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The Only Preset You Need to Be a Great Photographer

A lot of photographers seem to fall for promises that presets make, and sometimes, they are true. There are packs out there that give decent results. But the problem with presets is that they do the creative work for you instead of helping you be the creative you wish to be. And that is what is holding you back. But what if there's one unique preset that will distinguish your work from everyone else's? You can't buy it, but you can develop it. Here's how.

There is hardly a photographer on YouTube who hasn’t sold presets or at least thought about doing it. Preset sales seem to be quite lucrative and for good reason. They sell a quick fix, a popular style. You are blasted with before and afters, how much better will your photos be, and how professional the guy selling them is. Moreover, the change is supposed to be instant, immediate, and dramatic. 

Sounds familiar? You’re not alone, many are in this boat. At one point, all consider getting the latest pack of the juicy presets in hopes for better photos. But there’s something inherently wrong with buying a quick “fix” for your photos. Why should photographers bother with decades of experience if presets exist? Surely, it can’t be that a pack of presets will make you into a better photographer.  

The Only Preset You Need Is Your Own Style, but Developing It Can Be Hard.

You’re right, a pack won't, but one and only one preset will. Unfortunately, it’s not an easy purchase. But once you have this preset, you are guaranteed to be a lot better. Miles better. The preset is called your own style. 

I agree, if you just picked up a camera, it is a lot easier just to go off and blast as many photos are you can in hopes of finding a good frame. I can't think of a photographer who hasn’t done that. But, when you decide to pick a frame, why do you pick it? Why does it look beautiful to you? Try going back to your photos and comparing the ones you liked over the ones you didn’t. Bar the out-of-focus ones, which other shots are there? Magnum Contact Sheets offers insight into the choice process that was made behind some of the most iconic images known to history. 

Finding Your Style

Sometimes, compared to finding a treasure, finding your style is a long process, but a very interesting and educational one. Several things will help you along the way. 

Look to the Past

We are not born with a preprogrammed style, but our past life experiences influence what looks good in the future. The best thing is, it doesn’t have to be anything related to photography. It can be quite literally anything that looked good to you. Try to collate those items, thoughts, ideas into some sort of order.

What Do You Like and Why?

Consider everything that you like and narrow it down to as much detail as possible. Liking the “pose,” “color,” etc. is slightly vague; you may want to note the exaggerated pose where the hand is thrown upward or how the warm color palette on the subject contrasts with the cold background behind. Try to be as specific as you can, but don’t go too crazy. No one knows everything; sometimes, we like things for no reason whatsoever, and that’s fine too. 

Look to the Present 

Knowing what you liked in the past is very important, but you can do a great deal in finding your style by looking at photographers you admire. Here are five very prominent photographers working in a plethora of styles:

None of them use presets, but what they do use is their eye and a style that is recognizable. It’s like a preset, but it gives you your creative control. Platon is not paid to use a black and white preset; he is paid to execute a portrait in his authentic style.

Martin Scholler found his style by looking at images of water towers shot in the same way and applied this to people. Platon gravitated towards simplicity because of his dyslexia. Annie Leibovitz is attracted to natural light. Ansel Adams was to contrast. All of them have a style, but none of them got there in a day (or even two). 

Helpful Books

The best way to search for your style and what you should do now is to get your hands on as many photography books as you can — not the tutorial books, but books like these: 

Mark Seliger Photographs is on discount now($20 is a steal for a book like this) and features portraits of some of the most iconic people photographer by Mark Seliger. He worked with such icons as Kurt Cobain, Barack Obama, Chuck Berry. 

Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2006-2016 is a collection of some of the most iconic photographs by Annie Leibovitz, a photographer requiring no introduction. They are made in her unique style and approach to viewing people. 

Martin Schoeller Close shows style in the most obvious way and subjects in most unusual ways. This collection of portraits will give you insight. It is also on sale, and I’m picking one up. 

Peter Lindbergh. On Fashion Photography shows his work, with various fashion brands and famous models like Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington. His iconic style of storytelling with fashion is visible in all of his work, no matter the brand.  

If you’re interested in landscape work, you may find Ansel Adams 400 Photographs interesting. Ansel Adams is considered one of the fathers of photography, so this is a must for any photographer, no matter the level. 

There, each image has a particular point to say, a lesson to teach. And luckily, they tend to be inexpensive. Most cost less than a pack of presets from your favorite YouTube photographer. 

If you’re looking to gain more insight into the creative process of some of the greatest photographers, I suggest Annie Leibovitz at Work. it is packed with insightful information on shooting different subjects: from fashion to war hospitals, from The Rolling Stones to Nicole Kidman. A section at the end is dedicated to popular questions on lighting, gear, and advice to young photographers. I’ve learned more about photography from this book than from any YouTube video.

Look to the Future 

By now, you have probably realized that developing your style can be a difficult process, but what is fun about it is the journey: the images you see, the impressions you have, and the experiences you have. The destination isn’t so important here. And I guarantee you that your style will change over and over again, but eventually, it will halt in its respective niche — a niche that is yours and unique to you. 

Whenever I see someone buy a pack of new presets, I get upset. They are holding your style back and replacing your authentic work with something someone else sold you that’s not yours to start with. That’s why I urge you to know what looks good to you, explore photographers, and not be afraid to experiment with your work. 

There are very few photographers I personally know who have defined what their style is. Most, including me, are searching for it relentlessly. It’s a rollercoaster of ups and downs, but a very fun ride indeed.

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39 Comments

Eistein Guldseth's picture

Good article!
Very true. I bought a pack of presets/styles once. Never actually used them after first try. To develop a style..I can’t find a style. But I recently started to really like some of the photos I took in 2006/2007. I think I maybe was on to something there...15 years just to find new values in them. Anyway, I’m just an amateur.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Thank you for your comment! Finding a style is no easy task for sure. It’s great to look back on past work. Compare where you are now to where you were 15 years ago. And look in the future, where will you be next? Perhaps try to understand your work from that time. I’m sure it has a lot to show!

Michelle Maani's picture

You might have a style and not be aware of it. I know several photographers whose work I recognize, but they don't claim to have a style. It's a certain "je ne sais quoi" that makes the work uniquely yours. I think some people confuse gimmicks with style.

Daniel Medley's picture

The key to developing "your style."

1. Learn the fundamentals.
2. Create photos that YOU like.
3. If your skill level does not allow you to create something that you want to create, learn the skills required.
4. Under no circumstances ask for aesthetic opinions of other photographers.
5. Under no circumstances listen to the aesthetic opinions of other photographers.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Yes, I think that sums up it pretty well. Although I still love talking to photographers about their and mine work. It’s always interesting to see the thought process behind someone else’s photographs. A lot of inspiration came to me like that.

Daniel Medley's picture

Yes, I agree. I love looking at the work of other photographers, as well as watching other photographers work. I really like watching other photographers work and talk about the decisions they make. I think there is a lot to be learned from it.

Mike Ditz's picture

3 out of 5 I agree with :)

Leon Kolenda's picture

I agree on 1-through-3, but 4,5, I think it's good to study and even get feedback from, here's the Key, Successful Photographers that you like, if you can. Also, If your not an open person and don't have thick-skin, and are offended easily, then 4-5 might be a good practice.

Illya Ovchar's picture

4-5 is very individual. For me personally, it helps a lot talking to other professionals in the industry who give honest opinions about my work. I wouldn't necessarily as the internet to rate my photos, but a friend/professional I trust 100%. But again, some choose not to do it, and that's completely fine. Whatever is most enjoyable ;-)

Daniel Medley's picture

The problem I've seen by asking for or listening to aesthetic advice from other photographers is that aesthetic is entirely subjective. I've been on internet forums and seen people ask for "critiques" and it's mostly laughable. Most of the critiques are adherence to some "rule" or aesthetic trope that's not being followed. When people attempt to meet the critiques they generally end up with photos that look like everyone else's. Some of the best photographers in the world violate "rules" all the time.

If you look at the work of Peter Lindbergh, Helmut Newton, Peter Coulson, Benjamin Kanarek, Patrick Demarchelier, Annie Leibovitz or any number of amazing photographers, much of their work would be savaged on your average photography forum if they were not well known.

Keep in mind I'm not saying to disregard the work of others. I think observing the work of others and studying what you love about their work is a good thing. If you love it, it will naturally influence your work to some degree. When you make images that you love, the influence of others will be there, but you are still likely to acquire your own style, as it were.

A couple of my favorite photographers--both successful--simply refuse to give critiques on the work of others because their aesthetic is theirs and theirs alone.

But, at the end of the day, it really depends on what your personal goal is. There's nothing wrong with trying to create work that appeals to other photographers if that's the goal. I personally know a few photographers who have that very goal.

Illya Ovchar's picture

I am noticing a recurring problem with photo forums. in general, there are two types of photographers: the ones who shoot to impress photographers, and the ones who shoot to impress the general public. I don't see the use (for me)of being judged by photography forums because it's not the target audience that I shoot for. I see the use (for me) in being judged/guided by a photographer who works to impress the general public.
Critiques need to come from the target/intended audience, only then it is relevant to helping you achieve your goal. Also, the person critiquing has to have the goal of helping you progress, not telling you how bad/good you are.

Dan Donovan's picture

Photographers had styles long before presets were even invented!

Illya Ovchar's picture

Yes! Absolutely.

Chris Jablonski's picture

Thanks for the article. I've never been tempted to buy any preset, for the very reasons you write about. I can't see if I've developed any kind of style - I think that's something only others can see. Maybe I'm wrong.

But when I look at my RAW files, I immediately begin to see what needs to be done, and use the software as best I can to do this. Sometimes I'll later think the needs are different, and might replace the earlier rendition - or I might make a second version. Whether I'm any good or not, in each case I'm exercising my taste (or lack of it!) and judgment.

Presets are like painting by numbers, aren't they? You may end up with a nice image, but can you have CREATIVE satisfaction? I can see that, say, a professional landscape or portrait photographer could use presets as a tool to quickly churn out saleable pretty images and streamline the workflow.

Illya Ovchar's picture

I think the only time I used a preset was when I had to edit events and deliver photos on the same day. I made what I thought looked good and pasted it to every image(later tweaking the finer bits). Other than that, I resort to editing by eye.
I think every photographer has some sort of style, if not then the beginnings of it. There are certain things we like and certain things we don't. That's already enough to begin developing a style.
Judgment is controversial when it comes to photography, will do an article on that sometime soon. I fear that with too much judgment from others, the photos are no longer your creations. Also, it is a lot less fun when you're shooting and judging the work. Learning instead of judgment is what I stand for personally.

Mike Ditz's picture

If you go looking for a your style you won't find it. An authentic style finds you.

I think it takes a photographer a long time to find their style. A lot of photographers start out as generalists or Jack/Jill of all trades or doing a look that sells, not really doing "their thing" often emulating famous photographers. Eventually a common thread will become evident in your work, and that's your style.

Along with some of the other photogs mentioned, Annie Leibovitz's style has changed more than a few times, "attracted to natural light"? When I worked at PIX rentals in LA I could tell when AL was in town because about 20 Profoto packs and 40 Profoto heads were checked out. That was her 1990s style.

Illya Ovchar's picture

I think it should come from both sides. If you sit around and do nothing all day, nothing will find you. But if you learn, shoot, repeat I think you will find a style that you like. It's what I'm doing haha ;-)
Annie Leibovitz has a constantly evolving style, you're right. I think she went on a very big journey as every artist is ought to. The book I recommend has her referring to using one umbrella only. I think the reason for renting so much is to have backups. A big shoot must go on no matter what. A pack breaking must not stop a major production. Also when lighting a big scene(which she often does) you need a lot of juice.

Studio 403's picture

Yes, great post. I turn 75 soon, this craft is avpassion/hobby. Started shooting about 10 yrs ago just to lean about people and have some "fun". So This article is sort of the "one thing" been looking for. Attached sort of what I like to capture

Illya Ovchar's picture

I think having fun is by far the most important part of any photography endeavor. It does get stressful a lot with paid jobs, but with hobby/personal work fun is the most important element.

Leon Kolenda's picture

I have only bought one set of presets, and don't use them. Boy, timely article! Developing your style is very hard, you have to want to do it first, whether your a Amateur or a Professional, (and really, a professional is not a stylist, it just means you make money). Since this past December of 2020 and the lockdown time, I made a decision to create a garage studio, and learn how to do some still-life shooting. I had some ideas of what I wanted, I had the strobes, tables and technical props, but struggled. Then, one day I got an email from a marketing dept. for a photographers Still-Life Masterclass, I get email on presets, PS classes, but this really caught my eye. So I decided to look into it and research the photographer who was doing the class, plus it was only $49.00 and I thought there had to be a few nuggets at least worth $49.00 right? Boy was I wrong, I mean really wrong, this class was worth $1,000 or more!

Its Joel Grimes, if your not familiar with him look him up. Now hears a guy who worked very hard at developing a style, and I mean it's very recognizable style. Joel has a way of keeping things simple without plundering you into the tech world of photography, with one exception, PS. Do I have a style? Not yet, but, I'm well on my way! He has taught me through his Class's how to understand, evaluate and create, and use lighting. Joel is not conventional, in fact, if I had to box him in, which is hard to do, I would say he's a Rule-Breaker with style! Lol! Let me be clear here, I'm in know way a marketing arm, or any affiliation with Joel, just a very excited and now, with 4 months into it, a motivated photographer. His class's, especially on lighting, has changed me 180, as a photographer. Being Older Yeah, 75, and not so mobile, still-life and studio work is a good direction for me now. This was a very good article, a nugget for sure!
I lift up my beer, or Jack & Coke, to STYLE!

Illya Ovchar's picture

We all have that one purchase we wish we didn't make haha ;-) Still life is very interesting and challenging to shoot.
Classes are a great chance to learn about photography. There's a great book on light that I picked up recently. I think it's great and will be very helpful to you. It teaches about light, and how to understand it in a deep way.
https://www.amazon.com/Light-Science-Magic-Introduction-Photographic/dp/...
There's also a channel about food photography that I enjoy
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7AomZl8541E&t=303s

Jenny Rich's picture

Very deep thought and I couldn't agree more that one's style is the only 'preset' that needed. I love photographers whose works don't even need to be signed, you just look at the picture and understand who the author is.The style is hard to develop, though, especially if you are new to the photography field. There are always giants you'd love to repeat after or people whose ideas are so unique that you'd love to use them, too. I remember when a girl from our local camera club tried a sun rays effect in Photoworks and I loved the result so much that I used it for every other photo for some time, lol. I still can't say I have a 'style' but I'm definitely working on developing one, trying things I'd love to see in my photos, etc.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Thank you so much for your comment! There are very few photographer with a style so recognisable, but that doesn't mean you can't have a style like that ;-)
And again, no one is born with a world-famous style, instead they work hard to develop it. So keep up the great work! And remember, all great artists copied previous great work in order to develop technique. Believe me, copying a light setup or a particular image is a lot harder than it seems haha ;-)

Jacques Cornell's picture

It's not necessarily a matter of having a unique or recognizable or world-famous style, either. It's a matter of developing styles that communicate particular attitudes and/or messages. If you just want to make beautiful, romantic landscapes, well that's been done before a million times, but that's OK. It's still worth learning how particular effects further that goal because not all such images are strengthened by the same treatment.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Photography should satisfy and not torment the artist. The style should should be something that’s enjoyable to work in.
I don’t think there’s a style that has been done before. As long as it’s consistent and what you like, it’s a style unique to you.

Greg Wilson's picture

That's true. But I wouldn't completely discard really good presets (profiles to be precise) like RNI-5 or DVLOP.

Using one of those is no different from choosing to load your camera with Kodak Portra or Fuji Superia. It's like creating a high-quality base layer before building your own style on top of it.

Illya Ovchar's picture

I'm sure there are great presets that give a starting point, but I personally believe it's a lot better, in the long run, to do what you feel is best- not what a preset told you is best.
When it comes to film, that can be easily(and was) manipulated in the darkroom. William Eggleston's work is quite a good example of that.

Mike Ditz's picture

Hmm. I find Eggleston's work to be pretty straightforward regarding manipulation. His choice of subject, light and saturated color was his style, which may have been emphasized using dye transfer printing,do you have examples of other manipulation?

Illya Ovchar's picture

Eggleston's work can be quite simple, but I love it for that. Ansel Adams slammed him for his simplicity and shooting color. Eggleston just kept calm and carried on. Another photographer I like that manipulates their work quite a bit is Peter Lindbergh. I honestly can't even tell the difference between his digital and film work. Hannah Starkey is another one. She uses color quite a lot to create her work.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Nice to see a thoughtful, well-written article on a topic of substance, bringing a perspective that takes many new photographers years of study to discover.

Preset packs are just the more sophisticated iteration of Instagram filters. If you want to make your photos look like everyone else's, go for it. Nothing wrong with that, really.

When I was a novice back in the Paleolithic Era, I spent a lot of time looking at photos I admired and trying to figure out how to "do that". It's part of the learning process, just as toddlers learn by emulating adults and older kids. That gets you only so far - which is fine if your ambition is to be like somebody you look up to - but you will not find your own voice by parroting what others say even after you have acquired the vernacular.

At some point, the next step is to explore HOW tools work and WHY one might use them or not, and to start considering FIRST what one is trying to communicate and THEN applying tools to help accomplish that.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Yes, presets make your work similar to everyone else’s. Which is the opposite of creativity haha.
I think there’s nothing wrong with learning by copying, just make sure you’re learning from it and not being lazy. That’s how I practice complex light.
Of course, understanding how and when to use tools is crucial.

Ali Choudhry's picture

Great article. I think one key point that really resonates is that it's not a quick fix. I've been photographing for over a decade and am only JUST figuring out what my style is.

Illya Ovchar's picture

I wish I could use my own work as an example of consistency in style. But I’m still, like you, figuring it out...

Mike Ditz's picture

I am sure the you do have a style but are maybe too close to define it, an outsider may see your style better than you.
I Learned a good trick from an art buyer / consultant. Don't look at individual photos.
This was in the print days so it was different, he had me bring in as many prints as I could and we spread them out on the floor. There were a lot, maybe a couple hundred. Looking at the body of work he could see the things that all genres (product, portrait, location, studio) had in common and which images were not good or did not fit in with the others.

Now you can just load your favorites into a Lightroom catalog and look at them all at once...you should see a commonality on what and how you shoot.

Style change over time too. Mine has changed 3 or 4 times...

Illya Ovchar's picture

Printed work is brilliant! I love it, and get so so so excited when new prints are coming out. I think my personal style is very vibrant, but then again I have work that doesn't particularly fit in the general flow of images. My portraits are all over the place too haha.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

--- "That’s why I urge you to know what looks good to you, explore photographers, and not be afraid to experiment with your work. "

I think this is why people buy presets from certain photographers. They like the style because it looks good to them.

Sometimes, certain preset packs can be helpful in showing what's possible. Also, especially if one just started photography, they can "reverse engineer" to learn how what adjustments were made. Start off with something they like and experiment from there.

--- " There are very few photographers I personally know who have defined what their style is. Most, including me, are searching for it relentlessly."

Don't beat yourself up over it too much. As an example, just looking at some of Annie's work https://www.instagram.com/annieleibovitz/ , looks like she doesn't stick to just one style. To me, pages are more interesting this way, even though I'm not a fan of a lot of her images.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Personally, I am sure that part of the reason photographers buy presets is that they come from someone established (e.g Jared Polin or Peter McKinnon). The style shown in those presets is popular, and it can give a starting point. Personally, I believe that choosing to not use presets will be a lot more helpful when it comes to developing a style. But of course, it is only one small element of a larger concept. Framing, choice of subject etc are all vital to having a style.
To me, Leibovitz is known not for her editing style only, but in general, a style that is very much like natural/available light.

Mike Ditz's picture

It takes a lot of watt seconds to make it look like natural light... ;)

Illya Ovchar's picture

Yes haha, it does.