Well, I've officially become one of "those photographers." You know the type, the ones that clog their blogs with reviews in exchange for "free" stuff. Shame on me....well, maybe not entirely. I'll try to maintain some dignity by always posting more articles on my trips, technique, and vision than gear/product reviews. I will only post on photography related gear/products when they are things that I actually use and find helpful and wouldrecommend (or don't recommend at all). I've tried to keep this blog relatively gear-free. But the gear-head readers and companies have finally caught up with me, and I can no longer hold them back. It seems that I may have to whore my blog out like the rest of them after all.
A preset developer, called Sleeklens, contacted me over the Thanksgiving holiday. They politely asked me to try out some of their workflow presets for Lightroom. I looked at the examples of what their presets could do on their website and was not initially impressed. They looked cheesy, quite frankly. I'm very minimalist when it comes to post-processing my images. I like my images to look and feel organic and represent what I saw and felt while photographing the scene. I don't use presets at all except for a few black and white ones in Nik Software's Silver Effex Pro (which I do recommend and it is now free!!!). So, I nearly said no thanks to Sleeklens. Then, I decided to find out what other landscape and nature photographers were saying about their presets. I found that several really talented photographers liked the Through the Woods presets and brushes, which is what I was asked to review. So, I decided to give it a shot. Sleeklens gave me the presets for free in exchange for an honest review on my blog (along with links to their product website).
SLEEKLENS THROUGH THE WOODS PRESETS FOR LIGHTROOM
Once I downloaded the Sleeklens presets and brushes for Lightroom, I took my time (about two weeks on and off) fiddling around with some images from Iceland and Sunset Beach, NC. I had already completed the editing and exported all those files before Sleeklens contacted me. Many of them are already available through Robert Harding World Imagery: the stock photo agency that represents me and licenses my images. I wanted to see how the photos compared when edited with and without the new presets. My typical process for editing images is very simple and straight forward. When in the field, I make sure I'm getting the correct exposure and I'm not clipping highlights or plunging the shadows. The more effort I put into my photos while shooting them, the less time I have to spend at the computer making them come to life again. I always shoot RAW format, of course. In Lightroom I adjust white balance, make slight exposure level adjustments, boost contrast and saturation if necessary, sharpen very lightly for print, and that is often all it takes to bring my RAW files to life.
The Through the Woods preset bundle came with a few dozen different presets and a lot of brushes. Though the presets are fun to play around with, I can't see most of them being used by serious photographers who sell their work to companies and publications. Many of the presets resemble the old cheesy Instagram filters. They may have more use for some fine art photographers, but I couldn't license images that look like hipster/vintage/faded iPhone pics. There are a few presets, however, that I actually like. The two base presets called Exdenting HDR - Crispy & Sharp (I believe they meant to say "Extending") and High Dynamic Range, are useful for pulling detail and widening the dynamic range of high contrast images. I also found they work well for editing images of sunrises and sunsets. However, it still takes a bit of tweaking to get the image looking right. Both of these (actually nearly all) presets clip the highlights and plunge the shadows even if the image is originally perfectly exposed. There is no "set it and forget it" preset, but I do find those two useful. Another handy one is the "All in One" preset called Dawn Rising, which works well with sunrises, of course; I played around with that one while editing my images from Sunset Beach. I liked the results after tweaking the exposure and contrast, but ultimately the way that I had edited the images without the Sleeklens presets was better. I had better results with using the High Dynamic Range preset with some of my Iceland photographs.
Useful Brushes & Graduated Filters
I actually found that I like the Through the Woods brushes and graduated filters better than the full presets. A few useful ones for landscapes are intense sunset, cloudy sky definition, and contrast and clarity. All of these are available as both Lightroom brushes and graduated filters. There are several others that are great for things like darkening skies, warming up sunsets, and adding clarity and sharpness. Many of them allow you to adjust the color temperature or hue of the color cast.
Example One: Below at left is the unedited RAW file of Kirkjufellsfoss captured with a Nikon D600 and 18-35G lens on a small travel tripod. The image on the right is the final result of using Sleeklens' High Dynamic Range base preset and the Cloudy Sky Definition brush on Lightroom's graduated ND filter. Exposure adjustments were also made.
Example Two: The first image below is the original RAW file of sunrise at Sunset Beach, NC captured with a Nikon D600 and 18-35G lens on a tripod. The second image example was edited using Sleeklens' Dawn Rising base preset and Intense Sunset graduate ND Filter on the sky. Other white balance, exposure, and levels adjustments were made.
Example Three: Below at left is the original RAW image of mossy fields in Thingvellir National Park, Iceland captured with (you guessed it) a Nikon D600 and 18-35G lens. The image on the right was edited using the Sleeklens Calm Sunset preset and Lightroom's graduated filter (customized). The "All in One" Calm Sunset preset did a great job at bringing out warm tones and subtle pinkish hues of this post-sunrise morning. Other exposure and saturation adjustments were made. The preset vamped up the saturation too much for my taste, so I had to back it down a bit to make the scene look more natural again.
So, the looming question is: Do I find Sleeklens' presets useful enough to purchase them myself? Based on their website's examples, no. Based on my experience with the presets and based on what I saw other nature photographers produce, maybe. As I mentioned, most of the presets are fun to play around with and are not going to help me produce images that will be used for serious publication. I can see the value for fine art and I'm sure their other preset packages are probably good for portraits and wedding shots (I was only invited to test the Through the Woods presets). I like the resulting image above of Sunset Beach well enough, and it would make a very nice piece of wall art, but, ultimately, I think these presets are a bit over the top and require too much tweaking and reigning in to be a practical part of my workflow. I'm all about spending less time at the computer and more time out shooting; I can't see these presets helping me to accomplish that balance. (If you're the type of photographer that has so many images and so much work that you need someone else to do your editing, Sleeklens also provides that service.)
I forgot to mention before that nearly all of the presets apply a ridiculous amount of sharpening to the images. Every one I tried took my Lightroom sharpening slider into the red. I don't need images that make my eyes hurt and don't need more sharpening than good lens glass and a sturdy tripod can produce. Over-sharpened images look terrible in print. Another gripe I have is that nearly all of the presets pushed my exposure way too far in both directions, blowing the highlights and plunging the shadows even if my exposure was dead on with the RAW file. Sometimes reigning in the lights and darks wasn't possible, so I had to remove the preset altogether and start from scratch.
It's not all bad though. I don't mean to bash the presets. These guys obviously put a lot of work into developing them. I did find a few useful and got some great results on a few files in testing it. The images above turned out quite well I think. As I mentioned before, there is no "set it and forget it" approach to editing your hard-earned images. If you're on the lookout for some solid presets and like what I was able to do with them, these may be a good fit for you. Check out what other photographers are saying about Sleeklens; don't just take my word alone. As always shop around! Thank you for reading and thanks to Sleeklens for allowing me to test their product.
(c) 2016 Jon Reaves Photography. All rights reserved.