I have a love-hate relationship with filters and presets.
I have them. I use them. I even make my own. Love it.
On the other hand, you can’t put lipstick on a pig, and no matter how much Photoshop you do and how many presets you apply, if the raw material isn’t there, it isn’t there. Hate it.
I see it like music. Sure, interpretation matters. But lyrics are lyrics and music is music, and the ideas have to be there from the start.
In other words, the first question has to be about you, before you ask about the filter. It can’t be the other way around.
Still, one of my first jobs was in the darkroom, processing film and prints for a newspaper, and the look of film has always been near and dear to my heart.
Who doesn’t love the smell of fixer in the morning?
So I’ve been curious about the Mastin Labs filters for awhile, and I finally took them out for a spin to see how they stacked up. I cranked up the music, I loaded up some pictures, and off I went.
How did they do?
Before we get there, let me give you a little context.
First, though I spent fifteen years shooting film, I’m certainly not a film shooter. My workflow is all digital at this point for both my personal work and my weddings. Second, I shoot predominantly on the M43 platform, meaning that the Mastin Labs filters are not optimized for my cameras, so I had to tweak things.
Finally, I’m anything but a purist. In casual observation and a little bit of internet research, Mastin Labs matched their presets very thoroughly to the film stocks. I think this is an admirable effort, and it’s especially important for people who shoot both film and digital. However, given that I didn’t need that level of accuracy, I was very curious how things would work out for me.
Of course, you can judge for yourself by looking at the images below, before you read my impressions.
I was impressed. The presets were easy to work with, I liked the look, and the execution was very refined. It’s clear that Mastin Labs spent some time thinking this through. You just pick your stock of film, then you can go through a series of additional presets to refine the highlights, the shadows, and pick your grain.
In particular, there were three things that caught my eye.
The first was how it dealt with light and bright images. It’s clear that the presets excel for skin tones in high key lighting, and I especially liked the renderings for the Portra set.
Not surprisingly, then, the second thing was how the presets handled highlights. There was a wide tonal range that was pleasant and filmic. You can see this most vividly in the third picture where the sky becomes noticeably creamier and more delicate. Actually, it’s the third image that really got my attention, because even though the shift is the most subtle, after dropping the contrast a little, the preset managed to change the look without screaming that I changed the look.
That leads to the third observation. I liked that the presets weren’t heavy-handed. It’s always tempting to overdo a filter to maximize the impact. And it works, but it’s a little like sugar in a dessert. It makes it tasty, but it takes away the nuance and masks the flavors. While sugar can have it’s place, it’s harder to create a product that’s subtle, but still works, because your adjustments need to be more refined.
Are there any negatives?
Well, as always, to get the most out of these, you’re going to need to put in some work. They’re not a panacea, and understanding color theory and building a repository of looks to reference will still help you out immensely. And of course, you’ll need to find the right light in the first place.
Also, while the presets are perfectly fine with low key images, in my eyes, they didn’t have the same amount of impact. I took a picture I shot with an off camera flash indoors to see how it would come out.
The preset did what it was supposed to do, and there is a more filmic tone—but, I’d want to play with this more to get the look I want with this type of lighting.
Overall, I really enjoyed the presets. I think Mastin Labs hit its audience square between the eyes. For film shooters with a light and airy style, it’s easy to see how they would have a regular place in the workflow. As for me, I’m excited to have them, and I think they make a great addition to my toolkit.