Review of Nik Color Efex Pro V4
Review of Nik Color Efex Pro V4
Nik creative filters for Photoshop / Aperture / Lightroom – version 4
Keith Cooper has been having a look at version 4 of the Color Efex Pro plugin for this review.
There is  a free demo of the Nik software available.
We've reviews of all Nik Plugins - (part of the DxO Nik Collection). See the Nik Category in the dropdown menu at the top of the right column.
Free demo versions are available from DxO
2020: This plugin is part of the DxO Nik collection, however functionality is essentially unchanged.
The filter collection ranges from photo correction filters through to stylised creative effects. If you want to see more examples have a look at the Nik web site, or Keith’s review of the older Nik Color Efex Pro Version 3 – most of the filters in V3 are still present and many have been tweaked and expanded.
There are numerous filters and effects available directly in Photoshop, but combining them and trying out different options can be a bit daunting if you are not familiar with them all.
The Nik package combines a large collection of filters under one simple interface, allowing their effect to be applied to whole images or just parts.
I’m looking at the software working as a Photoshop plugin on a Mac in this review, but it works just fine under Windows. It also works with Elements, Lightroom and Apple’s Aperture.
Using Color Efex Pro
The usual way to apply a Photoshop filter is to go to the filters menu and select a filter – each of the standard Photoshop filters has its own interface.
I find that Color Efex Pro makes it easier to browse and experiment with filters.
There are a number of preview options that allow you to evaluate just how much better (or worse) the filter has made your image.
Many filters in the collection exhibit effects far beyond what I’d personally want to do to any of my work, but tastes and eventual uses vary drastically.
I’ve seen images I’ve supplied to clients rendered almost unrecognisable when finally used – I’m a photographer, not designer, so as long as the client is happy with the images I supply, that’s usually the end of my involvement. I do produce prints of my own work, but in general I’m of the view that if you can see a filter has been used, then it’s likely been used too much.
The image to the right is for a 17″x40″ print where I used Color Efex 4 filters to increase various aspects of local contrast and saturation to give it the feel I was after, for a big print.
It was then sharpened with Nik Sharpener Pro for the paper type, printer resolution and size required.
Remember that an image that is created for a big print may not look its best at small sizes and vice versa.
You’re also seeing images here through the filter of my own photographic tastes (and the web).
Do bear this in mind, if you’re minded to explore Color Efex V4 (a time limited demo is available) since you may well find much more in it that you like.
The key improvements (as listed by Nik Software)are:
- Filter Combinations – Add multiple filters, adjust opacity, and make selective adjustments to get the desired look
- Brand New Filters – Detail Extractor, Dark Contrast, Vintage Film Efex, Natural Image Borders
- Improved Filters – Advancements to imaging algorithms and new controls have improved filters such as Brilliance/Warmth, Tonal Contrast
- Visual Presets – Each filter contains single-click starting points making it possible to explore creative options quickly
- Filter Recipes – Customise and share filter combinations with others using recipes
- History Browser – Compare previous edits and different looks quickly and intuitively
- GPU Processing and Multi-Core Optimisation – Takes full advantage of the processor found on advanced display adapters as well as all of the cores on your CPU
- Interface, Interaction, and Workflow – Benefit from interface and interaction improvements to filters, zoom controls, short-cut keys, and much more.
I’ll be showing a few examples of filters with some images.
I’ve not space to go through all of them, and when you realise that they can be stacked together, it makes a vast number of combinations.
Do have a look at all the samples on the Nik web site – there are some I just didn’t much care for, or felt that I hadn’t an image that would show any benefits.
The full list of filters provided is shown below.
The software is available in two versions, ‘select’ (26 filters – marked above) and ‘complete’ (55 filters).
Effects can apply to the whole image, or just part, such as the Fog effect below.
The image can be zoomed, or you can look at a magnified view in the bottom right corner of the window. This is where a multichannel histogram is available.
You can view the effect in different ways, such as this vertically split view
or put the before/after views next to each other.
The split line can be moved as required.
Note that this is just the preview – the filter applies to the whole image.
Many filters also have shadows and highlight preservation options, which help stop shadows and highlights opening up or blocking too much.
There are filter categories to make it a bit easier finding your way around.
Move you mouse over the image below to see quick examples of the ‘Polarization’ filter.
I’ve a few more examples of individual filters, using a shot of the stones at Stonehenge.
‘Contrast Color Range’
A bit less subtle – ‘Old Photo’ – a print showing how little it has changed since 1975 when I first went there.
There is a ‘Black and White’ conversion filter, but it offers nowhere near the level of control as does the Nik Silver Efex Pro plugin I regularly use for my work.
With earlier versions of this plugin, you needed to apply multiple instances of filter, which might lead to unintended consequences, resulting in a need to go back and make more adjustments (even with smart filters).
One key advance is the ability to stack filters for multiple effects.
It’s worth remembering that stacking is non commutative, so the order of filters can make a difference.
In the example below, I’ve added a second tonal contrast filter. I can turn off this filter layer (the tick box) and use all the usual preview and adjustment settings. You can also return to earlier layers and re-adjust settings.
Using just these two filters, I can warm up this conservatory photo and possibly make it fit the client’s designers needs a little more (it was taken a part of a print advertising campaign with specific areas for overlaying the advert text)
You can switch filters around and view the stack just as you would an individual filter.
Below – the brilliance/warmth filter overdoes it a bit for a cloudy day.
The bicolor filter – Nope, not taken with this one.
It is at least quick to go through options and you have a detailed history available, which includes any tweaks to sliders.
I’ll show a series of filters applied to this shot taken on a cloudy September Equinox at Avebury stone circle.
Now the ‘tonal contrast’ (mouse over to see)
Then the ‘Photo stylizer’
No, didn’t fancy that one, so I went with ‘detail extractor’ and a second application of ‘Tonal contrast’.
Finally I’ll add a border…
Nope, I don’t like borders…
So I have an effect using 4 filters.
Do note the problem in the corner – sensor dust is showing rather too much. A reminder that cleaning up images early on in your workflow often helps.
After all the trouble of testing filter combinations, what to do with them?
Fortunately I can save the lot as a ‘recipe’.
The before/after view below gives an indication of the result.
I’m minded to note that I can now achieve much of the rank awfulness that passes for HDR (high dynamic range) photography with one simple recipe (my tastes… YMMV! ;-)
There are a number of preset recipes available, and many more can be downloaded and shared via the Nik web site.
You can see my own saved recipe in the lower right corner – I can now give any room the tacky Vegas hotel look.
If you click on a recipe, it applies the full set of filters.
You can of course fine tune these, so recipes are a great way to see the effects of filters in circumstances you’d not thought of.
Whilst you can add and subtract filters after loading a recipe, you can’t load a recipe on top of a filter.
Below, the ‘Warm Sunset’ recipe applied to the picture of the woods.
Although the plugin makes good use of multiple cores and any GPU present, you do need to wait for it to catch up every so often.
Note the blurred preview and ‘Calculating’ indicator below.
These filters benefit from a lot of processing speed and memory – I was trying them on a dual quad core Mac Pro with 20GB of RAM – they were not that much more sluggish on my 15″ MacBook Pro (where I was using CS5 32 bit, rather than the 64 bit version I use on the desktop Mac).
As well as saving your recipes, you can export them.
If anyone wants to experiment – you can download the ‘creepy stones’ recipe [filter – zip file]
Three examples of what it does to everyday images…
…and how several of my friends remember festivals at Stonehenge ;-)
Remember that this is just a plugin – you don’t need to apply the effect to the whole image. You can either use the brush option available when you close the filter, or as I’m likely to do, add a layer mask and apply the filter where needed.
One trick is to alter the blending mode when you are painting in the mask. Luminosity can allow quite subtle changes in tonal contrast to be applied.
The real uses for these filters for myself are much more subtle, than I’ve shown here. Remember too that I’ve had to emphasise effects to show them at small sizes on the web.
Masking and Control Points
Some filters may be appropriate to just small parts of an image, and the plugin offers some very effective ways of controlling this.
In the example below, I’ve used the brilliance/warmth filter again, but only applied it to the area influenced by the control point I’ve added.
After experience with Control Points, I’ve found that they are a very useful aspect of the Nik filters.
It really is worthwhile taking time to appreciate this powerful masking feature.
You can use Color Efex Pro as a ‘Smart Filter’ which allows you to go back and alter settings, or you can add a layer mask and further refine application of the filter.
The masking option is available via the Nik Selective Tool, which allows you to selectively brush in or erase the effects of any filter. I use this with Nik Sharpener, since it’s the final stage before printing, but with Color Efex, I’m more likely to use a normal layer mask (with blending).
As I mentioned earlier, the history option is very detailed.
You can see some of my experimentation below.
The filters and recipes give an incredible range of options.
It’s up to you to have the creative vision to effectively make use of them – this is the bit that you can’t buy as a plugin.
The combination of stacking and control points allows you to do some very fine adjustment of your images – much more subtle than most examples I’ve shown here.
Remember that the more you push and pull the data from your camera file, the more likely that unwanted effects may show, such as the dust spots and noise in the detail of sky below.
The better quality file you start with, the more you can do.
So, a 16 bit 100 ISO image from a well exposed RAW file is less likely to show problems than an 8 bit 6400 ISO JPEG file.
My initial thoughts about Color Efex 4 were that this was something I’d rarely use.
But… I’ve found the various contrast affecting filters genuinely useful for giving a bit of ‘lift’ to photos taken on less than optimal days. I get paid to photograph some pretty dull looking buildings (think industrial sites), and the budget often doesn’t extend to making multiple visits to get the lighting ‘just right’, so a bit of help is most useful.
I should also mention the amount of free support offered through the Nik site, both with samples and tutorials.
Personally I don’t much like video instruction, but I know it’s popular and Nik software regularly update it and add features/content. You can also share recipes and download other people’s uploads.
This software is perhaps of more use to those who make use of the images I take, although as with the example from the woods, at the top of the page, I’ve found it of use for some of my print work.
I’ve really only scratched the surface in this review…
Easy to use filter collection supplied as a plugin, for altering and stylizing images.
Stacking of filters and pre-built ‘recipes’ make it very easy to experiment.
Available in downloadable versions – time limited demo available.
- Mac OS 10.5.8, 10.6.8, and 10.7 and later
- Intel processor
- 2 GB RAM (4 GB or more Recommended)
- Adobe Photoshop CS3 through CS5, Photoshop Elements 8 through 9, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2.6 through 3.0 or later, or Apple Aperture 2.1.4 through 3.0 or later
- 32-bit and 64-bit compatible
- Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7
- AMD or Intel processor
- 2 GB RAM (4 GB or more Recommended)
- Adobe Photoshop CS3 through CS5, Photoshop Elements 8 through 9, or Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2.6 through 3.0 or later
- 32-bit and 64-bit compatible
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