mind with this and remember that your aim is to capture the natural of a place. In the past, when you were shooting images with a look and feel in mind, you weren’t really truly enjoying the amazing gems that nature has to offer you in any moment. Every scene is different and seeing in this way will help you get better images and develop much more as a photographer. 

Develop a unified style rather than a unified look 

When you’re creating images to a look, you’ll often be compromising what is really there. Instead of letting a pre-set define your style, your style can be defined by your eye for composition for example. You can be photographing in very different environments – snow covered alpine landscape or a sun parched desert – and still approach your compositions in the same way or see similar lighting patterns. The final images may have very different characters, but they will still recognisably be the product of the same vision. For example, I really enjoy backlighting – I think it lends a beautiful feel to an environment and regardless of where I’m shooting, I often find myself looking for that specific kind of light.

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I also really love shooting scenes with strongly contrasting colours, so I’m hyper aware when an amazing sunset is happening, when there is something really interesting going on with the sky against a mountain backdrop.

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I’m also a huge fan of anomalies and find myself shooting scenes which don’t exist a few seconds later. This has become one of my signature trademarks in my image creation style. 

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Bring out what is already there rather than dulling it down 

When you use a pre-set, you can often take an incredible, magical image and completely dull down what is there, making it look sickly or completely out of whack with what was there originally. When you’re developing your own style, it’s important to take note of what is there, how colours work together and how you can emphasise them. Visualising is such an important part of this process and working out what is in the image. An image often records an awful lot more than we can see with our eye, and unless you know where to look, you’re going to miss beautiful accents in your imagery. Add in a contrast curve and really start to darken dramatically the sky, or mountains to see what detail is there. I do the same with a saturation slider. You’ll often start to find real, genuinely beautiful colours in there and you can begin to get an idea of how you’ll be able to push your image. 

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 When I first brought this image into Photoshop, it was quite grey and monochromatic, and as I started to darken down the sky and add saturation to see what was there, the whole sky started to come to life. As soon as I started to neutralise out the blue from the mountains and make them truer to how they actually were, they became more monochromatic and started to really sing with the sky. There is a whole lot more going on than you realise, and you can bring a whole new level of magic to your images in this way.

Author: Fay Elizabeth Doyle

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