Nik Color Efex Pro vs. onOne Photo Tools: A (not so) Brief Comparison

Nik Color Efex Pro vs. onOne Photo Tools: A (not so) Brief Comparison

A Guest Post by Rob Dweck.

When planning this series of articles on plug-ins and actions, one of my considerations was what sequence to present them. Do I cover all of the plug-ins from one developer and then the next, or do I jump around from one to another. I settled on the latter for several reasons, the primary one being that many plug-ins from different developers perform similar functions and it might make more sense to do those one after another.

dweck68.jpgWith that in mind, the next posts will deal with onOne Software’s Photo Tools. There are many similarities between Photo Tools and Color Efex Pro and in this post I want to highlight those similarities as well as the many differences between the two plug-ins.

Nik Color Efex Pro comes in three editions: Standard, Select and Complete with 15, 35 and 52 filters respectively. I’ll be referring only to the Complete Edition here. OnOne offers a free version of Photo Tools with 26 effects as well as the paid version with over 300 effects. This comparison refers to the full version. If you own one of these plug-ins and are not sure if it’s worth getting the other, or if you own neither of them and can only afford to buy one, this post may help you decide which is the best for you.

Nik Color Efex Pro and onOne Photo Tools do many of the same things, and they do them very differently. Both plug-ins are essentially collections of effects and filters that are applied to photos in various ways. (Note: Color Efex Pro uses the term “filters” and Photo Tools uses the term “effects” to describe the same thing in their respective programs. I will be using the two terms interchangeably in a feeble attempt at impartiality.)



In the 2 screenshots above, you can see the similarities between the two plug-ins. I labeled the four main features that are common to both:

  1. Both plug-ins have an extensive library of effects that are organized by category. They both let you flag those effects that you use frequently as favorites so you don’t have to search for them every time you want to use them. In addition to the library of effects, Photo Tools comes with several presets (seen in the right column). These presets are combinations, or “stacks” of effects from the library that can be applied with one click. I’ll discuss this more in depth a little later.
  2. Both plug-ins provide controls that allow you to fine tune the various filters. Each Color Efex Pro filter has several types of controls that allow for numerous variations. Many Photo Tools effects have no controls at all, and of the ones that do have them, they are mostly simple radio buttons that make one adjustment in most cases.
  3. The Loupe in Color Efex Pro and Navigator in Photo Tools perform the same function, slightly differently. Both can give you an overview of the entire image when you’re zoomed into one specific area in the main preview, or a detailed view if you’re looking at the entire image in the main preview.
  4. The two plug-ins provide tools for zooming, displaying the before and after images in various ways (split screen, full screen, etc.), moving around the image, as well as a preview check box to compare the processed and unprocessed image. There are a some tools that are not present in both plug-ins, such as the select and background color tools in Color Efex Pro and the brush and masking bug tools in Photo Tools.

Effects vs. Filters

While there are many similarities between the filters in Color Efex Pro and the effects in Photo Tools, there are even more differences. One of the most noticeable differences is in the number of filters and effects. As mentioned earlier, Color Efex Pro has 52 filters and Photo Tools has over 300.

But numbers don’t tell the full story. Many of the effects in Photo Tools offer a selection of radio buttons that allow for some variation of the effect as well as a handful of effects that use the masking bug (seen below), a unique tool that is overlaid on the image preview and is a more visual alternative to using sliders to adjust the effects. The rest of the effects have no variables. Several of the effects only work on 8 bit images, and when you’re working on 16 bit images it can be frustrating to get the warning that the selected effect will only work on 8 bit images.


Another difference is speed. Both plug-ins are pretty zippy when working on small files, but Photo Tools can get sluggish with larger files. Click on a filter in Color Efex Pro and the preview window updates near instantaneously most of the time. Adding an effect in Photo Tools brings up a little progress box that shows how much of the effect is loaded. The several seconds of loading time might not seem like a big deal, but when you’re auditioning one effect after another, it can get tedious, even when the option to use a smaller version of the image for previews is enabled.

Despite the speed issues, one of the biggest advantages of Photo Tools is the ability to stack several effects (see the right column in the screenshot below). Click an effect in the library once and a brief description of the effect appears as well as any options available for that effect. Double click an effect and it is added to the stack where you can use the Fade slider to change the opacity of each effect. I haven’t found any limit to the number of effects that can be stacked, but as the stack grows, so does the processing time once the Apply button is clicked. In Color Efex Pro there is no stacking, so you select a filter and apply it. Want another filter? Re-launch Color Efex Pro, select another filter and apply it. Repeat for each additional filter.


The two plug-ins have different options for selectively applying filters and effects as well. In Color Efex Pro you can click the OK button to apply the filter to the entire image or click the Brush button to paint in the filter in any part of the image using a layer mask. A third option is adding one or more control points (the little dots in the screenshot below) to change the opacity of the filter in different areas of the image. Photo Tools has a brush tool that will be familiar to anyone who uses layer masks in Photoshop. There are even options to control the brush size and opacity with stylus pressure on a Wacom tablet.


Post Post-Processing

When editing photos, I will often do additional work after Color Efex Pro and Photo Tools are applied to an image. Occasionally, I find that I want to go back and make some changes to the effect that was applied with the plug-ins. Depending on how the plug-in was used, this can be done in some instances.


Only Color Efex Pro allows you to go back and pick up all of your settings as you left them. To do that, you have to first convert the layer on which you apply the filter to a smart object in Photoshop


launching the plug-in. No smart object, no going back. After you apply a filter to a smart object, you can go back anytime and the settings will be exactly as they were when you clicked the Apply button.

There is another way to go back and edit your previous settings, but it involves using your original unprocessed layer and applying the filter again. Both plug-ins allow you to create presets, but they function differently. Color Efex Pro has four “Quick Save Slots” for each filter. These are great timesavers that let you store frequently used settings for future access. You can use these slots to save your settings for an image you’re editing, re-apply the filter on the original layer and apply your preset from the Quick Save Slot. Unfortunately, control points are not saved in these slots and if they were used, have to be redone manually.

Photo Tools allows you to save stacks of effects as presets, so you can follow a similar procedure: Create your stack, save it as a preset, and apply the effects. If you need to make changes, select your original layer, open Photo Tools and select your preset. The fade settings for each effect are saved, but any painting done with the brush tool will be gone.

The important point, regardless of which plug-in you use, is to work on a copy of the background layer and always have the plug-in save to a new layer. If you work on your original layer, it’s possible you may not be able to return it to the original state.

The Best Tool For The Job

Both Color Efex Pro and Photo Tools have their strengths and weaknesses. Both can open up lots of creative possibilities and make editing your photos easier and, dare I say it, more fun. They are both an indispensible part of my toolbox and very often I use both plug-ins on the same photo.

Which one is best for you? Maybe both, maybe neither. The easy way to find out if these plug-ins can enhance your workflow is to download a trial from the developer’s websites. Both Color Efex Pro and Photo Tools are intuitive enough to get good results quickly, and with more time and exploration, the power of these plug-ins can help you transform your photographs into beautiful works of art.

Check out both tools at Color Efex Pro and onOne Photo Tools.

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

  • cocoi August 10, 2012 11:43 am

    I love Vivieza from NIK. I can set the mood, the light and it just works! sometimes for the final touch, i'm using Tiffen or color effect pro and blur in PS.

    I really2x love Tiffen Photo FX Ultra for iPad. Just check it out...

  • Dan March 7, 2011 11:57 pm

    So no clear cut recommendation. I do't understand the point of the article

  • Thomas Fitzgerald March 4, 2011 08:50 am

    I agree with Andrew about Silver Efex Pro. It's a must have plug in, but I'm not so sure about how essential I would consider ColourEfex. I prefer the way it works to PhotoTools though, so NIK wins in my mind

  • Andrew Miller March 2, 2011 09:00 pm

    Thanks Bob for an excellent review. I too use both sets, Nik and OnOne and I too find I often use both on one image - I have both full versions and Photo Tools is only part of the suite as is ColorEfex. Silver Efex pro 2 is probably the best B&W convertor out there IMHO and Viveza2 is a superb fine tuner. Since getting OnOne I never post to web without using the output sharpener/Display mode. I use a Mac, OS10.6 Photoshop CS5 and 12 GB Ram which helps both programs to run fast. My third set is the Tiffen DfX v2 which I find is more based on their actual effects filters but does contain some useful effects not found in either of the other two packages.
    The great thing is that these packages come with free trials so I would urge people to try them for themselves and see what they can do.

  • Kazuo February 28, 2011 12:55 am

    One more vote for Nik tools (not only Color Efex, but Silver Efex Pro, and all others tools),

    The onOne crashed my PS in 4 from 5 times I used it (note: I use PS inside a VM, but only onOne tools give me problems (either with vbox or vmware)).

    And, at least inside a VM, onOne tools, is very slow, its work "at the speed of an obese one-legged paraplegic three-toed sloth swimming down a river of frozen helium while chained to an osmium anchor stuck inside a black hole" (Dark Shikari).
    (PS. no offence intended)

  • Shane Goldberg February 27, 2011 08:35 am

    I use NIK software in conjunction with a few other plugins and find it great! I've been tempted with OnOne stuff but not ventured. Mainly interested in their resizing plugin (ex. Genuine Fractals) but have used PhotoZoom Pro in the past and loved it!

    Anyway, great review.


  • Roberta Harper February 25, 2011 02:57 am

    Great info and many thanks for your comments. I am just exploring OnOne and have no experience with Nik so now my antenna are up. I have the free version of OnOne and so far have enjoyed working with it.

  • Craig W. Cutler Photography February 25, 2011 02:44 am

    I have the good fortune of using all 4. NIK, onOne, Tiffen Dfx, and Topaz. I use NIK and onOne daily - find both very useful for differing benefits. I use Topaz next in frequency and seldom use Tiffen (although that is only because I haven't spent enough time experimenting with it). One important fact about onOne is that they offer an amazing series of Webinars that are exceptional in their benefit of teaching their software. NIK has this as well, and seems to be ramping up quickly. Bottom line ... it's a beautiful world!

  • Papa Rotzzi February 23, 2011 10:22 pm

    I am an OnOne guy, owning the whole suite. I love PhotoTools, processing the majority of my shots through it. Because of the stackable layers... if they were ever to create a stand alone version of the program, I would not even own photoshop! (I know that can't happen as I am sure PhotoTools is using code from CS.. maybe THAT is why some of the sluggishness..) The stackable effects can be saved, it is really allowing you to create your own effects that can be used over and over...

  • johnp February 23, 2011 01:41 pm

    Another worth considering is Tiffen Dfx, it has 1000's of digital filters based on their well known glass filters plus others. I use it all the time and find it a very good, quick and versatile program.

  • Leppod February 23, 2011 12:23 pm

    IMHO Nik software is the best thing since Photoshop itself. I have tried both products and for me OnOne just didn't make the cut.

  • Hagen February 23, 2011 11:52 am

    I bought Nik's suite without trying the others (including onOne). ColourEfex Pro was my first Nik plug-in and I loved it so much, I bought the rest of the suite. So I have no experience with Photo Tools. I do have Resize Professional from onOne and find it slow and less intuitive: indispensable when I need to go big.

    If you are looking at deciding, Silver Efex pro is mentioned more often with respect to B&W conversions. That may be an important decision factor: which tool do you get, and what suite will you grow into.

  • Steve February 23, 2011 06:10 am

    Another vote for Color Efex Pro. I too have found the OnOne products to be buggy and crash-prone. I use Color Efex Pro on pretty much every photo I edit.

  • Keith Skinner February 23, 2011 02:33 am

    An extremely fair and diplomatic comparison. In my experience, I have found OnOne tools to be glitchy and lacking important features. On the other hand, I reach for my Nik tools without hesitation. All of their products are extremely well polished and yield consistently professional results. If I could afford only one, I would immediately select Nik. But I do have some OnOne tools Nik doesn't supply, like Bokeh.

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer February 23, 2011 02:19 am

    I have not used onOne Photo Tools, but Color Efex Pro is an indispensable app for me. I use it on every single photo I take. In fact my final results would be half as good if not for Color Efex Pro. Here I describe the filters I use most commonly and in which order:

    I sometimes use Topaz Adjust as well, but Color Efex Pro remains my go to app. The polarization filter and the pro contrast filter enhance and correct basically any image. I cannot recommend Color Efex Pro enough.

    I use it as a plugin for Aperture 3.