Gadget Bag: Get Plugged In!

Ten must-have Photoshop add-ons for nature photographers
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Dfine 1.0 from Nik SoftwareAdobe Photoshop is the best thing that has happened to photography since the discovery of glass. And the plug-in is the best thing that has happened to Photoshop. Since Adobe opened its architecture by defining the plug-in format, more than 1,000 useful plug-ins have appeared on the market. Some extend Photoshop’s power, others make routine tasks easier, and still others provide new options and tools. No matter what level you’ve reached as a photographer, Photoshop plug-ins are an integral part of your post-processing life—or should be.

We sometimes hear photographers say that, because of their Photoshop expertise, they can create the same results that any plug-in filter can produce. Perhaps, but that’s not the point. Do you make your salad croutons from scratch? Plug-ins deliver predictable, consistent effects. They police digital noise, facilitate image scaling, eliminate (or optionally emulate) film grain and can even modify our images to match results that we’d expect from some analog counterparts—like the extremely popular Fujichrome Velvia.

Nik Color Efex Pro 2.0If you pursue nature photography, here’s a list of 10 Photoshop plug-ins we think you’ll want to know.

Nik Software (formerly nik Multimedia) offers three sets of plug-ins that would be hard to live without. The first, Color Efex Pro, is a comprehensive assortment of 75 color enhancement filters that includes traditional (Fog, Vignette, Graduated) and more exotic (Stairs, Midnight, Pop Art) filter effects. The filters are easy to use and easy to control and can be selectively applied to portions of images. There are three different B/W Conversion filters and each renders a different result. Estimated Street Price: $249.

Nik Sharpener Pro 2.0Nik Sharpener Pro allows you to produce the sharpest prints attainable, no matter what printing technology you’re using. The software takes into account viewing distance, image size, paper type and printer resolution, in addition to printer type and brand. Like Color Efex Pro, Sharpener Pro is fully compatible with 16-bit-per-channel image editing. And unlike more simplistic sharpening methods, Sharpener Pro doesn’t introduce unwanted artifacts, such as halos or moire patterns. One word of caution: The function of this type of software is to deliver optimum prints. What you see on your monitor may be slightly misleading. Estimated Street Price: $279.

The third offering from Nik Software is Dfine, a powerful noise-reduction application that can be used to reduce luminance noise, chrominance noise and even JPEG artifacts. It also can be used to adjust image contrast and to enhance colors. Camera profiles, which are sold separately, allow you to optimize performance for your specific equipment. Estimated Street Price: $79.

55mm from Digital Film ToolsAlso near the top of the plug-in list is 55mm from Digital Film Tools. These plug-ins are unique because many of the effects they produce originated as special techniques in traditional, film-based photography. Using 55mm, you can duplicate can also re-create some of the more unusual procedures, including film cross-processing manipulations. The Bleach Bypass filter, for example, simulates a lab technique that skips the bleach step in the color development process, thereby causing the image to retain silver, in addition to the color dyes. The result resembles a black-and-white image superimposed over a color image. The collection is versatile and designed to closely parallel the traditional photographic experience. Altogether there are 73 different filters. The potent assortment of special effects is easy to install, easy to use and fun. Best of all, the results can be replicated, so once you’ve found the effects you love, you can apply them to any image you choose without hassle. Estimated Street Price: $195.

Alien Skin BlowUpAlien Skin Software has been producing exciting Photoshop plug-ins for more than 12 years. For those who want to give their digital images the authentic appearance of a specific film type, Alien Skin offers Exposure. Based on the detailed analysis of actual film stock, Exposure allows you to digitally simulate everything from push-processed Tri-X to Velvia. Exposure not only re-creates the film coloration and contrast, it actually reproduces the size, shape and color of the film grain. Exposure performs other editing functions, as well. The list includes a powerful Color to Black and White conversion filter that mimics analog film, a toning filter set (blue, gold, sepia, selenium and sulphide), warming/cooling color filters and more. Estimated Street Price: $199.

Noiseware from ImagenomicAlien Skin BlowUp, as the name suggests, is an advanced image-scaling application that allows you to easily produce perfect 4x (1600% area) enlargements with no loss of quality. Designed to create the highest-quality printed output, BlowUp also provides targeted sharpening algorithms that prevent the loss of contrast along sharp edges, simulated grain texture and support for 16- and 32-bit images. One distinctive feature that separates BlowUp from other scaling software is the way it handles original images. It will resize multilayer images without flattening. It also offers the option to create an enlargement in a new window as a new image, while leaving the original untouched. Estimated Street Price: $199.

If you’ve ever wished you could use your fish-eye lens without hemispheric distortion, Fisheye-Hemi is for you. The effect is amazing; in fact, it almost looks like an illusion. It corrects image perspective, straightens vertical lines and restores the natural appearance of human subjects. There are three separate plug-ins included in Fisheye-Hemi version 1.1, which can be downloaded from the Image Trends Website, and they cover the most common types of fish-eye images, from full frame to bordered circle. Estimated Street Price: $29.

get plugged in!Noiseware from Imagenomic is arguably the most innovative noise-suppression software available to digital photographers. It’s clearly the speed leader—it can clean up an 8-megabyte image file in about four seconds. It also offers the most complete set of tools and manual processing options of any noise-canceling plug-in. But at the same time, it will automatically calibrate a precision noise profile and choose the optimal settings for any individual image—all without a camera profile. DetailGuard, a proprietary feature of Noiseware, defeats one of the major bugaboos associated with noise-canceling applications: It preserves image details from excessive alteration. Meanwhile, the IntelliProfile expert system employs Artificial Intelligence methods to analyze and recognize noise patterns and to enable effective noise detection. It’s a self-learning system that builds a knowledge base as it mature—sophisticated stuff, but still affordable. Estimated Street Price: $79.

Optipix 3.1 from Reindeer GraphicsWe first encountered Digital GEM when it initially appeared as a topnotch image-enhancing firmware application embedded in film scanners as part of Digital Ice Cubed (ICE3). GEM is an acronym for Grain Equalization and Management, and it does what its name implies: It provides an easy and effective way to reduce grain and noise. Performance hasn’t changed much since its original incarnation—it still deserves must-have status and a special place in our filter drop-down menu. One of the best features of GEM Pro is a Clarity slider that delivers a useful soft-focus effect on one end and sharpening effects akin to an Unsharp Mask on the other. Estimated Street Price: $99.

Ever hear of Optipix 3.1 from Reindeer Graphics? If not, you certainly will. This suite of image-improvement plug-ins covers the gamut, from contrast management (including a Zone System approach) through sharpening and artifact-removing tools all the way up to the innovative Blend Exposure (two images are blended to improve contrast accuracy). The Refocus plug-in allows you to dissolve sofness without introducing sharpening artifacts, and the JPEG Cleaner is a champ at removing JPEG jaggies. Estimated Street Price: $119.


Alien Skin

Digital Film Tools

Digital GEM (Kodak)


Image Trends

Nik Software

Reindeer Graphics