A look at the Photoshop Actions and Lightroom Presets industry through the eyes of a veteran, MCP Actions founder Jodi Friedman.
Recently, I was looking through a photo gallery of a potential new hire and was a bit dismayed by her use of a particular photo enhancement editing choice. All of her photos were very overly processed with multiple styles, much like the photo below. She did have a wonderful eye, and her composition and posing were really lovely. But her processing choices really distracted from the beauty of her work. The people in her photos didn’t look real.
When we met, I asked her about her editing process and how she achieved her apparent style. She said that she used a free action for Photoshop she found online. She really liked the look of it. I asked her if she ever tweaked the action to create her own look or did she just apply it as is. As is, she replied. I slapped my forehead…in my minds eye.
But it got me thinking. So later on, I did an image search for “family and newborn photography”. And I was immediately struck by two things – lots of hearts & feet (inside joke), and b&w photography will always be classic. But the search also proved something else. There is a lot of photo manipulation going on out there. Soft baby skin. Bright toddler eyes. Spot saturation. And so on. And for the most part, the majority of it is done well. But there were the fair share of those whose work made me cringe. And I’m sure some of my earlier work would make me wonder what the hell I was thinking. But that’s the point, we learn. We educate ourselves as to what will compete in the market place (while maintaining our artistic point of view.)
But with anything creative, we are influenced by trends. And today, the look of photography is bombarded by trendiness from all sides. And it’s not just directed at the working photographer. It’s directed at the working photographer’s clients. Because, as we know, everyone is a photographer today. Thank you, filter apps.
So in the wild west of actions, presets, and filters, how do we find a balance between creative (and competitive) individuality, art-cultural trends, and timelessness?
One of the regular postings on my purposely curated (save my sanity) Facebook feed comes from a company that primarily develops actions and presets for Photoshop and Lightroom, respectively. I can’t remember how I found MCP Actions, but it was in 2009. I had just started photographing newborns and needed to develop a set of editing tools to help me deal with issues unique to this type of photography. Unfortunately for me, I’m not a big fan of editing in Photoshop. I needed to streamline my workflow, so consequently, I became a Lightroom gal. (But I would play around with their PS actions on other projects from time to time.) Thankfully, a couple of years ago, MCP started to develop a line of presets for Lightroom, and it was so nice to finally be able to have a few more options to enlist, along with my own, and keep it fresh.
MCP Actions, in my opinion, does a really cohesive job of advocating for that balance I mentioned. They strike me as the type of photography service provider that develops products to be used for editing with a responsible eye. And to make sure of it, they will help you with education modules.
Just because you can, doesn’t mean you have to. You know what I mean by that. (HDR real estate photos, yeah I’m talking to you.) Spend some time reading MCP’s Facebook Before & After posts, and the comments, and you’ll understand.
So I contacted Jodi Friedman, founder and owner of MCP Actions, and asked her if I could interview her. I selected her and her company because a) she’s been around since way back when…2006; and b) it’s my story. No, really, it’s because she has perspective and history, and I wanted to get the other side of the story.
In the interest of not misquoting her, here is our question and answer conversation:
TD: Could you tell me a little more about the time of transitioning from photographer to starting MCP Actions.
JF: It just happened. I was doing product photography and photo editing for online businesses and children’s product manufacturers. I needed a faster workflow and designed products called “actions” to help speed up the processing. After many inquiries asking “how did you edit this?” I decided to make the few products available to others. I also started teaching online classes to businesses on how to use Photoshop. At first it was one-on-one via desktop sharing. As my audience shifted from online store owners to photographers, I developed group classes in 2007.
TD: What did the PS Actions and LR Presets “world” look like at that time?
JF: When I started, I would say digital photography was picking up steam, but there’s no way there were as many photographers as there are now. I started selling Photoshop actions and doing online training classes in 2006. At first, photographers weren’t even my core audience. Online store owners, such as eBay storefronts and e-commerce clothing shops, were my customers. That changed quickly, and by 2007, I catered almost exclusively to hobbyist and professional photographers.
TD: Was it as competitive as it is now?
JF: Nope, not at all. Very few companies sold actions back in 2006 and 2007. In fact, I can literally count them on one hand. To my knowledge, nobody had live online Photoshop classes when I first offered them. Now, I see a few new actions/presets designers each week. There could easily be hundreds or even thousands now. The industry has exploded. The amount of competition pushes us to make stronger, more innovative products. We have a minimum of six months of development and testing by professional photographers that goes into every product we release. While we won’t have a new product for sale every month, a few times a year we will have a unique, exciting new product for photographers.
TD: Personally, I think you have led the market. Your work has been inventive and wonderfully creative.
JF: Thank you! Our goal is to determine what photographers need to make their photos better and workflow faster. We build products that help photographers get the looks they want, help them display and preset images to their customers, and that saves them time.
TD: Do you receive a lot of inquiries from photographers about developing specific looks/effects? How do you balance your own personal aesthetic and broader creative application when developing new products?
JF: Yes, we ask for feedback from our customers. Sometimes they ask for a certain look, whether it be color pop, matte finish, presentation-oriented, etc. We take trends into consideration, and add some looks to achieve them, but definitely try and focus most of our Photoshop actions and Lightroom presets on classic, timeless looks.
TD: Would you talk a bit about the educational side of your business. I really think that this is what sets you apart from everyone else. I love your Facebook posts about editing and sharing others work. I also admire the way you handle nasty comments, etc.
JF: As mentioned above, we’ve been offering online workshops/classes since the beginning. From our very first set, we made videos to teach how to use each product. Education is extremely important. We can provide tools, but if the users don’t learn to work with them properly, they won’t get great results. In fact, they may just leave them collecting “virtual” dust. In addition to videos and online training, we have an active photography/post-processing blog. We have more than 1,500 articles covering most types of photography, business and marketing, and editing in Photoshop and Lightroom. We have approximately 350,000 visitors to the blog every month. Our Facebook Page offers another place for customers to learn and keep up-to-date. We post to our 150,000+ fans daily, sharing before and after images, tutorials, and engaging the audience in photo-related conversations. This past year, we also added a Facebook Group, where photographers can ask photography and post-processing questions and get critique on their images.
TD: Do you feel that you have developed a loyal customer base because of your value added tutorials and ongoing online discussions?
JF: Yes. It is not just one thing we do. It’s the combination of the blog, social networking, training, well-tested and executed products, and being accessible to our customers. We get emails consistently thanking us for what we do and even saying “I owe my business to MCP Actions.” While our actions and presets make a huge impact, I know the reason we receive so many “thank you’s” and “you are the reason my business has taken off” emails has to do with the complete package of what MCP Actions offers.
TD: Can you tell me how MCP Actions has grown since the beginning?
JF: When we started there was very little awareness of actions and presets. Our sales definitely picked up as we educated photographers on the impact of our products. We’ve built a team to help us with the growth.
TD: What are your best sellers?
JF: Our top three best selling Photoshop action sets are MCP Fusion, MCP Summer Solstice, and MCP Eye Doctor and Dentist (our first set). Our best selling Lightroom presets: MCP Enlighten, but MCP Quick Clicks is very popular too.
TD: Do you have a staff?
JF: Yes, I’m responsible for all initial product development. But we have an amazing team: Our Lightroom and Elements Specialist – Erin P., our Textures Designer – Gina, our Newborn Photography Workshop Teacher – Tracy, and our three virtual assistants who help with our support desk, blog, and all kinds of other stuff – Erin B., Nicole, Zack. In addition, we have many talented volunteers who guest blog and a team who moderate the MCP Group.
TD: I get at least 3 to 4 new Action/Preset companies advertising in my FB feed each month. How do you protect your products? How have you dealt with copycats?
JF: We have had people whom we’ve inspired, and unfortunately there are a few who have actually bought, altered, and started a business based on our products. We often build certain tweaks into our actions and presets that make it easy to identify our work. Rather than drown in legal paperwork and challenge copyright, we use this as motivation to lead and pave the way.
TD: Where do you see MCP Actions in the future? Do you see any new trends on the horizon?
JF: We will continue to make products that help make editing easier for photographers.
TD: Would you talk just a little bit about the development of your Lightroom presets. I was especially excited about these because that’s where I do 95% of my editing.
JF: We dragged our feet on Lightroom. We had been asked since 2007 to make LR products. I love Lightroom for speed, but until recent versions, it lacked control. Once we felt confident that we could make presets as good as our actions, we entered the market, in 2011. We were the first to make a stackable preset system. We felt this was better than relying on one-click presets, where you either love or hate the effect, since Lightroom does not have layers and opacity adjustments built in. Our latest set Enlighten also has brushes. This allows photographers to control their edits even more.
TD: Do you cringe when you see people misusing the actions/presets? Over editing with them, so to speak. Or is it the situation where you create them and just have to let go and hope that people will learn over time?
JF: We’ve been teaching how to use our products since the beginning. Still, some photographers and especially beginners, love to play. We’ve all done it. Over editing is a danger, but with places like our Facebook Group, photographers can ask for critique, and they learn to tone down edits to take their photos to a new level.
TD: How do you think the advent of Instragram/FB filters and App filters, in general, have affected the acceptance (expectation) of what we do (photographers) in using your actions/presets in our work? In other words, most photos are being manipulated in someway these days. Are “traditionally” edited photos (lightened/darkened, saturation) boring now? Can a professional photographer get away with minimal editing/post? I’ve had clients ask me if I would make their photos like that something they saw on Instagram.
JF: True. Most photos we see aren’t straight out of camera, even those from camera phones. I think a clean, colorful, timeless edit will NEVER go out of style. These other looks all come and go. Matte finish is big now, as hazy was a few years back, but someday photographers may look back and wonder why the colors were wonky or the image lacked contrast. That said, photographers have two options: decide on their style and stick to it or cater to what customers are requesting. There’s no right or wrong answer. Each photographer needs to decide how to run his/her own business.
And that’s the point. If we’re in the business of providing photography services, we need to decide how to run our business…to stay in business. That doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice our creative self, but you do need to find that balance between what’s happening now and what will keep us around beyond the now. I know I’m my harshest critic, and work hard to not be sucked into the latest look. Though, right now, I am pretty crazy about that lo-fi matte look…
About the author: Tiffany Diamond is a freelance photographer based in the Pacific Northwest. She specializes in portrait, lifestyle, event, and documentary photography. Visit her website here.
Image credits: Header photograph by Jean Smith Photography. Overly processed photo by me, to illustrate my point. Girl with headband photo by Kelly Roper Photography. Mountain photo by MCP Actions. Dandelion photo by Crave Photography.