Lightroom Presets vs. Photoshop Actions

Lightroom Presets vs. Photoshop Actions


12The ultimate battle ensues for the top drawer in my toolbox: presets versus actions. What’s the difference and what are the pros and cons according to Elizabeth?

First the basics: Presets are Lightroom’s way of applying many changes to a photo in one click. They can be made by you for a way in which you commonly treat a photo and would like to apply your own recipe in one click. Alternatively, they can be the recipes of other photographers which you purchase from them as .lrtemplate files to import into your lightroom catalogue of presets. Even better, some photographers give their presets away for free! Keep reading for those.

Photoshop’s one-click version are called actions and they work in the same way. Scroll through the effect names, choose one and click. You then see your photograph go through a makeover in a split-second. Again, you can record your own action sequences or buy them as .atn files from other photographers.

I prefer LR presets. I’m a control freak (big time) and I want to have complete, effortless control over every last pixel of my work. I appreciate the foundation that presets can lay in my editing process, but I never click once and move on. I always then play with the sliders to make every last element of my photo exactly what I want it to be. With actions, I feel that I lose control and unless the one click produces exactly what I had in mind (it never does), I don’t prefer to use them. The few times I’ve used actions, they always end up being from Florabella because she makes them work with a variety of layers which you can then tweak. But still, I don’t feel that I have enough control.

So what actions/presets do I love? My first love came from the ‘Lightroom Killer Tips’ website. Matt gives utterly amazing LR tutorials and gives his presets away for free. He even invented a preset extractor program which extracts LR setting from photos on Flickr and that is free as well. Genius! For actions, I use Florabella. She is the love of my textures life and also makes smashing actions. Another place for free actions and presets is CoffeeShop. For presets, my loves are Rebecca Lily and One Willow’s ‘Retro Candy’ presets with delicious names like ‘cotton candy’.

Keep in mind that most presets are created to work on RAW files, so if you’re not shooting in RAW yet, look into starting that before using presets. If you’re not sure about RAW vs JPEG, read this.

Which method do you prefer? Who are your favourites?

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Elizabeth Halford is a photographer and advertising creative producer in Orlando, FL. She wrote her first article for dPS in 2010. Her most popular one racked up over 100k shares!

Some Older Comments

  • John August 12, 2013 11:34 pm

    Excellent review I’ve had a play around with the presets myself and found the same as you as regard to colour control, however, I'd like to share my sources of Lightroom presets:


  • John N July 21, 2013 05:18 pm

    Great post thank you. I agree, I much prefer Lightroom for many tasks it's faster and nondestructive but, I usually finish in PS. Coming from the plugin world of Nik and Topaz. I would prefer to many PS actions to be converted to a plugin similar to Nik or Topaz which would make them easier to use.

  • Sree B. December 12, 2012 07:51 pm

    Thanks for the article! Just noticed that Florabella's website has moved to: You might want to change the link in your post.


  • Kevin April 22, 2012 08:26 am

    Her lack of "control" over PS Actions, is really just lack of knowledge of Photoshop. She should say that. LOL Photoshop is the dream of "control down to the the very pixel" control freaks. When you make your own actions, you can control everything. Even most of the free actions, leave the layers editable so that you can edit them to your liking.

  • jessie October 7, 2010 04:55 am

    hey! Great article, thanks for sharing your knowledge! Which preset is the one in this article with the teddy bear?

  • Headshots LA September 27, 2010 04:42 pm

    Interesting observations. Learn about how presets effect JPEG & Raw files differently.

  • photokunstler February 9, 2010 10:39 am

    Nice to see Shana Rae and Rita here!
    Some of my favourite action-people.

    And I adore textures, used appropriately, sparingly and well, so it is PS for me!

    Thanks Elizabeth, for taking your time to share.

  • Granger February 7, 2010 11:11 pm

    If you're processing a bunch of snapshots Lightroom presets are fine and certainly easy. If you're really wanting to take control over your picutres than PS Actions are really the better option. I actually found that overusing Lightroom was really limiting the quality of my work because I stopped short of what the photo really needed. If you've got some good workflow actions, nothing beats it. Each correction goes on a separate layer and so its fully adjustable. And you have access to all PS's auto functions in curves, levels, etc. So after using one of my workflow actions, I've got my basic adjustments made and can start getting creative. And I can back out most things I've done previously that don't work as I move along in the process because they're on layers or a duplicated file.
    And I do use some of Rita's excellent presets. Thanks Rita.

  • Rita of CoffeeShop February 4, 2010 01:22 am

    Elizabeth, thank you so much for linking my free action CoffeeShop Blog! I personally am a huge fan of actions over LightRoom presets. I like making simple color and B&W adjustments in LightRoom, and for that I use very simple presets. When I want to do something artistic I prefer Photoshop. You really can have incredible creative control with many free actions out there. Plus you can't use textures in LR. However, if you love presets there are many more free ones out there than actions. Presets are incredibly simple to write. :-)

    Almost all of my free actions on my site are incredibly adjustable and work in Photoshop and Photoshop Elements. You can adjust most layers by changing the opacity, blending mode, and masking. I also include step-by-step tutorials for most actions where I take them apart so anyone can duplicate my effects easily in Photoshop or Photoshop Elements WITHOUT using the action. This allows people to learn how to use their program and also adapt the action to their own images. No action will look perfect on all photos, just like presets, so it is great to give people tools to do their own tweaking and editing.

    I also want to say that there are so many incredible free actions and presets out there that many people will find it unnecessary to buy any unless they have the extra money and want to save some time (or help support a hardworking action writer!), or don't know anything about editing. It is fun to download free ones, take them apart and see how they work. This is the best way to learn editing, and so much more fun than using a book. :-) I personally have never purchased one action or preset because I know I will take it apart and be peeved I paid for something that I could have done on my own. But then, I am a self-professed geek... :-)

  • Vitaliy G February 3, 2010 05:09 am

    I assume that the mentioned presets are for Lightroom 2. Will they also work with Lightroom 3, once it is released?

  • Tim A. February 2, 2010 07:33 am

    Good to see Florabella get some love. I've used a combination of Rebeca Lilly's presets that are then tweaked by me, then onto PS for Florabella action, sometimes two, and then onto her textures, sometimes up to 3 or 4 at a time. Over processed? Maybe. But it gives the final product that I like.

    Depending on the effect, some things can never be done just in LR. And when you bring textures into the equation, you can't help but go into PS.

  • Zack Jones February 1, 2010 10:42 pm

    Is the complete article posted? It is so heavily slanted towards LightRoom that it seems paragraphs covering PSE Actions is missing. I don't have a preference for one over the other. I only wish Adobe had a scripting language that was compatible across PhotoShop, LightRoom, and PhotoShop Elements.

  • Amy February 1, 2010 08:47 am

    great article! I was just looking around for more presets and actions and this showed up.
    many thanks.

  • Elizabeth Halford February 1, 2010 08:39 am

    @spike: aaaah thanks for that clearly need a google 101 course :) Good to know - will add links.

  • Spike February 1, 2010 08:24 am

    No. Google Pagerank for a site is primarily computed by the number of sites that link to that site. With a poor Pagerank, they will only appear in the top of search results when people search specifically for that site but not when people search on more general terms. Other ranking sites use similar methods. So it supports their work better if you link to them. I found your site because someone linked to you, not because someone mentioned you. How many other blogs do you read where people only mention sites without linking to them? You should show the same generosity of spirit.

  • Mason Sklut February 1, 2010 07:41 am

    It's a lot more practical to use Lightroom.
    Having previews from the presets in Lightroom makes for easier editing.

    LR Presets > PS Actions

  • Robin Ryan February 1, 2010 07:39 am

    I like presets, but people need to be smart when using them. Presets are designed on a specific print to make it look fantastic; when you change to a different photo and apply the same modifications, they are always going to be imperfect. For those using presets, make sure you go to the toolbar on the right-hand side afterwards and tinker with it.

    Here are some examples done with in colour

    and a few in black and white

    Now black & white are trickier with presets and I *really* recommend doing it manually... LR2 manages b&w exceptionally.

    Here's an example of a nude (sfw... i think) I did in b&w:

  • Shana Rae February 1, 2010 05:41 am

    Thanks for mentioning Florabella Textures & Actions, Elizabeth. :)

    As you mentioned, my actions are fully adjustable with layers and layer masks built in.... that's because I always make adjustments to fit the image's needs (no matter which actions I use). I think it's fun to collect and use both actions and presets (if you have both programs)... so much fun! :)

    Best, Shana Rae
    [eimg link='' title='' url='']

  • Tyler Robbins February 1, 2010 05:20 am

    I think likening an action to a preset is a little weak. Actions can do a lot, as can presets, but an action in photoshop can be used for more than simply doing color tweaks. I use them to put in sets of adjustment layers, for the sake of setting up my file. I think of them as a template. Curve presets and the like do the rest. I am not sure this article does actions justice. They can be simple - like assigning a profile and converting a scan to print resolution - Or they can carry out multiple tedious steps.

  • Elizabeth Halford February 1, 2010 04:23 am

    Hi everyone thanks for all the comments :) For the artists I mentioned, Google them - it supports their work by letting Google know that they're of interest to you! If you're using Safari, it's even easier. Just highlight and right click. There's a google search button right there. That tip is free! :)

  • k3sh January 31, 2010 11:54 pm

    When I was wondering which is the Lightroom Preset or Photoshop Actions, these article cleared my doubts. Thanks. :)

  • Jodi Friedman January 31, 2010 11:47 pm

    I personally do basic exposure adjustments and white balance in lightroom but much prefer Photoshop for detailed editing.

    I have yet to find presets I like applied globally. I edit one photo from a specific lighting scenario and of a specific white balance and sync with others of the same situation from the same setting.

    Then I edit in Photoshop using actions. I feel strongly that actions should be highly adjustable with layers and layer masks built in for the most customized looks. As much as possible, actions I sell are built with non destructive adjustment layers and include detailed tutorials on using them. I love the control of masking and layers in Photoshop. I have not found that the adjustment brush of lightroom gives me that level of control.

    Elizabeth, if you would like to give them a try, let me know.

    I am a control freak too.

    MCP Actions: Photoshop actions and workshops

  • Koky January 31, 2010 06:03 pm

    This is not about complete post process ... it is just about presets vs actions ... i make base 'tuning' with presets and export PSD/TIFF into Photoshop for a final post process if it necessary ;)

  • JP January 31, 2010 05:54 pm

    You have so much more control over the editing of a photo in Photoshop. Its obvious that you don't know how to properly edit a photo in photoshop. I would say lightroom you have pretty much no control because the localized editing tools are a joke compared to photoshop. I do feel that global editing is easier in lightroom, but that doesn't mean you have more control.

    If you really want to learn how to post process, learn how to use photoshop. Better yet, learn how to prep your subject and background, make sure makeup is perfect, make sure the pose is perfect. Get the lighting perfect that way the only thing you'll ever have to post in is a little saturation (vibrance for the control freaks) and a little contrast.

  • Sarah January 31, 2010 02:19 pm

    this was really helpful...thank you for the information! i will definitely look into buying some of those LR presets in the future :)

  • ErikU January 31, 2010 01:45 pm

    I haven't worked with LR, but have had plenty of experience with PS. I find that Actions can be very customizable. If you make them yourself, you can set it to where the adjustments with sliders pop up (rather than just going though the adjustment automatically) and you can set them to your liking before the action continues. With actions you download, you can always customize the action to have the adjustment sliders pop up, if they don't already do this.

  • Spike January 31, 2010 11:20 am

    It would be so much nicer if you provided actual links to those websites you cite in this article rather than just presenting their names in bold font.

  • Koky January 31, 2010 07:15 am

    IMHO LR presets working with RAW data before I make export into PSD/TIF ... but PS actions working with 'modified' data from ACR instead of RAW data, so here is the main diference ... for me is better using presets because i prefer non destructive processing with RAW data.

  • Jack Larson January 31, 2010 07:06 am

    I much prefer LR Presets.

  • Rob January 31, 2010 07:05 am

    I try to stay away from photoshop and stick with lightroom. PS makes it far to easy to apply effects that make photos look unnatural... Lightroom for the win!

  • phree January 31, 2010 07:04 am

    Lightroom offers 16-bit non-destructive editing, virtual copies & the option to try different iterations. Actions can be fun occassionally,but nowhere near the fidelity of pixel preservation.

  • Glark January 31, 2010 06:49 am

    Share the love, why not link to all those places you recommend instead of making them bold.

  • AlainP January 31, 2010 06:37 am

    Just a work of caution: a lot of the 'wow' and popular present use the split tone panel and this feature really destroy pixels. They might look good at low resolution on the screen, but once you blow them up full screen or on print, the often look pixelated in teh dark areas.