Tips + Techniques

Photography Presets: Solid Tool or Creative Crutch?

June 9, 2021

By Mili Ghosh

© Mili Ghosh

Today, photography is more accessible and user-friendly than ever before. Camera and editing technology have improved exponentially year after year, and the results are clear: better-quality images across the board for amateurs and professionals alike. However, the rapid increase in technology and the emergence of shortcut editing, filters and photography presets have led to a prolific similarity in images and a lack of distinctive styles between photographers. The way wedding publications and social media accounts publish or endorse certain color aesthetics also adds to the growing demand of buying, selling and showing preset-based wedding photography.

[Read: 9 Things You Need To Develop a Signature Photography Style & Aesthetic]

Through my work photographing Indian weddings, I have had to learn the importance of forging my own unique style to accurately represent Indian skin. I had experienced the limitations of this “preset culture” over the years when photographing non-Caucasian skin tones. To escape the negative aspects of photography presets, I had to look for inspiration in art, cinema and everyday life to help increase my understanding of color theory and develop my own style.

What is Preset Culture, and Why is it Limiting?

“You don’t take a photograph. You make it.” — Ansel Adams

Photography presets are prefabricated color schemes, templates and filters in professional and amateur photography. Presets are not inherently harmful, but there are two glaring issues with the current preset culture as it exists in photography today.

The main issue I have with photo presets is that they can limit a photographer’s ability to develop her or his own style. Presets can become a crutch that photographers lean on that at the end of the day will hinder a their development and basic understanding of photography, color science and editing principles. Too much reliance on presets could hinder a photographer’s ability to learn the fundamentals of photo editing, like the tone curve, color grading and HSL vs. HSV.

[Read: How to Harmonize Hues in Creative Portrait Photography]

I’ve often found that wedding photography presets typically flatter lighter skin tones and often clash with darker skin tones. In addition to the presence of varied skin tones, Indian weddings often feature a range of colors that may clash with different skin tones. I’ve discovered that photography presets cannot always account for the diverse lighting and color scenarios present at Indian weddings.

Preset Exclusions Predate Photography Presets Themselves

Photographing and editing darker skin tones has always been an uphill battle. As early as the 1950’s and as late as the 1980’s, Kodak provided photo labs with “Shirley Cards.” These cards were used to calibrate skin tones and light levels while processing film, but they only included variations of fair skin tones.

[Read: Decolonizing the Photo Industry—Why, How and Where We Can Begin]

Fast forward half a century and photographers and photo editors are still living in a photography world that struggles with darker skin tones. Last summer, Vogue came under fire for how Simone Biles was portrayed on their August 2020 cover by renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz, which showed the Olympian gymnast in a gold leotard posing mightily in front of an orange background. Many have criticized Leibovitz for the lighting and coloring of the images, deemed unflattering for Biles’ skin tone. If one of the world’s greatest gymnasts can be photographed by one of the industry’s leading portrait photographers and still have her skin tone debatably misrepresented, we have a long road ahead to address the representation problem.

Draw Inspiration Outside Photography Presets to Understand Color Theory

Presets and filters may not always offer a solution to capturing darker skin tones in a flattering manner, but luckily there are plenty of examples out there to draw from. For instance, photographers can find inspiration in film and other artistic mediums that accurately represent people of color.

[Read: The Potential Traps of Following Wedding and Portrait Photography Trends]

Looking to cinema or other artistic mediums will increase a photographer’s understanding of lighting different skin tones, color theory and color harmony, which will decrease reliance on photography presets. When photographing darker skin tones, I’ve looked to Indian cinema, art and paintings like Raja Ravi Varma, as well as early editorials from Indian magazines like Filmfare and Stardust. My early exposures to seeing frames that were lit up for Indian skin came from films like Pakeezah and Mughal-e-Azam shot by cinematographer RD Mathur, Umrao Jaan by Pravin Bhatt, Navrang by Tyagraj Pendharkar, G. Balakrishna’s work on Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje, Fali Mistry’s Guide, Subrata Mitra for his black-and-white work in Charulata, V.K. Murthy’s cinematography vision in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Kay Gee’s work in Silsila, Chandni by Manmohan Sing, as well as works by Santosh Sivan like Dil Se, Bombay and Raavan.

Cinematographic work from Indian films has helped me see and understand how to photograph and flatter skin tones for my Indian weddings and editorials, given that the photography presets I’ve often come across generally cater to fairer skin.

In these representations, the lighting, skin tone, textures and color harmony (or lack thereof) was always a fascinating study. Over time, I learned to focus on the highlights, mid-tones, exposure balance, tonal gradation, color harmony and lighting setups.

[Read: Creative Photo Editing—How a Funky Style Emerged from Lockdown]

Depending solely upon photography presets would have never brought me on this journey. But observation alone isn’t enough. The practical experience of lighting for different skin and multiple color variations throughout an event is crucial to understanding how every decision and choice affects the photograph.

Develop Technical Proficiency in Post-Production

To become a self-reliant photographer and editor who is not entirely dependent on photography presets, it’s vital to become technically proficient in all aspects of photo editing, but it is equally important to know lighting and try to get the look and feel as close to what you want to see on camera. If you’re photographing darker skin tones, like those you may encounter at an Indian wedding, there are a few post-production tools you should prioritize.

When looking at my sources of inspiration for darker skin tone representation in film and photography, I was particularly attracted to the creamy, warm tones that were prevalent in the films I mentioned. I’ve found a variety of ways to achieve this creamy tone through my editing program of choice, Adobe Lightroom.

Some portraits I’ve photographed, inspired by the warm and creamy tones in Indian films like Pakeezah and Mughal-e-Azam, among others. © Mili Ghosh

For the photo on the left, I began with a white balance and then adjusted exposure and tone curve. I then adjusted the subject’s skin tone by using the hue slider on the HSL for a slightly desaturated orange undertone while bringing up the luminance. To grade the image further, I adjusted the mid-tone highlight.

A new feature on Lightroom allows for additional control with luminance on shadow, mid-tone and highlights as the grading can appear more measured. For this shot, I achieved a slightly creamier look by also dropping the skin texture. Other times (such as in the middle and right photos), I have used lighting techniques with soft boxes, diffusers and Profoto’s beauty dish to feather and shape light for a similar feel in combination with the texture slider to achieve the creamier look.

Create Your Photo Style by Adapting and Planning

Indian weddings present a variety of technically challenging shots, like photographing a bride who’s wearing a red dress in the green outdoors with a clear blue sky. On the color wheel, this a triadic harmony and needs careful balancing between the three colors. Presets typically will not account for an image with such complex color harmony and lighting while maintaining skin detail and tone, especially for darker skin. The result is often a very pasted effect that just doesn’t have the ability to stand on its own.

Experience and trial-and-error have taught me how to find the balance between lighting and grading that will help keep colors bold and avoid harmful undertones that cause darker skin tones to look somewhat yellow.

Photography Presets Aren’t All Bad

There is nothing wrong with using photography presets, but it’s important to be mindful of their limitations. Using them as a tool and not as a crutch to grow yourself as an artist and photographer is key.

[Read: What Does It Really Take to Create and Sell Your Own Photo Presets?]

Whether you’re a working professional photographer or just starting your photography journey, developing a deep understanding of color theory and color harmony will help you create a unique style that’s not dependent on photography presets. Drawing inspiration from films or works by masters of photography, established cinematographers and artists will further your understanding of color relationships and shed light on creative methods for effectively capturing, lighting and coloring photographs—especially when it comes to people of color.

“One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.” — Leonardo Da Vinci

Mili Ghosh is an editorial photographer who shoots Indian weddings and fashion. Born in Africa, she’s a TEDx speaker whose visual roots are deeply inspired by cinema.