Lightroom 4 - to use presets or not?

Lightroom 4 is my current image processing tool of choice.  Quicker and simpler to use than Photoshop and does most of what the average photographer needs in a few easy clicks of the mouse.  It's a great tool for editing images as well as captioning, keywording and generally making sense of the thousands of images we end up with spread over endless hard drives.


But the process of image manipulation is a tricky one - when you shoot an image do you know how you want it to end up looking or is it a question of chance where all the tweaking takes you?  Do you end up in the same place every time with a generic looking well balanced but slightly dull looking image after minutes spent adjusting exposure, white balance, shadows, highlights and the rest of the sliders...?

I came across VSCO Film recently - a really nice interesting series of Film Emulation presets for LR4, Aperture and Adobe Camera Raw.  With the film look being all the rage in digital processing at the moment these presets make the task of achieving this pretty straightforward.  The clever boffins at Visual Supply Co have done all the hard work for you and worked out all the settings you need to simulate your favourite film from years gone by - right down to the color shifts, the grain and softness.  There are 3 packs available featuring all the standards from Kodak, Ilford and Fuji with familiar names such as Portra, Neopan, Superia and Delta.  Film 03 is a bit more quirky as it features instant films like Polaroids and many other peel apart films.

These wont be to everyone's taste for sure but they do give you pretty extensive starting point for trying to work out the look you might be after - and maybe that's a whole new problem in itself.  Now instead of having an image to process manually and ending up with an average looking image you can now have literally hundreds of presets to choose from - many of them potentially interesting - and then what do you do, you will probably (like me) go through them one by one until you settle on something that gives you a pretty average looking image that's perhaps not that far from the image you'd have arrived at anyway but this way might take even longer. I've only just started exploring the possibilities these presets give you but I can already see that they work particularly well with well lit images whether in the studio or outdoors - more testing required!!

All that said I really like the product and if the film look is your thing then this is definitely a product worth looking into - not cheap but it might possibly (if you are careful) save you time in the long term.

Making vs. taking a portrait

The portrait below was shot during a recent visit to the tiny settlement of Kibbish in South West Ethiopia - home to the fascinating Surma people.  I spent several days in and around the village shooting reportage and portraits of these colorful and elegant people and I particularly liked this frame for the way it captures the gentle nature and the ease of the young guy.  But in order to end up with an image like this there is a lot more to it than just pressing the shutter and hoping for the best.

Firstly the subject - this boy was the brother of another young man who I was using as a guide and was obviously at ease and relaxed in the company of strangers which makes things a whole lot easier from the outset.  He was happy to be photographed and what's more to be photographed repeatedly without demanding payment for every frame taken which is sadly (but not unsurprisingly) a feature in seemingly even the remotest of locations these days.

The location was not that special - a patch of scrubby farm on the edge of the village with nothing that really stood out as a backdrop.  That was until I saw the banana tree.  With the tree as a backdrop I then had a way of isolating subject from the mess of the surrounding area - of course I could have used what was there and ended up with a totally different image but "I chose not to".   That's an important thing to say - "I chose not to"... I didn't just take a picture of a guy in a village but I made a conscious effort to pick a suitable subject and then pick a suitable backdrop and then bring the 2 components together.

Looking through the images in Lightroom I see that I then shot 24 frames - all lit with a handheld speedlight through a shoot through white brolly - until I thought I'd got a frame I was satisfied with.  If you have a subject that you think is interesting then it's worth keeping shooting and working the subject until one of you is either bored, exhausted or you feel you've got what you are after.

Standing there, pouring with sweat and with an image I thought I was happy with was of course just the beginning. Below is the RAW image as it came out of the Canon 5d mkll.

Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM
Ethiopia © Toby Adamson / AXIOM

As you can see the image is flat and pretty lifeless - exactly what you want from a RAW image but capturing all the data from the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights as shown in the histogram

Importing the image into lightroom some weeks later I could simply have pressed the "auto" button and I would have ended up with an OK image - nothing special, just OK.  But that's not what I had in mind when I shot the image - I wanted something more like an old polaroid print so that's how I chose to develop it in Lightroom.

The end result is an Image "I made" - a portrait that I am pretty happy with and not just a picture "I took" of a young guy in a patch of scrubby bush.