Filters vs Presets vs Overlays vs Actions: What is the difference?

There are many different tools that you can use to edit your photos, both in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, including Presets, Ftilers, Overlays, and Actions. Each of these tools adds a different element to your photo or changes it in a unique way. So what exactly is the difference between each of them? Keep reading to learn about the difference between Presets, Filters, Overlays, and Actions and how to use them in your photo editing process.

What are presets?


Lightroom presets are perhaps one of the most popular editing tools at the moment. A preset is a set of predetermined settings that you can import to Lightroom, and instantly apply to your photos. 

The tools in Lightroom’s Develop module can be intimidating, especially to a beginner. There are so many different tools you can use to edit your photos, and it can be difficult to know where to start or which ones are going to help you achieve the end result you are envisioning. With presets, you don’t have to worry about knowing exactly which sliders to adjust to achieve a certain look, you simply have to click to apply the preset and your photo will instantly be edited.

Presets are also fully customizable. Even if you have downloaded or purchased presets from someone else, after you have installed the presets, you can adjust each individual element of the preset so that it fits perfectly on your photo. A preset does not always look perfect on every single photo, so having the freedom to adjust elements where necessary is a great feature. Presets can act as a great starting point when editing your photos.

By allowing you to automatically import a whole set of settings, presets also significantly cut down your editing time. Even if you are a professional photographer, presets are useful tools because you can actually create your own, and save edits that you use all the time. Then, when you are editing, you simply have to select your favourite preset and import them to your photo, saving tons of time in your editing workflow. Presets can even be applied to batches of photos at once to save even more time!

What are filters?

Instagram Filters

Filters are similar to presets because they are a combination of effects that is applied to your photo, and is a simple one-click transformation. They are a quick and easy way to enhance your photos prior to posting them. 

While filters appear to be similar to presets, they differ in a very key way: they are not customizable. Filters are often built into an app, like VSCO or Instagram, and the only thing you can do to them after applying one to your photo is adjust the strength of the filter. You are not able to adjust the individual elements that make up the filter like you are with presets. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but if you are looking for a more customizable option, then presets are the way to go. If you want an extra simple photo editing tool, then filters might be right for you!

What are overlays?

Unlike filters and presets which are applied in Lightroom and are usually the first step in your photo editing process, Overlays are applied in Photoshop after you have completed your basic photo editing. They are an additional layer – which is mostly transparent – that is placed on top of your photo.

Overlays can be used to add an effect in the foreground of the photo, like falling snow, rain, or leaves, or change an aspect of the photo, such as switching out a dull grey sky for a colourful sunset, or a clear, sunny day. They can also create the appearance of camera effects like lens flare, light leak, and bokeh effects. You can even use overlays to add people or animals into the shot to create a composite image.

With overlays, the possibilities really are endless! They add character to a photo with the addition of extra elements that were not present when the photo was taken, creating a truly unique image. Get creative and create your own overlays, or download pre-made ones and see what kind of unique images you can create!

What are actions?

Photoshop Actions are an amazing time-saving tool, similar to a preset in Lightroom. Actions are files that run a user-defined series of commands to instantly apply a series of edits to your photos. They work by recording your tasks and settings from the time you click “Record” to the time you click “Stop”. Actions are great for saving tasks like image resizing sequences, simple filters for film looks, or even more advanced procedures for retouching, like adding layers, masks, and other elements. Use actions to save editing tasks that you perform frequently, so instead of doing each tasks step-by-step every time you edit a photo, you can apply the entire action with just one click!

For professional photographers and photo editors, actions are fantastic time-saving tools because you can record all the editing sequences you perform regularly, making your editing workflow much more efficient.

For a less experienced photographer, you can also save your editing sequences, but you can also download Photoshop Actions from other people! By using actions created by other people, you can save yourself the hours you may have spent frustrated with Photoshop’s many confusing tools. Actions recorded by someone else are a great learning tool because you can see each step in the editing sequence and exactly how a certain look was created. Eventually, you will become more comfortable with Photoshop and can use your skills to create even more complex edits, and even start using your own actions!

Between Photoshop and Lightroom, there are countless tools you can use to edit your photos and create some truly amazing results, you just have to know which tools to use! Now that you know the difference between presets, filters, overlays, and actions, you can go ahead and start editing your photos. Choose the one (or any combination of the four!) that is right for you and start creating!