How to Enhance Texture with the Tonal Contrast Filter in Nik Color Efex Pro

How to Enhance Texture with the Tonal Contrast Filter in Nik Color Efex Pro

A Guest Post by Rob Dweck. See previous posts in this series at:

Using Nik Efex Pro to Draw the Viewer into Your image and Enhancing Your Images with Nik Color Efex Pro.

For this last post on NIk’s Color Efex Pro, I want to cover my favorite filter for enhancing texture: Tonal Contrast. Texture is an important aspect of so many photographs, yet it can be easy to allow it to take a back seat to other elements.


Texture is everywhere in this photograph. The door, wall, sign and stones each have textural features that are likely to go unnoticed in this image that has only had some color and contrast processing.

Emphasizing texture is the Tonal Contrast filter’s specialty. By giving you control over highlight, midtone and shadow contrast, you can achieve everything from subtle effects to pseudo HDR looks. For this image, my goal was to bring out the texture while keeping a realistic look.


With just 4 main sliders, processing with the Tonal Contrast filter is pretty straightforward. The further you move the top 3 sliders to the right, the more texture will be accentuated. The Saturation slider works similarly on color and when pushed all the way to the right will result in colors that are only seen in real life by those who lived through the ’60s but don’t remember much of it.

By not straying too far from the center position on the sliders, I could bring out the texture without creating an over processed look. A little boost on the saturation slider helped bring out the color as well.

I wanted to give the door an extra boost, so I reprocessed through the Tonal Contrast filter again and added a mask so only the door had the double processing in the final image. I also used the Glamour Glow filter to deepen the blue of the window above the door and blur the details, and added a slight vignette to darken the bright areas around the edges.


Here is a crop of part of the door and wall showing the detail in the unprocessed version on top and the processed version on bottom. The difference is more noticeable in certain areas, especially the door which was processed twice through the Tonal Contrast filter.


One area that you will need to exercise caution in using the tonal contrast filter is on skin. Unless you’re looking for a certain effect, it may be better to avoid using it on skin altogether. However, it can be used as an “anti-glam” effect. Where most portrait photographers will normally smooth skin, remove blemishes and reduce wrinkles in post-processing, the Tonal Contrast filter will do the opposite. Wrinkles will become deeper, pores will turn into craters and supermodels will suddenly look like teenage boys who never leave home without a tube of Clearasil.

So why use it on skin at all? They say that wrinkles and lines in a persons face add character, so consider tonal contrast instant character enhancer. For the rare occasions I do use it on skin, it’s almost always on someone who has earned some lines and wrinkles. In the portrait of Lukas, pictured below, do you see the same person in the unprocessed version on the left as you do in the processed version on the right? To some people there may not appear to be a big difference, but for me, the version on the right is a more compelling image and seems more alive.


With some care and attention to detail, the Tonal Contrast filter can be used on skin. Just think twice before using it on portraits of your grandparents and in-laws!


Soon after this tutorial was posted I received a message from a reader named Eric Lund, who uses the Tonal Contrast filter to decrease wrinkles and smooth skin. As Eric correctly pointed out, by moving the Tonal Contrast sliders to the left and decreasing contrast, wrinkles and blemishes can be beautifully smoothed out. After doing this experimenting with this on a couple of portraits, I was really impressed by how well it works. In hindsight, it should be a no brainer, but sometimes I get so used to using a tool for one purpose only, I forget that there could be other uses for it. So go ahead and use the Tonal Contrast filter on portraits of your grandparents and in-laws, just make sure you move the sliders to the left!

Rob Dweck is a San Francisco Bay Area based photographer who specializes in landscape and nature photography. His work can be viewed at

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Some Older Comments

  • RJ April 24, 2012 11:58 am

    You can get the same effect if you already have Photoshop: use the high pass filter (on a duplicated layer of the image) set to anywhere from about 20-40 pixels, then set the layer to soft light. Cheaper than the buying the plug in. :-)

  • George Garvin March 23, 2011 11:20 pm

    Tonal Contrast and Glamor Glow are the two tools in the Color Efex package that I find to be the most useful. I wish you could purchase these plugins separately. One day I'll just bite the bullet and purchase the Nik suite. They make the best 3rd party plugings I have used for Photoshop.

  • Andrew Miller March 2, 2011 09:13 pm

    Great review again Bob - Thanks. The tonal contrast filter is probably my most used effect. If it looks over processed, running it through Noise Ninja can work wonders.

  • Mohamed Ghuloom March 1, 2011 06:59 am

    I think this can easily be done in Adobe Lightroom 3 as well.

  • Ryan Lue-Clarke February 25, 2011 08:20 pm

    It always works best with architecture or anything grungy. I've always stayed clear away with it for skin but gonna try out the new technique to remove blemishes as maybe another technique to my arsenal.

  • Robert P February 22, 2011 11:22 pm

    Color Efex Pro is worth every penny. You can get effects that would take hours in Photoshop or Lightroom. They have a free trial, once you use it you will probably want it. Best price I found was B&H Photo.

  • Wayne H February 21, 2011 01:24 am

    I have gotten similar results using Adobe Lightroom 3.

  • photog1107 February 20, 2011 01:26 am

    Thanks, nice explanation Rob. I am considering adding on a few tools like this to my PP arsenal, but am wondering if a combination of clarity, sharpening, and some saturation in either LR or PS wouldn't give the same effect?

  • Chris February 19, 2011 05:07 pm

    I use tonal contrast all the time on my portraits. Only I move the sliders to the left to help blur wrinkles and blemishes. It works great and you don't lose sharpness in the eyes.

  • A.Barlow February 19, 2011 03:47 am

    Wouldn't this work good on skin before converting to Black and White?

  • Kiran February 19, 2011 02:44 am

    Never heard of Color Efex Pro. Gotta give this a try and definitely not on my in laws photos :D

  • Steve February 19, 2011 01:12 am

    I love this filter and use it all the time. I use it alot on my architecture, landscapes as well as product photography. The Nik software also creates the effect on a new layer (in Photoshop) which makes it easy to reduec the effect if needed simply by adjusting the opacity slider on that layer. If I want an effect that is over the top (similar to overdone HDR effects) I will use the effect 2 to 4 times on an image and make final adjustments with the opacity slider.

  • Ruben February 19, 2011 12:49 am

    It looks very intersting I did not know this software but I would take a look on it