Marcus Bell’s Presets and Actions: Amazing Set of Tools to Craft & Create Unique Masterpieces

January 21, 2011

By RF Staff

By Art P Suwansang

We can all agree there is one program that universally speaks to photographers and it is one that we have come to love over the past 20 years—Photoshop. It is the program that created and transformed the art of digital manipulation. Through the use of tools and functions built into Photoshop such as layering, blending and masking, we can now alter our images in ways that were not possible or easily done with the analog process. Learning and using all these tools effectively to achieve the desired effects can be time consuming and occasionally frustrating, especially if you are on a deadline or if you are new to the program. However, various products have come on the market to enrich the Photoshop experience and provide you with dependable results.

Most of the effects applied to any images are simply lists of processes outlining the tools that are used at any given step. Many photographers record these repeated procedures into automated adjustments using a function known as Actions in Photoshop. Similarly, in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and Camera Raw these effects and quick enhancements are known as “Develop Presets,” for this article I’ll refer to them simply as “presets.” Photoshop Actions, however, can also be programmed to perform a group of tasks to any given image, such as change color, space, resize file, flatten file, save file, etc.

These actions and presets were developed as a way to quickly apply creative effects and enhancements to groups of images and achieve a consistent result every time. They were primarily created for use within the studio to quickly perform a repetitive task. Eventually, photographers, studios and companies that have developed their own selection of effects are making the proprietary collections available to the public. Currently, there are many choices for these actions and presets, so choosing the sets that best fit your photographic style, usage and needs, can be challenging.

I recently had the opportunity to sample and test some of the effects and tools developed by world-renowned wedding photographer Marcus Bell, who owns and operates Studio Impressions, a tremendously successful wedding and portrait studio in Brisbane, Australia. Bell’s studio has been perfecting digital workflow techniques in Photoshop over the last 10 years and has made available to photographers, in volumes and collections, the digital tools he has been applying to his own award-winning work.  For this review, I’ll focus on two of the products available from Studio Impressions that feature presets and actions for use with Lightroom and Photoshop.

Instant Effects—Presets
The preset collection for Lightroom and Photoshop is called Instant Effects; it comes in two volumes that work with both host programs. Each of these volumes contains over 40 presets, which provides plenty of great choices for your artistic senses to direct the results. Some of the presets that stand out in Instant Effects, Volume 1 are: “Whizz Fizz Silky,” strongly resembling the “silky” appeal or “washed out” look of an SX-70 instant Polaroid image from the 1970s; “Lime & Soda,” which desaturates the image and gives it a slightly noticeable green cast. It also includes a few black-and-white infrared film effects, which I really liked, most notably is the “Infrared Shimmer,” that imitates the look of a black-and-white infrared file and gives off a natural glow to the skin tonality. The results of these presets can be seen below in figures 1a–1d.

Three effects that I enjoyed sampling in Instant Effects, Volume 2, can be seen in figure 2a-d. The preset “Martini Dry” gives the image an analog processed-look that has the hands-on feel of bleaching an image through a non-digital technique; the image stays warm and bright. “Infrared Selenium” is another one that resembles the look of a black-and-white infrared film but with a slight red hue color shift, softening the values while emphasizing the highlights. Finally, “Jazz Envy” lowers the saturation of local color and adds a green shift to the shadows creating a “fading memory” appeal to the image without losing definition of the focal point.

Additional Thoughts on Instant Effects
Each set, available as a download or on disk, has enough variety of effects to keep you occupied for sometime as you sample the different results. With every preset there are many that will look good instantaneously on any type of image and there are those which will only look great on the “right image.” Applying these presets alone will not necessarily produce an immediate masterpiece, as always you need to start with an image that will respond to enrichment. Further adjustments should be made to the file for extra refinement to achieve the proper look and feel, whether it is exposure, contrast, fill light, etc. I also suggest that you use the localized adjustment brush as well to center the viewer’s attention to the main subject in the image. Generally, an adjustment brush with a slight increase in brightness will do just fine; see before and after in figure 3.

Photoshop Actions
Presets are great ways to enhance and transform our RAW images in a short amount of time. However, there are functions and features that Lightroom and Camera RAW are not capable of yet such as layering and blending modes. This is where Photoshop comes in. Additionally, with the use of Actions, photographers can now apply consistently stunning effects to an image in a short amount of time. This leads us to the sets of Photoshop Actions available from Bell and Studio Impressions, these include: Automatic Actions, Essential Actions and Image Styler.

All three of Bell’s Actions contain different effects and tasks for the images. Automatic Actions is designed primarily as a one-click to finish the effects application tool, which requires very little or no input from the user. This set of Actions would mostly benefit those at the beginner’s level; they can enjoy the full benefit of the effects without the need to have an extended knowledge of Photoshop. Additionally, beginners can also learn about Photoshop while applying the action, as they are played out step-by-step on the screen.

Both Essential Actions and Image Styler are geared for the intermediate to advanced Photoshop user. Essential Actions are not necessarily a compilation of effects, but rather a set of quick basic tasks that you would perform on a file. The set includes a wide range of tasks from general file management, such as rotating, flattening, saving and closing files through softening, and applying various black-and-white or sepia treatments to an image. Image Styler is the set of actions that allows full creative control over the look and feel of the effects applied to an image. All of the effects on Image Styler are applied to the image via layers and masks. This enables you to change the opacity and/or blend mode to globally modify the effects of each layer or perform a localized adjustment, using the brush tool, and painting in effects on the layer masks; samples can be seen in figure 4 and 5.

Actions Benefit
From my own sampling, I found that many of the Essential Action tools enabled me to work faster in Photoshop. Using the Essential Action and Image Styler in combination, I was provided with a large amount of creative adjustments and effects with which to make discerning choices. In addition, all of these actions can be customized, with a little knowledge of Photoshop, creating even more powerful effects that offer a totally unique look for your images. Bell’s premise in creating these tools is that the photographer should be able to maintain artistic control over the final result while producing a style that is unique to the user and repeatable to retain one’s artistic signature on the continued outcome.

Marcus Bell and Studio Impressions have recently made available a third volume of Instant Effects; sets are available separately or in collections. Bell also offers a volume of Instant Tools to complete the adjustment and refinement capabilities that may be required.  Check out the Studio Impressions Web site to find the full range of products offered and while you are there take some time to browse through the work by Marcus Bell to see the “real-time” results he has achieved with the same actions and presets available in Instant Effects. Actions and presets used with Photoshop give you the ability to take your photographic images to a new level of artistic expression that can bring a distinct uniqueness to your personal style.

Art Suwansang is an award winning international wedding photographer, educator and lecturer based in Southern California He lectures for multiple photographic organizations, consult for multiple photographers & companies internationally and offer digital photography tutorials through his new website Rule of 3Rds Additionally, he is also an adjunct faculty at Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara and Santa Monica City College. For more information, visit Art’s Web site at