No Filters. No Presets.


Stop Buying and Using Presets!

Virtually everybody sells his pack of presets now. 50% off. I understand that it is a way of making money, and beginners may actually appreciate the look. But: You will never learn why a photo looks the way it looks after you applied a preset. I'll add: You miss out on so many things by adding presets, and you ultimately give away a good portion of your work's artistic originality. I said there will be some hot takes in here. After a preset from someone else, it's not really 100% yours anymore. And as you do it again and again, that notion creeps under your skin. You start looking at your old pictures and realize they all look mostly the same. Not in a sense of consistency, but a sense of monotony.

All of this is said easily by someone who does not earn money through photography, nor does it professionally in any way. But let's be honest: Most of you also have none of these traits either, no offense. You can, you should, afford editing your photos "the hard way". Yes, you will fail at times, but you will learn something. If a preset does not fit, all you subsequently know is that it does not do the job (you paid it for).

Editing is fun

Editing photos can be a significant part of the creative process, if you want it to be so. To me, exploring how an image looks with this or that setting modified is key to developing conscious creativity, i.e. an artistic look that you can re-create (not apply) at will. That consciousness, that ability grows with every RAW file I edit, and it continues to grow even after years.

Back in the old days of analog film (whose renaissance might not be for you), a negative had to be processed in order to get to the actual photo (the positive). Similar to that, but with a plethora of options, we can "develop" digital RAW files. To our delight (pun intended), it is a way more immediate process which significantly helps to make mistakes faster, and thus improve quicker. Also, if analog processing failed, there was no way back.


I don't want to dive too deep into that topic, some use them excessively, not only a few hate them. All we can probably agree on is that you learn precisely nothing about photography when you apply a filter to your image. As you would by applying a preset.

But Your Photos also all Look the same!

That is because I try to achieve the look I desire, and which I have developed in my own mind over the years. It is a conscious decision, an expression of my taste. You'd be surprised if you saw the massive differences between two edits of images, only to make them match my vision.

Even if I designed a preset for myself (which is legitimate, especially if you have to process lots of photos from the same event, e.g. a show), it would never fit properly on the majority of images. That is why having the ability to fully edit your images by hand is so important.

The Hard Part

I'll be honest, there will be a lot to learn if you are new to the editing game. A lot. There is a reason why there are presets, otherwise everybody would edit on his own, would he? The road to your own look, the expression of your own style starts with getting lost in all these sliders, buttons and settings.

If you just started shooting RAW, I recommend getting the JPG alongside (most cameras support writing both to the memory card). Once you compare the out-of-camera JPG to an unedited RAW file, you realize how much tweaking the camera manufacturers apply immediately. Getting just a basic, usable image out of a RAW file requires quite a bit of stamina if you are new to the game. But it gets better. More specifically, you get the ability to work directly towards your artistic goal without taking extra laps.

And don't be worried if you don't have a concrete vision of your artistic goal yet. That is normal. It develops as your editing develops, often unconsciously. All you "see" from that process while editing might be the thought of liking or not liking how the image changed when you move a slider. As you proceed, you get the vocabulary, you encounter tone curves, hue, saturation, chromatic aberration. Slowly digging deeper into the rabbit-hole, you will not only be increasingly able to formulate the look of your style, but also which settings you need for achieving that style.

The Money Part

"Editing software is expensive!" Well, it does not have to be. I use Darktable for all of my work (and don't get paid anything for telling you that), and after you know its quirks, you can produce some pretty decent results. It is free and open source, which means that you can in theory extend it yourself. It's currently at version 4.2, and it is still being maintained by a large community. I created a whole workshop using Darktable for a Linux/Open-source event in Germany, which can be found here (in German). If you want me to (and once I find the time), I translate it to English.


As you can see, manual editing is obviously more work than just hitting a button and applying a present but the outcome is a way more intentional result. In the end, the knowledge about how to edit your photos relieves you from having to rely on others' abilities and ultimately others' taste. Uncoupling yourself from the latter is the key to achieving full artistic freedom.

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