Sleeklens - Landscape Workflow/Preset Review

Sleeklens approached me and asked if I would be interested to try out some of the workflow tools & presets - in their own words, their creator decided he wasn't satisfied with the "one click" presets and actions available so he set out to build his own. The idea is that the workflow should provide you with a suite of presets & brushes that work together, or as the designer says "with you, not for you". Sounds great!

Although I have a range of workflows of my own, depending on the type of photo I'm working on, I'm always keen to see what others do and how I can adapt new presets & actions to improve my photos. One of the strengths of tools like Photoshop and Lightroom is that you can use actions, presets & brushes to automate what could otherwise be a lot of tedious, repetitive editing. I know a lot of photographers look down on presets but personally I see them as a tool like any other; sometimes they are useful, sometimes they aren't but having access to a variety of options gives you more flexibility in producing your final image. 

The workflow I was offered to test was called "Through the Woods" and it's intended for landscapes. Landscapes are one of the few areas I've never really dedicated enough time to so I'm particularly keen to see how the workflows can help me. Although Sleeklens provide options for Lightroom & Photoshop, I opted for Lightroom mainly because most photographers use it and therefore this will be more relevant to my readers.

After installing the brushes & presets I checked out their examples to get an idea of what effects we'd be playing with - 

Sample 1

Sample 1

Sample 2

Sample 2

There were more examples than these but they all seem to follow a similar theme -

  • Heavily boost the shadows
  • Crunch the blacks
  • Dial in vibrance & saturation to the max
  • Sharpen, sharpen, sharpen!

The overall effect, particularly on the first sample, is a bit too close to full blown HDR for my tastes and it isn't a look I find particularly appealing.  It's almost cartoony in the levels of saturation. Sample 2 isn't as bad however and the beauty of presets is that you can control what & how much you apply. I also have a couple of photos of a similar-looking locations from China which seem like they might benefit from the treatment. Frustratingly my own photos of Glencoe, as seen in sample 2, are lost somewhere in the bowls of a backup hard-drive. Reminder - must sort out a proper photo filing system!

Here are the images I will use to test out the workflow.

I've always felt like this image lacked something and wonder if novel processing can give it some spark

I've always felt like this image lacked something and wonder if novel processing can give it some spark

With a workflow called Through the Woods I couldn't exactly pass this one by...

With a workflow called Through the Woods I couldn't exactly pass this one by...

Crappy weather conditions almost ruined this view - can the Sleeklens presets pull it back?

Crappy weather conditions almost ruined this view - can the Sleeklens presets pull it back?

How would the workflow handle an image that I think works pretty good straight out of camera? Can it make it better?

How would the workflow handle an image that I think works pretty good straight out of camera? Can it make it better?

I'll tackle each image one at a time but first a quick note on how the workflows are setup.

Sleeklens calls their workflows "recipe lists", and they are essentially a list of presets applied in order, each with a quirky hipster name ("Down to a Whisper" or "The Royal Treatment" for example) followed by brushes to add finishing touches. I began by using the recipe list for sample 2 as it was arguably the closest source image to what I am using. To begin I followed the whole workflow "as-is" then tried again from scratch, making my own choices and tweaking the results slightly. To try to make it more of a "pure" test of the brushes and presets I intend not to alter any sliders manually.

The workflow presets seem to follow an intuitive, sensible system. Stage 0 is the "all-in-one", presets that seem to generally alter the entire feel of an image in one click. This surprised me because from the literature the whole point of the Sleeklens presets were to get away from one-click-images. Indeed, after applying a couple of stage 0 presets and checking the output they all apply fairly heavy changes across all major adjustments. Stage 1 feels less heavy handed and more like the beginning of a process, applying relatively modest alterations to your image without tweaking every slider available. Stage 2 presets work on your image exposure and by and large focus on either overall brightening/darkening and boosting/crushing shadows. I'm not sure a preset is needed to do this stage really, the sliders are fairly easy to get to grips with, but I assume the idea is they are there to automate common tweaks - in other words, apply the same consistent style to your images via the preset rather than have to remember the exact settings each time.

Stage 3 was the least exciting - five "colour correction" presets that either hugely boosted the skies (using a garish blue graduated filter) or reduced red/green/blue/yellow colour intensity. Truth be told on my sample image I couldn't see any difference in any of the "reduce" presets and the deep blue sky effect was so overblown and unsubtle I immediately hit the undo button.  Stage 4 was similar but a bit more useful, offering a selection of toning/tinting options, and stage 5 is the "polish" layer, tweaking clarity, contrast and sharpness. I'm curious to see how these stage 5 presets in particular will work because I think clarity, contrast and sharpness are maybe some of the most "image specific" alterations you can apply and will make/break images; subtlety is the key in getting the best out of them.

The final stage is vignettes, black and white, in varying strengths.

Onto the test! 

Image 1 - From the Great Wall

The image won't win any awards but it's one of those shots where the scene you witnessed just isn't done justice by the photograph. It was the only day in China where we saw even a hint of blue sky and the colours on the day were lovely. The photo, by contrast, is flat, dull & lifeless. Can Sleeklens make it closer to my memory...

The base image.

The base image.

This is following the recipe list blindly, applying the same presets & brushes in the same way as the guide. 

This is much closer to what I remember - lots of blue haze in the distance but with crisp mountain peaks. Dusty orange-brown foreground and with sharply defined trees and steppes on the opposing hillside.  Not perfect but much better.

Obviously the point of the Sleeklens recipe lists aren't to follow them by rote, they are there just as a pointer for how you can use their presets to get an approximately similar image. First impression are that I think that the vibrancy/saturation options are too strong - even using the mild one I ditched my plan to not tweak sliders and halved the overall change applied by the presete- and the contrast/sharpening is just too strong. That said, you can use the presets to get you 95% of the way then tweak the final 5% manually. Overall, I'm not amazed at the effect on this image but I think the final result is a definite improvement.

Image 2 - Through the Woods

For image 2 there wasn't really a sample recipe I could use because most of the examples & presets seem tailored to adding punch to an image and I'm not really sure that suits the mood I want here. Still, I'm curious to see what I can achieve :)

Base Image

Base Image

An experiment using only presets to create a more dark & moody feel

An experiment using only presets to create a more dark & moody feel

OK I went a bit crazy here but I used a minimal amount of presets, starting with a cinematic colour grading, then went to town with the brushes!

OK I went a bit crazy here but I used a minimal amount of presets, starting with a cinematic colour grading, then went to town with the brushes!

I'm starting to see some appeal here. The presets are not working too well out of the box for me so far. Some of them are reasonable start points but I feel like I need to tweak every single one because the adjustments are just so extreme. However I started to seriously appreciate some of the brushes! I probably overcooked it here but it was fun! In my head I was trying to go for an orange-teal movie poster look.  

Now, I've thrown two fairly ordinary images at it - how will Sleeklens tools cope with some appalling shooting conditions and a miserable base image...

Image 3 - Zhangjiajie Stone Columns

The weather (aka chronic smog) pretty much ruined our trip to Zhangjiajie national park but at least it cleared up long enough to get an idea what things look like on a good day. Again, this photo isn't really a reflection and how it looked in reality. Can the Sleeklens Through the Woods wizardry pull anything out of this image...?

Urghhhhh 

Urghhhhh 

Again the brushes impress - it took some time but I was able to use some of the super contrasty presets to drag detail out of the foreground (kicking & screaming) then "paint in" some dreamy sunset tones. Pretty decent recovery of a bad image I think. And I tried to restrain myself this time and not go "full Hollywood".

Again the brushes impress - it took some time but I was able to use some of the super contrasty presets to drag detail out of the foreground (kicking & screaming) then "paint in" some dreamy sunset tones. Pretty decent recovery of a bad image I think. And I tried to restrain myself this time and not go "full Hollywood".

I was so impressed with how the brush effects saved the day here that I tried a couple more images from this trip.  The effect isn't quite as good sadly but still by combining a boatload of presets and some careful brushing it's at least pulled back something from the images. 

I've added in faux-sunrise on the right which looks fake but is still better than ugly milky-white highlights. However, something - and I'm not sure what - has made the greens around the central pillar too vivid. Looks pretty poor and I didn't notice it until after exporting the image. Nice try but not quite.

I've added in faux-sunrise on the right which looks fake but is still better than ugly milky-white highlights. However, something - and I'm not sure what - has made the greens around the central pillar too vivid. Looks pretty poor and I didn't notice it until after exporting the image. Nice try but not quite.

Pretty much my only photograph of Zhangjiajie with any kind of detail in the cloud. In reality the whole scene was bland, overcast whiteness. I think the sunset colour still looks fake here, albeit less so than my effort above, but it makes for a dramatic if unrealistic effect.

Pretty much my only photograph of Zhangjiajie with any kind of detail in the cloud. In reality the whole scene was bland, overcast whiteness. I think the sunset colour still looks fake here, albeit less so than my effort above, but it makes for a dramatic if unrealistic effect.

I don't think I can level any criticism here - I threw some pretty poor images into the mix and although I think one of them shows promise I wasn't expecting miracles. It was demonstrating how much detail in the shadows could be rescued quite nicely. Because the starting images were heavy on the highlights it did reveal that many of the presets were emphasising blue tones and significantly pulling contrast up or down - the mouseover preview of the presets didn't seem to look very different from each other at all in some cases. Again this isn't hugely surprising considering this is a landscape-focused suite of tools but it did make me wonder if the suite was going to be at it's best when processing more conventional scenes without extreme conditions.  I would be able to test the former theory with my final image.

Image 4 - Marina Bay Sands

For my final image I decided to go for a photo that I think looks pretty good straight out of camera - when I shot and processed this originally I barely touched it at all, the colours looked so good. The blue-hour light was great and contrasted nicely with the orange artificial lighting. Would the Sleeklens toolkit be able to improve it?

By now I felt like I had enough of a handle on how the presets could be used and how they interacted with the brushes to dispense with following a recipe list. Instead I previewed each preset before applying ones I thought had promise - this very much reflects the way I work normally and felt quite natural - before experimenting with how each option interacted. 

Base image, absolutely untouched. A great advert for the Sony A7RII :)

Base image, absolutely untouched. A great advert for the Sony A7RII :)

I hadn't tried one of the black & white conversions and although I think the image is stronger in colour, I do think this conversion is pretty effective. The "mid-range boost" preset tended to even everything out into a 19% feet amorphous mess just meant the scene turned into a busy mess. This one I think is pretty good, a nice range of tones without feeling cluttered.

I hadn't tried one of the black & white conversions and although I think the image is stronger in colour, I do think this conversion is pretty effective. The "mid-range boost" preset tended to even everything out into a 19% feet amorphous mess just meant the scene turned into a busy mess. This one I think is pretty good, a nice range of tones without feeling cluttered.

A cinematic preset with a slight tweak to the hue and intensity of the oranges - I could well imagine this being used to advertise the hotel. Still feels slightly too processed again for me but not eye-wateringly so.

A cinematic preset with a slight tweak to the hue and intensity of the oranges - I could well imagine this being used to advertise the hotel. Still feels slightly too processed again for me but not eye-wateringly so.

For this image I tried various brush effects but none of them worked. The image doesn't really need it and I think everything I tried just made it feel instantly false.

CONCLUSION

I confess, when I first started playing around with the presets & brushes on some test images (not in this review) and my first serious test image I wasn't impressed. In fact,  as soon as I saw the sample images in the user guide I wondered if I would find anything at all I would like, simply because everything looked too processed & too saturated - that very first sample image from the recipe list looks like someone fell asleep on the HDR slider! When I finally got a chance to experiment I felt my first impressions were confirmed; the vast majority of presets are fairly strong, bordering on extreme in a few cases. They either make things super contrasty, saturated & sharpened with extreme shadow detail recovery or they go the other way with extremely flat, hazy effects. This effect definitely appeals to some but for me it was a bit of a turn off at first. The brushes are where I found much more appeal and it left me thinking about other images I could dig out and try to add some spectacular sunsets to.

This might all sound like I am not a fan of the  Through the Woods workflow but that's not the case. For my tastes it probably isn't something I would use very often, just because of how the presets boost colours and contrast to levels I don't personally think look realistic - that is entirely personal preference though! I generally prefer to start out with subtle changes and build up, rather than big changes and tone down. However the point of presets is that you can try them out on an image and see if they kickstart your creativity - just because out of the box they may not suit your image doesn't mean they won't give you a starting point you can subsequently tweak. Likewise with the brushes, even if you don't find one in the pack to suit a specific scene you can always tweak it slightly to get the effect you are looking for. Don't forget, everything you can do with presets and brushes can be done manually but that isn't an excuse to ignore packs of presets like this. I often think they are best used to inspire you and speed you up so you spend less time in Lightroom & more time shooting, allowing you to quickly and easily browse a wide range of potential ways to process your photographs and see if something catches your eye. As I said earlier in this post I definitely found more use out of the brushes than I expected.

One final point is that many Lightroom presets are also freely available online which begs the question of why you would pay for a pack like these. I definitely think some people will find this workflow hugely useful, partly because they might simply love the effects they give out of the box but more likely I think the photographers who would get most value out of these are those who are not that familiar with Lightroom - until you know what can be done and where to look for it online, getting a bundle like this to kick things off might be a worthwhile investment. Sleeklens also offer support for all their packages which again could be pretty valuable if you're still learning. I think there might be less appeal to experienced photographers but only because they tend to already have a style and suite of presets, or know where to trawl the internet for freebies.  

Finally, if your style is to produce vivid & punchy landscapes that stand out, maybe at the slight expense of realism, this could definitely be a worthwhile investment!

I do like how the presets & brushes are categorised and laid out within Lightroom. It was certainly a very straightforward & easy to use workflow and the guidance for installing everything was easy to follow. Although I could take or leave the artsy Stage 0 names, having similar presets & brushes grouped together made it easy to find and experiment with similar effects. The brushes in particular were very easy to use and with names that matched perfectly what they did. A definite time saver and very easy to use.  This is something you won't get if you just download tons of free presets and dump them into Lightroom.

It did make me look at the other workflows Sleeklens produce and to be honest I think they might have just offered me the only one that's a bit too much for my taste! Certainly the night sky, portrait and black & white packs look interesting, maybe the newborn baby one too. I'm definitely going to offer myself up for a few more reviews if Sleeklens are interested!

In conclusion, I can't say I think the "Through the Woods" pack is a must-buy for everyone but it's definitely worth looking at if you want to give your landscape photos some bright, vibrant colours with tons of contrast and wow factor - just be careful not to overdo it! - or if you want to add some atmospheric effects. It may not always look realistic but it may just be what you want!

All Sleeklens workflow packs can be found here - 

 http://sleeklens.com/product-category/lightroom-presets

The specific "Through the Woods" pack can be found here

Sleeklens also offer their own image editing service - click here for more info

Let me know what you think of this Sleeklens workflow down in the comments, and if you want to see more Sleeklens reviews like this!