The Death of The Filter Preset
I’ve been thinking about this for a while….. Years even.
I never had the reason to write about it until yesterday when I found myself agape at my screen looking at an image that had taken literally seconds to grade and tone manually - EXACTLY as I’d envisioned without an ugly, limited, hard to adjust preset in sight.
In fact there was NO preset in sight… And that made me VERY happy.
I’ve always been intrigued (often bewildered) by the frenzy and popularity surrounding commercially available pre-designed Lightroom or Photoshop actions that aim to set your images apart from the masses.
The trend really began with the ‘vintage’ movement around 6-7 years ago and has evolved now to the supposed replication of traditional film stocks from the household brands like Fuji, Kodak, Ilford and more.
I feel incredibly lucky to have begun my career just before the mainstream surge into digital and so have commercial experience of shooting, processing and printing from film negative and transparencies.
The romance associated with these is often imagined by those who appear to have little to no commercial experience of the day-in-day-out mechanics of the reality.
Actually delivering a printed (or scanned image) quickly, cleanly, cost effectively and in line with a client’s expectations is a vastly different beast - in that respect digital is King and by a huge margin.
However, I understand that the aesthetic that comes with the appearance of a film-shot print/scan is desirable to some. But, the action sets that are currently marketed to this specification, even quoting the brands they emulate, still fall short of the actual look.
There are a number of reasons for this, not least the many variables in the chemistry, timings and methods used in the darkroom stage. Add the myriad of different paper stocks into the mix and it’s literally impossible to accurately reproduce that exact “look” so the actions sets become an homage to their original inspiration NOT a true copy.
All that aside, there’s one thing which really leaves me scratching my head. Why, in an industry founded on and driven by the pursuit of individual artistry and the endless journey of creating something unique, do so many photographers buy an off the shelf product and proceed to apply somebody else's vision, taste and look to their own images?
No amount of slider-wanging or curves adjustment can get you away from the fact that the foundation of the process and its final appearance comes from another artist. That’s weird right?
“But it makes the pictures look so cool. And everybody else is doing it so if I don’t I won’t be seen as relevant and won’t get bookings and, and, and…”
Sadly this, a highly justifiable reaction, especially for the less confident and one mainly found within the wedding photography sector is perpetuated and rewarded by the related press, blogs and awards businesses. Wedding photography has always been trend prone.
It only takes one person to have the confidence to try something different (not necessarily very well, usually at the limits of taste), get a bit of success for it and the masses jump on the band wagon. A cycle of mass mediocrity, peppered with a few highlights, begins, peaks and dies before the next ‘big thing’ comes along.
It’s the nature of fashion but like all great styles the ones that endure are rooted in the classic not the extreme. If you take a look back through the recent history of wedding photography style it’s easy to date many images simply by how they are presented.
In my time alone it’s gone from white vignetting to super-saturated-with-glowey edges to spot colouring on black & white to Dutch tilt on everything, E-6 ‘Cross-processed’, to solarising & IR to HDR to vintage and now the crushed shadows/grey-greens and orange skin attempting to emulate someone’s interpretation of something ‘filmic’.
The problem with adopting and committing all out to a trend when shooting weddings is that success, both artistically and financially, is fleeting in nearly all cases. To maintain long term relevance you have to skip from trend to trend but in doing so will never truly find your own style.
Is the devotion to ‘trends’ locking our images into a time period? We do already say – ‘That is so ’80’s’…
Many of the processing tools we choose are used by so many others. Overlaid onto ‘once-individual-now-much-emulated-poses’, we see a replication instead of an individuality.
In that regard it then becomes a personal choice between pursuing commercial stability/profit or creative integrity. It also means that in five years possibly, ten likely and 20 definitely your clients will judge their images differently with the passing of time. Of course, they are bound to feel strong affection for them, BUT maintaining a simple, tasteful, classical element to the processing of wedding images means they will remain relevant and be enjoyed for longer.
Following the path of individuality and having the confidence to eschew those same trends whilst concentrating on building a solid body of work, will also reap greater long term rewards in all senses. Growth will be a bit slower but ultimately far more liberating and profitable.
I speak from experience - it took me about three years of being a butterfly band wagoner (before any social media influence and of course, ironically, after winning a few decent awards) to realise this. A few serious light bulb moments changed everything when attending my first workshop with the legendary David A. Williams.
That experience set me on a path of enlightenment (no joke) that gave me the foundations to build my own style. It’s one I feel I’m still only beginning 9 years later but that’s the fun and something I’ll always be grateful for.
So, The Death of the Filter Preset. “That’s a pretty strong opinion Simon” I hear some say. “Pretty ballsy - who the hell are you anyway?” I’ve heard that before funnily… I’m a nobody but I’m a nobody who’s “done a bit” and continued to grow my business and it’s profits every year for 12 years, 9 trend-free.
I’ve purchased and dabbled with filter sets out of curiosity but never enjoyed the process or the results ALWAYS going back to manual processing from scratch in Capture One, Lightroom & Photoshop. That’s not always been easy, especially in the ‘Age of the Instant’ and when up against editorial/ commercial deadlines where client expectations are increasing and turnarounds are shrinking.
Finishing off an image with its grading or toning is never straightforward. It can be a tricky task of balancing the key colour elements with the desired feel or message of the image. Then there’s consistency across a collection, which is an element I’ve struggled with on and off for years.
It’s of course doable but again for a non full-time retoucher like myself can be a slow (see: expensive) process. Then I got wind, through a couple of Facebook pages of which I’m a member, of something new and rather exciting coming from the stable of Pratik Naik.
I’m not going to trumpet his credentials here (neither do I have any commercial relationship with Pratik or his business) but suffice to say he’s a bit good when it comes to retouching and educating on the topic. Google his name and you’ll find out more - if you’re a photographer you need to follow him.
This week Pratik and his team launched the aptly named ‘Infinite Colour Panel’ a plug-in for PS that gives the user full, simple, unrestricted control of their image grading/toning. It is incredible. Within minutes of installing it and with very little effort I had reprocessed a handful of images in a way and time frame I wouldn’t have thought possible.
I’m not going to go into details here - it’s early days and I’m still learning about its possibilities but for any photographer, especially those desperate to escape the trend mill but unsure what options lie outside of a preset, this is a real consideration.
Pratik and his team have fired a warning shot of things to come. It's great to be given a tool that is both simple to use and liberating. Many photographers will now be given a chance to find their true voice - and that's a wonderful thing.
At the foot of this post are some early test examples of images I've taken and processed with ICP and below is the link to the ICP website which I urge you to take a look at and make up your own mind.
Adventure & Travel IG: @sibuckwild
**** To repeat, I have no affiliation with Pratik or Solstice Retouching other than being a paying customer and this piece is based purely on my own opinion.***