PetaPixel

The Business of Style

A look at the Photoshop Actions and Lightroom Presets industry through the eyes of a veteran, MCP Actions founder Jodi Friedman.

presets

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.

_-206

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.

free enlighten graphic

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. 

example for petapixel

andrea tate1

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.

popular

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…

Edit responsibily.


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.


 
  • Stefan

    Is this an advert? Please state it as such.

  • http://www.petapixel.com Michael Zhang

    Nope, it’s a feature piece about something in the photo industry. If it were an advert, or if we received any kind of compensation whatsoever, we WOULD state it as such.

    Thanks for your concern, Stefan :)

  • Andrew

    I’m with Stefan; This is an advert. It is in no way a ‘feature piece about something in the photo industry.’ Regardless of whether you were compensated or not, and setting aside whether or not Tiffany was compensated, it’s still a *gushing* advertorial.

    It’s pretty embarrassing and not the kind of content I ever come here to see.

    Advertisements should be labelled as such or they shouldn’t be there.

  • http://www.petapixel.com Michael Zhang

    Thanks for the feedback Andrew. Neither I, nor PetaPixel, nor Tiffany was paid or compensated in any way for this article. We simply wanted to offer a look into what the action/preset industry is like, and Tiffany chose to do this by looking at a specific company/founder (one that she apparently likes/respects a lot).

  • Tiffany Diamond

    I wanted to restate what Michael said, nobody was compensated for this article. I did select Jodi and her company because I have watched them for over 4 years grow into a company that has positioned themselves as more than just a presets/actions developer. They have cultivated a forum where photographers – pro and amateur – can discuss and learn. Lifestyle/Newborn photography is a highly competitive genre and I’m constantly amazed at how the “look” – “style” of it changes so quickly.

    While I use some of MCP’s products, I’m more of a fan of their business model. And that was what I wanted to convey in this story. As a photographer and a business person, I was curious to learn more about how she started and grew her particular business.

    I would like to do more of these types of looks at other photography related businesses in the future – but only if they are interesting to others as well. I’m certainly not interested in writing perceived advertorials.

  • Jeremy Madore

    The beginning of this article was very well written and felt like it had a strong message that may have been conveyed had it not ended in a tangent on how MCP’s business is doing. I don’t feel that it was as much of an advertisement as it is a series of poorly directed questions/answers. Tiffany’s thoughts and angst were directed toward ‘bad editing’ and how, as photographers, we need to constantly learn and develop to embrace a better standard which propels the industry forward. Unfortunately, that standard ended up being set by MCP with questions about the industry more than questions about how one might avoid these common mistakes and situate themselves for success.

    An ad? No. But next time perhaps delve deeper into the psyche of the budding photographer and discuss why these pitfalls exist and how to navigate the road a little better. If MCP is a great company, let them convey that with education rather than talking about themselves.

  • Tiffany Diamond

    Point well taken. Thanks Jeremy!

  • Jodi

    We did not pay Pexapixel a cent for posting this – nor did Tiffany receive any products for writing it. If they did, we would have asked them to disclose it. She interviewed me for the article.

  • Jodi

    Jeremy, I see how the beginning and end don’t tie together. And if someone wants, I’d be happy to address the psyche of the up and coming photographer – as I see it. Those weren’t the questions I was asked or I would have gone that way. Thanks for your thoughts. You make a great point. Jodi, MCP Actions

  • Jeremy Madore

    Thank you for reading and replying!

  • Jeremy Madore

    Please do address the psyche! There’s SO much “ugh, why do these newbies do this” going on, that if one were to plunge into finding the real reasons WHY it would answer so many questions!
    I’m certainly not bashing anyone here, and I’m glad that both of you took the time to respond to my critique – which I’m really the only one who has taken the time to write it seems. So easy to bash and move on… glad I didn’t skimp on detail here.
    Thanks for responding.

  • Tiffany Diamond

    I really do appreciate Jeremy’s comments and insight. That is an article I would enjoy reading (and writing). I do stand by what I wrote about MCP, though. :) And the essence of what I was going for…interesting and pertinent.

    I’m really excited to be able to have this forum to explore these topics, and will do my very best to hone the conversation.

  • Jack Hammer

    This article is an advertisement. No matter how you spin it.

  • Kristofor Dahl

    Ha what a stroke job, there are so many others better at Lightroom presets. Are you guys BFF s or something?

  • Kristofor Dahl

    Like vsco for example

  • http://www.corporatephotographylondon.com/ Corporate Photographer

    there are far too many photographers just adding filters and post processing effects to very ordinary images.

  • Seth

    Contradictory and overly long article. You start out slagging off on the use of actions and then swing right into advertising MCP? Disappointing.

  • Tiffany Diamond

    BFF’s…that made me giggle. ;)

  • Rob J

    I think the main point here is if you write for Petapixel you’ll get people put you down, claim completely the opposite of what you are trying to get across. This is the reason I’ve reduced the time reading any comments on sites like this. The negative photographers show to each other when they are simply putting together an article in an effort to encourage, inspire or inform is astounding. It’s like people come here with a predetermined decision to hate or be negative regardless. I think Tiffany did a good job. The article is timely as we see so many new photographers all walk the same path – get a camera, learn some basics and then experiment with actions or presets. Often pushing the look way too far but hey… it’s part of the learning process. A good photographer learns to dial it back … the old less is more approach.

    Ignore the critiques who make simple one line statements based on their mood and not the actual content of the article. Photographers need to encourage each other not hate.

  • Mickey Bill

    Perception is reality.If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…if a lot of your readers get the idea its an “advertorial” it is.
    Usually I like the different stories you run but this is first of all way too long, and reads like a press release.

  • RonT

    Here we’d call it an advertorial. They can be ‘paid’ or ‘unpaid’ (there are other benefits than direct compensation) but they are definitely ads at their core (the ‘no-compensation’ escape clause notwithstanding). The fawning form of the content writing usually gives them away.

    MCP are central to the homgenisation of images, Slapping on one of their actions pretty much defines what sort of photography you are practising. From a business perspective however, it’s been a triumph in managing social media and engaging with a specific type of photographer. I can’t fault that success.

  • Bryan Haywood

    What about VSCO? They to film presets… I feel like they are more timeless compared to the standard presets…