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Photoshop Plug-Ins are the topic of this post by Chas Elliot.
I remember as a youngin’ I scraped together some cash and purchased my first bona fide copy of Photoshop when it was at a lowly version 3.0. In technology terms, this makes me sound ancient but I find comfort in the words of my old scout master, “I may be an old dog, but I still have a few sharp teeth”. Photoshop’s current version is now leaving version 10 (CS3) and is moving to CS4. It’s difficult to keep up with all the changes but it’s been an exciting ride. There are already some great articles written on DPS about Photoshop for you to sink your teeth into and they can be found here. Today, I’m only discussing a small but important aspect – the power of plug-ins.
Software companies have long realized that by opening their programs to outside developers they increase the power of their programs without much additional work. Photoshop was one of the pioneers in this concept, but today many applications you use daily allow third party plug-ins, although they may be called by different names. Firefox for example has a huge selection of what they call “Add-ons”, some of which are indispensable. For photographers, it’s not just Photoshop that has opened up for others to further enhance. Most adobe programs allow it, as well as many photo workflow applications like Apple’s Aperture, Bibble or Nikon Capture. Navigating your way through the maze of what’s available can make you feel like you just stuck a paperclip in a socket. That isn’t where the name “plug-in” comes from and I’ll try to make this a more enjoyable experience. As a side note, slightly lower on the evolutionary scale than full-fledged plug-ins, are Photoshop Actions. They lack the nice user interface of some plug-in packages but achieve similar results. For our purposes I have included them in this discussion.
Running your portraits through a cheesy stained glass effect, adding horns to your in-laws, or having lightning shoot from your fingertips can only do so much for your photography. To me, the best Photoshop plug-ins are ones that don’t scream “Hey, look at this cool Photoshop trick!” That eliminates a good majority of plug-ins. As a professional wedding photographer, there are a handful I use regularly which I’ll share here. If you have a favorite plug-in not mentioned, sound off in the comments.
Some shooting conditions require ISO levels so high that your pictures end up looking like they were taken on a day that was snowing cookie sprinkles. It’s not only high ISO settings that cause unwanted noise. The three most common reasons you end up with excessive noise are 1) a high ISO, 2) under exposed images, and 3) long exposures, in that order. It is always best to reduce noise at the point of capture, but thanks to complex programming and algorithms, computers can work miracles on an image that would otherwise be tossed in the discard pile.
There are two types of noise. Chroma noise or color noise which is visible as random red and blue pixels. Luminance noise is the variation in the brightness of one pixel to its neighboring pixel. In black and white images it’s sometimes described as “salt and pepper noise”. As you try out various noise reduction techniques you need to know what kind of noise you want to remove. Keep in mind ANY noise reduction you do will reduce sharpness, even if only slightly.
When it comes to noise reduction plug-ins, the options seem endless. Adobe’s Camera Raw, Lightroom or Apple’s Aperture have this feature built in, but I get much better results with dedicated plug-ins. I have two favorites. First is PictureCode’s Noise Ninja. It has been around for a while and the results I get with it are fantastic. It is also available as a stand-alone product if you don’t own Photoshop. If you are an Apple user they released it as an Aperture plug-in, which makes one less reason to have to drag images into Photoshop. My second favorite is by Nik Software called Dfine 2.0. I have no ties with this company, but I really love their products.
These two barely scratch the surface of what’s available. If you are ambitious, here’s an in depth look at 22 of the competing products on the market!
As I said earlier, I don’t like images that scream Photoshop. That doesn’t mean I don’t like special effects. Even in the days of film, you could get an amazingly wide variety of effects by using filters, colored gels, infrared, black and white and exotic film types. Today every one of these effects can be digitally recreated. There are a few packages that I use frequently which put the myriad of stylized effects just a few clicks away, allowing me to cycle through until I find the perfect look. Keep in mind that most of these looks can be achieved more precisely with Photoshop layering techniques or with tools built into Photoshop, but the time you save when working with hundreds of images makes quick and dirty plug-ins a must.
First up are the Kubota Actions. Kevin Kubota is considered one of the top wedding photographers in the world. This has allowed him to expand his business by selling some of his time tested Photoshop tricks bundled as “actions”. Actions are essentially step-by-step recordings of what he has been doing to his work, which can then be “played back” onto any other image. The number of Photoshop steps done to an image for a particular look can range from just a few minor adjustments to many complex changes. They all occur within a just few seconds. His products are pricey, but good. He currently has 4 volumes of what he calls Artistic Tools. Check out his website for samples.
Next is Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro. It claims to have 52 filters and over 250 effects. Fortunately it has a favorite marking system I find helpful sinc I only use about 10 of these on a regular basis. This plug-in also works with Apple’s Aperture, which again is convenient as it eliminates constantly switching to Photoshop.
A third popular package in this category is Alien Skin’s Exposure2. It bundles in 300 presets and more film types than I’ve ever used. I have found Alien Skin to consistently deliver high quality products and would recommend their products to anyone.
Nik also has a product which I absolutely love called Viveeza. I wasn’t sure how to classify this plug-in as it really is a product unique from others. To fully understand what this one does I recommend you go to their website and watch some of the demo videos. In short, it is a very intelligent tool that allows you to selectively change areas of your image (exposure, saturation) without having to mess with brushes or complex masks. They call the technology “U Point” and incorporate it into many of their other products. I probably use this tool more often than any others.
Different sloppy borders and film borders can easily be added to an image to give it that extra artistic flare. They are a throw back to the days of dark room developing. There are two packages that standout. First is by Kubota Tools and is simply called Sloppy Borders. Kubota put a huge amount of effort into creating this package by actually going into the dark room with his colleagues and painstakingly recreating each of the different film and sloppy borders by hand. He then digitized them so they can be added to any image and any size. Samples can be found on his website. A similar product with equal results is by ShowIt Software and is called ShowIt Borders.
Playing with plug-ins is fun and can be addicting. Be careful because hours will slip by unnoticed in all the fun. Most companies offer free demo versions of their plug-ins to allow you to try before you buy. If you have a favorite not mentioned here share it with us in the comments.
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