Custom Photo Filters Are the New Instagram Gold Mine

How selling Adobe Lightroom presets took the “influencer” world by storm

“Influencers” are people who have established credibility in a specific realm or industry, and who leverage a social-media following to exert influence and, usually, make money. Scroll through many of their Instagram feeds, and you’ll begin to notice something: The photos all look vaguely the same. Maybe every image seems washed in pink, or the blues are all the same, or every image is just the right amount of faded. That’s not an accident, or an example of photographic mastery; it’s a preset.

Presets are custom filters applied using Adobe Lightroom, a photo-editing tool. Influencers run all their photos through a specific preset in order to cultivate an aesthetic and make their feed look cohesive. Influencers have relied on Lightroom for years, but it wasn’t until June of this year that Adobe finally introduced the ability to create and share presets entirely on mobile, and a preset boom was born.

Maddy Corbin, who lives in Indianapolis and has nearly 30,000 followers on Instagram, spent months in Lightroom “playing around, figuring out what kind of aesthetic I had and what colors best represented my brand,” she said. She eventually landed on a pastel-pink look that her peers were happy to pay for. Now her followers share their own photos, washed in Corbin’s exact shade of pink, using Corbin’s preset under #MADDYCORBINPRESETS. The tagged photos all look like an extension of Corbin’s feed.

Now Corbin isn’t just selling sonic facial brushes and cold-pressed body wash on Instagram—she’s selling the aesthetic that makes selling all that other stuff easy. Her preset packages go for between $25 and $200, and once a preset is created and uploaded to a marketplace such as FilterGrade, it can generate ongoing income with little to no additional work. This passive income can be a lifeline for influencers as they negotiate more lucrative brand deals that don’t always pay out immediately.

To use a preset, customers buy it from an online store, a download link is sent to their email, and they open the file, copy it into Lightroom, and voilà. They now have the custom filter that their favorite Instagram star applies to her own photos.

But while presets may seem easy to produce and sell online, there’s a lot more to the process than just creating a filter and slapping it on your Instagram story. One big bottleneck, according to Mike Moloney, a founder of FilterGrade: setting up an e-commerce site. “You have to build it, market it, then sell it, and also maintain support,” he said. FilterGrade streamlines that process by acting as the middleman between Instagram stars and consumers, intercepting customer-service queries and taking 30 percent of the profits from sales.

Business is good. Presets are “about the people selling the filters rather than the filters themselves,” Moloney said. “People used to buy and use filters on their photos just because they looked cool. Now they buy filters because someone they like made them.”

Like wearing a top from your favorite YouTuber’s custom–T-shirt line, using a preset can help you feel like you’re living your idol’s lifestyle. Your photos inherently look more like hers, and it makes you feel like you’re part of a larger fan group. Fans who use influencer presets will often hashtag their photos with the influencer’s name.

“Presets are a really great way to connect personally with people on Instagram, especially younger girls who are interested in the industry,” Corbin said. Most influencers just starting out are still honing their own aesthetic; cribbing the style of a popular influencer by using his presets is an easy way to get started.

Hashtags also serve as quality control. As the market for presets expands, low-quality options abound. By perusing a hashtag, customers can see exactly how well a social-media star’s presets work on regular photos, without additional editing. Rachelle Swannie, who has nearly 80,000 followers on Instagram and sells packs of two presets for $25, said she regularly checks her preset hashtag to see how people are using her filters and how their photos are turning out.

Victoria Yore, a travel influencer with 67,000 Instagram followers, said working with her partner, Terrence Drysdale, a professional photographer, was key. “There are a lot of not-so-great presets out there. The person who shares a before and after may have also done a lot of editing on their photo,” she said. “We wanted to give an honest preset. We tried it on every photo out there so it would work for the maximum amount of people.”

Different types of influencers also want different types of presets. A moody influencer in Portland, Oregon, who posts cabin porn will want a different aesthetic than a Dallas fashion vlogger. Alina Dinh, a San Jose, California, lifestyle influencer, recently launched a preset called “Pure” that brightens a picture but doesn’t alter the colors in the photo—an oft-requested feature. “I had a lot of followers who worked with or were running brand accounts,” she said. “They wanted to use a preset but were afraid it would change the color of the product.”

Some influencers have become more famous for their presets than for the content on their feeds. Jessica Turnquist, who has nearly 30,000 followers on Instagram, began creating presets over the summer, and it quickly morphed into a job. “I do this full-time, and I’ve made enough where I can stay home full-time with my kids and be able to do what I need to do,” Turnquist said.

She currently offers 18 different preset packs and is constantly updating her website with new options. Several reality stars and high-profile influencers say they rely on Turnquist’s filters to keep their feeds looking fresh. She said it all comes down to anticipating the Instagram community’s needs. “I have a summer preset,” she said. “People are going to want a Thanksgiving one, a Christmas one … With the holidays coming up, I figured people are indoors, so I made a brighter preset that goes better with indoor photos, too.”

Dinh also put her career as a lifestyle influencer on pause in order to prioritize selling presets via a website and a dedicated Instagram account. “It’s all Instagrammers who ask for these,” she said. Several influencers saw their following spike after beginning to use her presets. One began gaining 5,000 followers a month after revamping her aesthetic. Like Turnquist, Dinh said keeping on top of trends within the Instagram-influencer community is critical to her business. She solicits feedback via Instagram Stories and runs polls to see what her followers want.

Influencers say it can take anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks to create a preset, depending on how complicated it is. Some influencers who work closely with photographers ask them to create a preset similar to the ones used on their feed, then sell it to their followers and split the profit.

As Instagram becomes more and more people’s default public face on the internet, even non-influencers are recognizing the importance of presets. Caroline Patterson, a senior at the University of Delaware, began selling presets under the Instagram handle @presetsbycal after noticing her favorite YouTubers selling them. Patterson said that for members of her cohort, having a well–thought-out public Instagram presence is key. “Instagram is the most used, most important social media that currently exists,” she said.

“If you want to market yourself and your own personal platform is falling through the cracks,” Patterson said, “that could be your downfall.”