You’ve probably seen it: Your favorite blogger posts side-by-side images where the first is an average-looking shot of them on a cloudy day or in a dimly lit cafe and the second is the same image, but whoa, it somehow looks 1,000 times better. The colors are more vibrant, the light is shining in just the right way, and the person in the photo looks like a supermodel. The caption? “Check out my Lightroom Presets!”
If you’re scratching your head wondering what the heck a Lightroom Preset is, here’s the scoop: It’s a predetermined position for all, or some, of the photo editing sliders in the Adobe Lightroom app. Basically, it’s a high-tech filter you can buy online and download into the app to apply to your own photos. You can buy Presets on Etsy, from various photography websites, and you guessed it, from influencers themselves.
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Lightroom itself is an advanced editing app used by professional photographers. It not only makes images look seamlessly more beautiful, but it can also manipulate them without a trace. With the right Preset, Lightroom can turn a green summer day into an orange fall afternoon and a blue daytime sky into a pink horizon at sunrise. Not to mention it can change the color of your skin, eyes, lips, and more.
We’re used to seeing heavily edited photos in advertisements. No one’s blind to the fact that many models have had their teeth whitened and their skin airbrushed by a photo editor. But what happens when we start seeing that same level of editing on our Instagram feeds day after day? When people you consider your peers stop posting photos of their real lives and start posting photos of their fantasy lives?
“When we look at advertisements, we have our antennas up to the fact that these are probably doctored,” Mark Leary, PhD, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, tells Health. “It’s less clear if you just see a photo of a random person you don’t know on social media.”
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In other words, do people even think of the possibility that a photo has been edited when it’s someone they consider to be just another average person, not a model or actor? Professional editing tools are becoming more and more accessible, to the point where you can use them if you have little to no photography experience. But our antennas aren’t tuned into that nearly as much as they are when it comes to ads, Leary says, which doesn’t bode well for body image.
“If you think about it from the standpoint of how we evaluate ourselves in general, it’s always in comparison with other people because there’s no objective standard. There’s no objective standard for attractiveness, for morality, intelligence, or anything else,” Leary says. “The only way we know what we’re like is by comparing ourselves to what other people are like.”
That means when we see a photo of a blogger and wonder why our teeth aren’t that white or why our eyes aren’t that blue, we could actually be comparing ourselves to attributes that are completely fabricated. Their teeth aren’t that white and their eyes aren’t that blue, either. That “beauty” is the product of a Preset.
Influencer Brianne Conley Kordenbrock (@briconley) recently noticed Presets becoming more and more popular among people who have Instagram accounts similar to hers, so she thought she might as well get on board. She dropped about $100 on a bundle of Presets that she thought would give her photos that warm, rosy glow everyone else’s seemed to have.
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Excited to give them a go, she applied one of the Presets to an interior decor photo she had just shot. But it didn’t turn out how she had hoped. “I didn’t even feel like it was my house anymore,” Kordenbrock tells Health. “I was like, my goodness, this doesn’t even look like my home.”
Feeling uneasy about the whole thing after she posted the photo, she did a poll in her Instagram story asking her followers if they even liked Presets. “The response was pretty overwhelming,” she says. “I would say about 98% of people said they did not like Presets… I wish I would have known that before I spent $100.”
Of course, there are different levels of editing. Some Presets distort reality more than others. And the argument can also be made that cameras don’t always pick up exactly what you’re seeing anyway. Don’t get us wrong, if the oranges in that sunset looked way more vibrant in person than they did in the photo, there’s no harm in boosting the saturation a bit. It’s when we start to alter reality that we run into trouble.
For many influencers, photo editing is a part of their business model. Their account is how they make money, and to earn a living, their photos need to hold their own. There’s nothing wrong with that. But there is a fine line between editing and altering, and it seems like more people are crossing it.
To be clear: We give the influencers who posted the photos we’ve included in this article props for showing both the before and after versions of their photos edited with Lightroom Presets. Bringing attention to how heavily edited photos like these can be is half the battle. We chose to feature their photos because they’re helping users see the truth behind the Preset, not because we want to shame them for using one.
The effect Presets can have on us might not be new, but they are enhancing the issue. Leary reminds us that “people trying to embellish their public image beyond reality isn’t a new phenomenon… It’s an interesting parallel to, let’s say, women’s use of makeup.” We all use makeup differently, and some use it in a way that makes them look completely different than they do au natural. We’re constantly exposed to false portrayals of reality, leading us to unknowingly compare ourselves to the unattainable, setting ourselves up for failure.
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A 2017 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found the more time you spend on social media, the more likely you are to feel lonely. One of the researchers’ theories as to why: “Exposure to highly idealized representations of peers’ lives on social media sites may elicit feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier and more successful lives.”
Presets can contribute to that distorted belief, and being aware of their ability to deceive is step one when it comes to combating the issue. Like Leary said, we already have our antennas up when we look at advertisements. It’s time to put them up when scrolling through Instagram as well.
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