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Why colour presets don't really work.

Two assumptions to be made in this article. First, I would assume most of you who are reading this now have heard of Adobe Lightroom and VSCO. These are probably the most popular image editing softwares be it mobile phone or computer. Other softwares or apps that that gives your photo "a look" with just a click falls into the same category. Second, you guys do have some level of photo colour editing knowledge or some of you may call it in a fancy way "colour grading". In this article, we will look into discussing why colour preset don't really work in most situation.


By today's age, I am pretty sure most of you are using instagram as your daily dose of inspiration or photo networking site. For those hardcore user, they will strive for that perfect "feed look" (so called the tones that belongs to you). From my observation the way we use instagram has transformed over the years from uploading crap instant snapshot with typical instagram filters to dutch angle selfies (please feel guilty) and to some level of photography work and now the emphasis is more on getting the tones right (Unedited photos cannot be published). This has cause a major shift of mindsets from most users to look for the right preset or the right colour for their feed rather than actually spending effort on hunting the right content. To most, getting the right presets is the shortcut to success. Somewhat true but why it doesn't really work.


In most situations colour presets are actually more limiting than opening up your creativity. Because you will have to train your eye to see in the same way as the creator of the presets. Getting the presets will only get you that far, unless you train your eye to notice strong colour, reading lighting conditions and knowing all the adjustments inside out. You will never ever get full control of your final product. This is because different people will have different shooting style and preference causing the scenes, lighting and colour combinations to have a high variance in RGB values and most of the time presets are crafted for their way of shooting. This is also the reason why some of the presets you have purchased might turn your photo looking wonky with a nuclear saturation and crazy contrast & clarity.


That being said, if by all means you do manage to master the way they see things and putting those presets into use. It does not mean that you have succeeded, it simply just means that you gave away the chance of nurturing your own unique vision to the creator of the presets. That might not be a bad thing as you do know what you are doing but being in a saturated community with similar vision simply isn't good enough to be acknowledged. Exaggerating the long term effect? Everyone turns out to be bored of each other's content as they all look the same. And we are unable to inspire each other to push through the limits causing a major downfall. 


So how to get the right colour? It does take a lot of effort and years of experience to do it. But to simplify it, exposure and white balance plays a huge role in changing how colour looks. By understanding other elements such as curves, hue & saturations, split toning and analysing colour charts / palette will allow you to get closer to the look that you desire. At least to me there is no exact way of learning them (I am not schooled). You just have to reverse engineer the good photos and experiment with every one of elements until you understand how they work together. By using presets, you will skip a whole lot of knowledge that is so invaluable for your future commercial work.


Putting all the above discussions into a practical analysis. Pretty sure you guys do notice the current trend of images are getting darker and darker (I could almost say overly dark). But are you actually curious of the science and though process behind making a photo dark? By turning the photo dark you are actually shifting the overall visual weight from the subject to the shades of tones which ultimately causing the primary subject becoming a secondary or tertiary subject depending on the existence of colour dominance.


From there think about it, if you are applying that very same presets into your commercial work. It simply just means you are shifting the attention of the primary subject (your client's face/product/architecture details) away. When that happens, I would say you are pretty much screwed. Even though you spend hours grading the photos, your client will not be happy at all. (This is also the reason why I almost never use presets for commercial work, simply said. It just doesn't work.)


Conclusion, if you are going for the easy fast consistent look then yes preset works best (I do this for my instagram photos). But if clients are paying you money. It would be best if you take your time just to get the correct and accurate colour which conveys your message.

*Just imagine applying colour presets to this photo, pretty sure all wonky colours starts appearing. Probably the walls will be painted orange instead of white (FOC paint)*


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