Faster And Easier Image Processing

Software plug-ins make computer work more efficient for nature photographers
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Master the digital darkroom in a day! No, forget about that. How about a few hours? Maybe an hour? I know, that sounds like hype from some late-night, cable-TV advertiser, but such things can be true. How? By using a plug-in. Plug-ins are specialized software that work with another program to run their operations. They offer capabilities that will get you working faster to obtain the best from your images. Typically, plug-ins allow you to do things with images more quickly and easier than the host program can do and, in some cases, they even do things that the host program can’t do. I’ll give you an idea of some of the plug-ins available and how they work for me. All of them are compatible with Photoshop and Photoshop Elements; most are compatible with Lightroom and Aperture, as well.

Alien Skin Software

Alien Skin Blow Up 2

Alien Skin has long been the place to go for effective special-effects software such as its Eye Candy and Xenofex plug-ins. Most nature photographers are more interested in getting the most from an image, however, not adding special effects. Alien Skin has software for that, too.

Bokeh is an extremely useful plug-in that allows you to change focus in your image. Well, you can’t change where your sharp focus is, but you can alter what’s out of focus. This goes far beyond the blur controls in Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, and yet it’s also easier to use. You can make natural-looking blurred backgrounds, for example, as well as create special blur effects that emphasize a subject in unique and impactful ways. You even can match effects of special-focus lenses.

With all the information and misinformation about megapixels, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that digital image files enlarge very well. With Blow Up 2, you can enlarge any good image file with excellent results, meaning you can get photos quite close to high-megapixel cameras without spending the dollars on high-megapixel cameras! Blow Up really does give quality results when you need a big blow-up from your original image file. It’s important to be sure your photo technique is precise, however, if you want the best results from Blow Up.

Many photographers have longed for Fujichrome Velvia and other film looks. You may see a lot of formulas that purport to change your images to certain looks, but they can be a pain to deal with. Exposure 2 quickly lets you process your images so that they have the look and feel of film without a lot of hassle. You can match traditional nature photography films like Fujichrome Velvia and Kodak Kodachrome. The plug-in includes more than 300 presets to get you started, with all sorts of looks, including black-and-white, plus you can tweak any effect with your own adjustments.

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Nik Silver Efex Pro

Nik Software
Nik plug-ins have always been closely aligned with photographers’ needs, especially nature photographers. I first used early versions of Color Efex, and although the program always included some “special-effects” filters, it includes adjustment tools that I find invaluable for nature work. Contrast Color Range, for example, is almost worth the price of the whole program alone. Imagine having the ability to put a filter on your camera that would let you selectively brighten or darken colors just like the black-and-white photographers used to do with their filters. Contrast Color Range allows you to do just that.

Color Efex Pro 3.0 has lots of other controls, such as the Graduated Filters. While such controls can be done in Photoshop, this is easier, faster and with more flexibility for the average photographer. Foliage is a life-saver with many digital cameras. Some digital cameras don’t always capture all colors equally, such as making greens look too yellow, for example. Foliage finds only the greens in the photo and helps you fix them easily.

Nik Dfine 2.0

No matter what camera you use, sooner or later you’ll have issues with noise. If you have a smaller-format sensor, such as the APS-C or Four Thirds systems, if you have more megapixels, if you often shoot with high ISO or if you sometimes push exposure so that you get underexposure, you’ll see noise in your pictures. No general imaging software really does a good job with noise. Dfine does. Noise is basically fine detail. Dfine 2.0 works hard to reduce noise without damaging fine detail in your photo, it’s easy to use, and it offers controls to restrict noise reduction to specific colors and tones in a photograph. I wouldn’t be without it.

If you’re interested in black-and-white photography, check out Silver Efex Pro. While you easily can do some very good black-and-white work in a variety of programs, none compares to the flexibility of Silver Efex Pro. Its controls offer an easy-to-use interface that will work for black-and-white beginners, yet the depth of the controls offers the advanced user quickly available, high-level controls.

Viveza is an amazing piece of software. It allows you to control specific parts of a photo, such as colors or tonality, without affecting anything else, and without layers or layer masks! The latter is significant. Many photographers are intimidated by those adjustments in Photoshop, even though the benefits of layers and layer masks are great. There’s still somewhat of a learning curve with Viveza, but it’s much easier than layer masks.

How Plug-Ins Work
Photoshop-type plug-ins are software that open inside the host program. Their effects can be applied to works in progress, even applied as layers to a specific image and then used with the final image, as appropriate. You can make changes as much as you want.

Aperture and Lightroom plug-ins work a bit differently. They’re essentially export plug-ins, meaning that they can’t work inside the host program. You do your main work in Lightroom or Aperture and then export the image specifically into this second program, the plug-in. At this point, you’re working on a new file based on your work in the main program, gaining the benefits of the unique tools of the plug-in, but you can’t make changes to the original image.

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onOne PhotoTools 2

onOne Software
I’m a big fan of FocalPoint. One of the photographic tools we’ve always used is limited depth of field. When you can isolate a subject from the rest of the photo, you can make it stand out in the composition. This is especially useful for flower and wildlife photography. FocalPoint lets you define what’s sharp and what’s not in your photo and do it with very natural (i.e., photographic) results.

Many photographers have been intrigued by the results they get with a tilt-shift lens used to minimize, rather than maximize, depth of field. FocalPoint gives you the ability to do that sort of effect with a great deal of control on the final image. That gives you an advantage over using the lens, as the lens only gives you one result.

onOne PhotoTune

A complete set of 181 filters comes with PhotoTools 2 (add another 112 for the pro edition). If you’re an effects junkie, this definitely will please you. For most nature photographers, however, check out the Landscape Enhance and Image Optimize categories for effective ways of adjusting nature photos quickly. Truly, this could allow you to do sophisticated Photoshop effects without being a Photoshop expert—and even if you don’t own Photoshop! It works with Lightroom and Aperture. I really like the way this plug-in lets you stack effects, too.

onOne FocalPoint

If you like making prints, look into PhotoFrame 4. This plug-in gives you some interesting effects on the edges of your image for printing. These include edge effects that look like traditional film and darkroom effects, torn paper, painted edges and so forth. They can take a standard print and turn it into something unique that gets noticed.

For photographers who find working at the computer a struggle, check out PhotoTune 2. You don’t have to know anything about Photoshop or similar programs in order to get the most from your images. This plug-in lets you compare images, sort of like going to the eye doctor (“Which is better? A or B?”); you choose the best and allow the program to find better adjustments for you.


Tiffen Dfx Digital Filter Software v2

Dfx Digital Filter Software
Tiffen has long been part of the traditional camera filter world. With Dfx Digital Filter Software v2, Tiffen has a complete package of digital filters as plug-ins. It also comes as a stand-alone package.

Dfx filters are easy to use and geared toward photographers. There are more than 2,000 filters and special lighting effects (including a library of specific colors) and simulation of classic Tiffen glass filters. If you liked working with filters with film, you’ll love this part of Dfx.

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Vertus Tech Fluid Mask

Dfx also includes multiple masking and layering capabilities such as its EZ Mask (an exclusive feature), as well as several specialized lens effects (such as Lens Distortion), custom lab processes (such as Cross-Processing, Bleach Bypass and much more), unique film grain effects that look like film grain, plus graduated neutral-density, graduated color filters, color correction and other photographic or Hollywood effects. There are even some specialized effects, such as filters that affect skin tones, as well as Rosco and Gam Light Modifiers or Gobo effects, which allow you to change the look of light on your background (great for studio photographers, but I’m not sure it’s useful for nature photographers).

I especially like the Ozone part of this group of filters. This is based on how Ansel Adams’ Zone System worked, but in this case, it allows you to precisely affect specific tonalities in your photograph, zone by zone, without affecting other tonalities. Ozone does it with simple clicks of the mouse.

Dfx has so many filters that it’s both a great value and a little overwhelming! Use what works for you—you’ll find that even the names are intuitive (Selective Saturation is, as it sounds, good for nature work, while Smoque, not so much).

Fluid Mask
This may seem unusual for nature photography—a plug-in that helps you cut out something from an image. I’m not big on manipulating nature by taking something from one place, cutting it out and putting it into a new location. There are ethical issues, but when there aren’t, this can be hard to do and make it look right.

On occasion, you may need to cut out something to create a “mask,” which Fluid Mask 3 does well, and mostly automatically, too. One situation is when you have a landscape that looks great with one exposure, but the sky is terrible, yet when the sky is exposed properly, the landscape looks bad. That’s an ideal situation for two exposures to better capture the reality of the scene rather than the artificial look given by the unaided camera.

If the edge between sky and landscape is pretty even and consistent, it’s easy to put those two images together in Photoshop. But how often do we get edges that aren’t so good? Or worse, a tree with openings to the sky covering part of that sky? That gets to be nearly impossible to work with.

With Fluid Mask, you can easily select just the sky of even the most problematic landscape scenes. Here’s another example—you have a wonderful flower shot, with great detail, but in order to get that detail, you have too much depth of field. The background has unwanted detail. Yes, you can blur the background, but it can be a monstrous job doing that without causing problems along the edges of the flower. Fluid Mask comes to the rescue for this situation, as well.

Alien Skin (Bokeh, Blow Up 2,
Exposure 2)

Nik Software (Color Efex Pro,
Dfine, Silver Efex Pro, Viveza)

onOne Software (FocalPoint,
PhotoFrame, PhotoTools, PhotoTune)

Tiffen (Dfx Digital Filter Software)

Vertus (Fluid Mask)


    Really good and timely article, Rob. I downloaded the Nik Complete Collection about a week ago and have been very impressed with it’s capabilities. I’m especially fond of Silver Efex. It makes stunning black and white conversions about as easy as they’re going to get. And, it doesn’t take much study to be up and running with it. I haven’t had a chance to use Viveza, Dfine or any of the other plug-ins but am excited to do so.

    Thanks for the great article!

    I haven’t tried all of them but Nik’s software is absolutely awesome and I don’t know how I could live without it. It might take a little while to learn but there’s a lot of help to be had at Nik’s website. Their videos are extremely helpful.

    I’ve used Nik Color Efex for a few years and it’s great, but recently I’ve been using Topaz Suite– while their User Interface is not as modern-looking as some of the bigger name products, it offers some very powerful, fast, and easy to use tools at a very reasonable price.

    I was wondering if anyone (other than me) uses Lightzone ( I found that this program works more like a darkroom than any other program I’ve used so far, also B/W conversion and RAW support is included.

    Very disappointing lack of info on Fluid Mask plug-in. 4 mins research on the net made it clear to me that the product causes Photoshop CS4 to crash and is therefore unusable with CS4. As a first time reader of OP I am left wondering how you can leave such easily accessible and important info out of a review which will be read by so many people. Even the manufacturers web site ommits mention of CS4 throughout the site with regard to Fluid Mask but they do claim that the product works with CS3 and CS2.

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