Getting Plugged in to Photoshop Plug-ins

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Introduction To Plug-InsPhotoshop 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.

What is a Plug-in?

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.

What Plug-ins to Choose?

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.

Noise Reduction

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!

Special Effects

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.

Image Enhancement

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.

Borders

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.

Conclusion

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.

Chas is a professional wedding photographer in the Washington D.C. and Virginia areas. You can see is work at www.chaselliott.com or visit his blog at blog.chaselliott.com.

Read more from our Post Production category

Chas Elliott is a freelance photographer in the Northern Virginia and DC area. See more of his work at www.chaselliott.com.

  • onnob

    Alien Skin Exposure is a wonderful plugin, I use it a lot. One you plugin didn’t mention is Tiffen, an extensive plugin with loads of presets, gels, filters etc.

    Really a recommendation for people who only want to use one plugin.

  • Jason

    great post thanks for sharing. I really like Totally Rad Actions too. They have some fantastic effects.

  • I’d like to add to the list if I may, another 2 great plug-ins I use time and time again are:

    Alien Skin Blow-up http://www.alienskin.com/blowup/
    (really amazing for blowing up images, this one is pretty common, most people know about it)
    and
    Nik Color Efex Pro 3.0 http://www.niksoftware.com/colorefexpro/usa/entry.php
    (alot less well known, but this plug-in has around 250 different effects, including a bleach bypass, which they use in film. Its probably my favorite plug-in because it really has it all in 1 set)

  • I’d also recommend the Topaz Adjust plugin. It does provide a pretty extreme effect (depending on how you use it), but it provides some fantastic looking pictures. Also, as a bonus, it has excellent noise reduction built in. The noise reduction on its own is worth the cost for me. They have demo videos on their website where they compare it to one of the most popular noise reduction plugins, and you can download a 30 day free trial.

  • In case you wanted to see some examples of the sloppy borders, my sister, who is also a photographer has many great examples on her blog http://cbphotography.typepad.com/

    Chas

  • Crystal

    I purchased the Portraiture Filter and Noiseware Filter from Imagenomic.com for my PSCS3. I use the noiseware on every pic and the portraiture filter on pics I want to smooth out the skin. It has sliders and presets to fine tune the results to your liking. These have been worth every penny and I couldn’t live without them. And the Kubota Actions are awesome. I’m also a fan of Totally Rad Actions. When used right, the results are amazing. I look forward to seeing what everyone uses.

  • hk

    Nik’s and AlienSkin plugins are unfortunately too expensive for me 🙁

    My favorite plugins are:

    Commercial:
    Imagenomic Noiseware Standard (noise reduction)
    Mediachance ReDynamix (Pseudo HDR)
    Redfield Fractalius (“eccentric artworks”)
    Topaz Adjust (exposure correction – examples on Topaz site are ugly, but plugin is very good)

    Free:
    optikvervelabs VirtualPhotographer
    easy.Filter SmartCurve (curves for Elements users)

    I also recomed visit these freeware plugins sites:
    *
    Xero Graphics http://www.xero-graphics.co.uk/
    *
    Mehdi Plugins http://www.mehdiplugins.com/english/
    *
    Cybia http://www.cybia.co.uk/
    *
    VanDerLee http://www.vanderlee.com/ – z freeware filtrů nefunguje v ZPS10 SnowScape – potÅ™ebuje průhledné vrstvy
    *
    8bf.net http://8bf.net/ – freeware filtry, v ZPS nefungují Transparent Frame a Transparent Vignette vyžadující průhledné vrstvy
    *
    Harry’s filters http://thepluginsite.com/products/harrysfilters/index.htm
    *
    Photo plugins http://www.photo-plugins.com/Plugins/Plugins
    *
    Rosenman http://www.richardrosenman.com/software/downloads

  • Rich

    I know Portrait Professional is a stand-alone, but it does wonders on faces. I’ll use it ’til I can get better at CS3. I’m sure there are plugins that do the same, but I haven’t fount them or learned them yet.

  • Is there a good list of free plug-ins somewhere?
    Or a site that has a good set of reviews/downloads of different plug-ins?

    I haven’t used plug-ins mainly because I don’t know where to start looking for them. This was a great intro, but where do I actually find them?

  • Leila

    I just discovered Lightroom Presets last night. What is the difference between Presets and these Plug-Ins?

    They seem to do similar things….

  • Maxim Chernousov

Some Older Comments

  • Leila January 10, 2010 02:05 pm

    I just discovered Lightroom Presets last night. What is the difference between Presets and these Plug-Ins?

    They seem to do similar things....

  • Scott October 1, 2008 02:27 am

    Is there a good list of free plug-ins somewhere?
    Or a site that has a good set of reviews/downloads of different plug-ins?

    I haven't used plug-ins mainly because I don't know where to start looking for them. This was a great intro, but where do I actually find them?

  • Rich September 26, 2008 12:01 pm

    I know Portrait Professional is a stand-alone, but it does wonders on faces. I'll use it 'til I can get better at CS3. I'm sure there are plugins that do the same, but I haven't fount them or learned them yet.

  • hk September 24, 2008 12:15 am

    Nik's and AlienSkin plugins are unfortunately too expensive for me :(

    My favorite plugins are:

    Commercial:
    Imagenomic Noiseware Standard (noise reduction)
    Mediachance ReDynamix (Pseudo HDR)
    Redfield Fractalius ("eccentric artworks")
    Topaz Adjust (exposure correction - examples on Topaz site are ugly, but plugin is very good)

    Free:
    optikvervelabs VirtualPhotographer
    easy.Filter SmartCurve (curves for Elements users)

    I also recomed visit these freeware plugins sites:
    *
    Xero Graphics http://www.xero-graphics.co.uk/
    *
    Mehdi Plugins http://www.mehdiplugins.com/english/
    *
    Cybia http://www.cybia.co.uk/
    *
    VanDerLee http://www.vanderlee.com/ - z freeware filtrů nefunguje v ZPS10 SnowScape - potřebuje průhledné vrstvy
    *
    8bf.net http://8bf.net/ - freeware filtry, v ZPS nefungují Transparent Frame a Transparent Vignette vyžadující průhledné vrstvy
    *
    Harry's filters http://thepluginsite.com/products/harrysfilters/index.htm
    *
    Photo plugins http://www.photo-plugins.com/Plugins/Plugins
    *
    Rosenman http://www.richardrosenman.com/software/downloads

  • Crystal September 23, 2008 12:27 pm

    I purchased the Portraiture Filter and Noiseware Filter from Imagenomic.com for my PSCS3. I use the noiseware on every pic and the portraiture filter on pics I want to smooth out the skin. It has sliders and presets to fine tune the results to your liking. These have been worth every penny and I couldn't live without them. And the Kubota Actions are awesome. I'm also a fan of Totally Rad Actions. When used right, the results are amazing. I look forward to seeing what everyone uses.

  • Chas September 23, 2008 03:27 am

    In case you wanted to see some examples of the sloppy borders, my sister, who is also a photographer has many great examples on her blog http://cbphotography.typepad.com/

    Chas

  • Scott September 22, 2008 10:55 pm

    I'd also recommend the Topaz Adjust plugin. It does provide a pretty extreme effect (depending on how you use it), but it provides some fantastic looking pictures. Also, as a bonus, it has excellent noise reduction built in. The noise reduction on its own is worth the cost for me. They have demo videos on their website where they compare it to one of the most popular noise reduction plugins, and you can download a 30 day free trial.

  • Melissa Rodwell September 22, 2008 05:00 pm

    I'd like to add to the list if I may, another 2 great plug-ins I use time and time again are:

    Alien Skin Blow-up http://www.alienskin.com/blowup/
    (really amazing for blowing up images, this one is pretty common, most people know about it)
    and
    Nik Color Efex Pro 3.0 http://www.niksoftware.com/colorefexpro/usa/entry.php
    (alot less well known, but this plug-in has around 250 different effects, including a bleach bypass, which they use in film. Its probably my favorite plug-in because it really has it all in 1 set)

  • Jason September 22, 2008 09:15 am

    great post thanks for sharing. I really like Totally Rad Actions too. They have some fantastic effects.

  • onnob September 22, 2008 12:26 am

    Alien Skin Exposure is a wonderful plugin, I use it a lot. One you plugin didn't mention is Tiffen, an extensive plugin with loads of presets, gels, filters etc.

    Really a recommendation for people who only want to use one plugin.

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