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side by side image comparisonReview of Nik Color Efex Pro V3

Creative filters for Photoshop / Aperture / Lightroom

Keith has been having a look at the Color Efex Pro plugin (V3) from Nik Software for this review.

The filter collection ranges from photo correction filters through to stylised creative effects.

Image filtering

There are lots of built in filters and effects 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.

Nik color efex pro - box

What do you get with Color Efex Pro?

We're 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.

The package is available at three different levels of functionality. We're looking at the full version with all the filters.

There are details of the different versions in the summary below. It's also possible to use the filter as a 'smart filter' in Photoshop. This allows you to go back and re-adjust filter settings.

Quite a few filters have direct equivalents to the glass filters you can put in front of your lens.

Whilst digital photo editing can duplicate many effects, it's always worth remembering that some, such as a Polarizing filter, or thick neutral density (ND) filter (for long exposures in daylight) can produce effects that are difficult to mimic.

The software is available in a range of bundles and upgrade options. You can order by download or there are boxed versions.

I've looked at Nik Viveza and Nik Sharpener Pro which offer similar selection mechanisms as in these filters (Nik call it 'U-point').

If you're not clear about some of the selection options, then I'd suggest having a look at those reviews, since both have lots more examples.

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.

Some of these filters would be familiar to a Photoshop user from 1995, others not. As such, the functionality and limitations does vary somewhat (there are filters I couldn't see a use for in 1995, and still can't)

With the Nik filters, they all open in a standard window, with consistent views and preview options.

I'll go through some of the filters effects in a bit, but first, here's a typical one: 'Sunshine'

Nik - sharpener control layout

There is an (optional) list of all filters at the left hand side, whilst filter controls are on the right.

land registry and canal LeicesterYou can see a graphical dropdown menu of options, and at the bottom a split magnified view of where my cursor is (Loupe view).

The effects of some of the filters are quite difficult to describe, but you can see the effect on a picture taken on a cloudy day, to the right.

As with any package like this it really does help to have an idea of how you want the image to look before diving in to all the different options.

For my own work as a photographer, I'm frequently after producing photographs as realistic as possible, so colour effects like this are something I'd tend to use very sparingly.

Do remember that if you use the filters as 'smart' filters, you can alter things later.

I'll also cover masking later, but you can apply filter effects just to selected parts of images.

You can split the view to see before/after views, in a number of different modes.

split view mode

Side by side gives a clearer view of what the filter is doing.

side by side image comparison

Note the Loupe view showing the effect on the colour of the bricks.

shadows and highlights protectionWith many filters you can limit the effect in the shadows and highlights of an image.

Quite fine adjustments here can result in very noticeable differences in the final results. The expanded version of this dialogue includes a histogram display.

Control Points are one way of limiting/controlling areas of the image where the filter is applied.

The buttons add or delete control points - which I'll look at a bit later, once I've been through a few more filters' effects.

The preview options include 'Effect Mask' and 'Effect Overlay', which show areas of the image being altered and by how much.

quick save options for filtersIt's quite possible that you come up with several potential filter settings for your image - how to decide which to use?

There are four 'Quick save slots' available for storing a set of alterations and filter settings.

In the example to the right, I've saved two settings and given them the imaginative names '1' and '2'

Perhaps, if you used sets more often, it might be worth giving them meaningful names?

graphical drop down menuMost filter options are set using sliders.

Where there is a choice of more complex options, these are often presented as a drop down list of graphical options.

  • I'm not entirely sure what the button picture actually is. A very small image of something?

The filter list by the side is tabbed and can be viewed by functionality (Descriptions from info. supplied by Nik)

The filters

I'll run through a selection of filters that give a feel for some of the effects.

There is a black and white conversion filter that gives a bit more than just the normal channel mixing type conversions.

Several filters have quite complex contrast enhancement options included, such as the dynamic contrast B/W filter which can give some quite interesting conversions - but like many, you need to take care not to 'over cook' the filtration.

black and white conversion options

The deep shadow areas are easily lost, with this particular source image.

high contrast black and white

Personally I'd prefer to use Nik Silver Efex, if I was doing much black and white work.

A whole range of 'Old Photo' styles are available for both colour and black and white.

old sepia print - pex building Leicester

The colour effects can look like old faded pictures, but most options don't look like any old print I've come across.

faded colour print

Moving further into a more stylistic look is the 'Monday Morning' filter.

monday morning look image

For just altering the emphasis of a picture, there is the simple vignetting filter.

selective vignetting

There is also the more complex 'Darken/Lighten Centre'. This applies a more complex lightening/darkening to the image luminosity.

luminosity boost for emphasis

I've exagerate the effect in the example above, but it's quite a nice way of changing the empasis of an image.

If it's just more of a 'film look' you're after, then there are a whole range of emulsion types you can choose from.

fillm look for photos

For the image above, I've picked Velvia 100.

One thing you do notice when looking the the film types is just how much more accurate a colour rendition we expect out of our digital cameras.

If my Canon 1Ds started producing shots with a 'Velvia look', then I'd certainly take it back for service. That, or wonder whether my RAW conversion software had developed a fault.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying that I don't like some of the 'looks' from old emulsions.

choice of film types for photosIt's just that for most work today I'm looking for a more colorimetrically accurate rendition ...if I'm honest about it though, most of the time for my commercial work, 'looking good' trumps strict colour accuracy.

If you want particularly accurate film characteristics, it might well be best to looking at applying the effects in your RAW processing, where the actual sensor data is available to work with.

However for most use I'd suggest that this kind of filter would suffice.

The filter also allows for grain to be applied at a number of settings.

You can fine tune the colour sensitivity of the 'film' and even adjust its tone curve.

The delightful grain in the sky really does remind me of shooting film at 400 ASA.

fine tuning film characteristics

  • It's looking at old slides and scanned film that makes me laugh when I see someone on a forum like DPReview, complain that they can see noise in the sky in a 400 ISO shot on an 18MP EOS 7D.

If you want to use film grain to cover up higher ISO noise in digital images, then there is a special 'Film Grain' filter that allows for quite subtle adjustment of the effect.

adding film grain

  • Note - Film grain noise is sometimes described as more 'Organic' looking - even when it's silver particles in a B/W emulsion, which are about as 'inorganic' as you are likely to get ;-)

Whilst on the subject of film, you could get all kinds of effects by incorrectly processing it (many presumably discovered by mistake ;-). A wide range of 'cross processing' options allow you to replicate this with a single image rather than a whole roll of film.

cross processing film

Another effect, similar to missing out a processing step for some colour films...

'Bleach Bypass'

bleach bypass film look

A less drastic way of making photos look different was to use the 'wrong' sort of film - once again, several tungsten/daylight options.

These more accurately reflect the results with film than just altering the white balance for your RAW conversion.

wrong film colour temperture tungsten/daylight

Before it was possible change white balance at will, with a digital RAW file, it was necessary to use filters to correct for colour balance.

Residual colour casts in an image can be adjusted with 'Remove Colour cast"

removing a colour cast from a picture

The Brilliance/Warmth filter also affects image saturation.

changing brilliance and warmth

If you're not happy with the weather, then add a bit of fog...

graduated fog filter

The graduated fog filter allows the 'fog thickness' to be altered

With all the range of graduated filters, the tilt of the effect and position can be altered.

graduated filter settings

Moving to filters that give more 'non photographic' effects, there is the 'Color stylizer'

styles based on colour selections

and 'Colorize'

colorisation of a photo

This one is Duplex, a "duotone effect with options for color, blur and saturation".

duotone effect

Quite a useful filter for handling somewhat flat colours on a cloudy day is the contrast colour range filter.

I've turned up the effects in the shot below, but like many of these filters, a gentle selective application may be beneficial for some images.

alter contrast of colours

Similarly, there is a filter just for contrast.

luminosity contrast adjustment

Then there are filters like some of those in Photoshop that you might play around with to see what they do, before realising that using them for real does actually take some degree of talent and skill in graphic design.

'Flux' - there are 5 different effects

artistic effects

Infra-red thermal camera.

Once again different versions. Of course, the canal would in reality be a smoother cool temperature, so don't make the mistake of assuming any connection between this filter and a real IR thermal camera.

infra red camera effect

Also a whole host of 'stylistic effects'

Crazy colours

Back to what you might want to use for more conventional photographic use (remember I'm a photographer not a graphic designer).

The graduated neutral density filter can balance bright skies, but as in using a glass ND filter on the camera, there are often those annoying bits of the scene that intrude into the darkened area - but see the use of control points below.

graduated neutral density filter

But wait there's more...

Why not add colour to the graduated filter, and why not introduce a second one for the bottom of the shot?

coloured graduated filters

The colours and their areas of influence are adjustable.

graduated colour filter options

I see that in the 21st Century it's coffee colour rather than tobacco...

I'm not a particular fan of graduated filters, particularly coloured ones.

  • I always apply the simple test that if you can see a grad filter was used, then it was probably used too much.
  • Nonetheless, some people seem to like them (I find the TV series 'Top Gear' one of the most egregious offenders)
  • Such effects are very much subject to the vagaries of fashion - I was 18 when the Cokin 'creative' filter system was introduced - I didn't like it much then, and still don't.
  • This brings me on to one of the current popular effects - over enhanced local contrast. Often found in the guise of HDR (high dynamic range) photography.
  • Like many such tools, skilfully used, they can help bring out aspects of an image that better show your vision for a photograph or print.
  • Over used, the effect dominates the content.
  • I looked at the winners for a recent UK landscape photography competition. In over half, the contrast and colour looked excessively manipulated to my taste.
  • Not by any means am I supporting the purists who decry -any- alteration of a photo, but as with any fashion, it's often most easily discerned and defined by its excesses.
  • Anyway enough of this - back to the filters

For this effect, I've ramped up the 'Tonal Contrast' filter.

tonal contrast enhancement

Used sparingly, this can enhance subtle detail and is particularly useful when dealing with the limited dynamic range in prints.

I've printed the three shots of Dillon Reservoir in Colorado as a triptych (42" wide), which gives a good feel for the openness and sky. On screen, there is lots of fine detail in the clouds which helps draw your view into the scene.

When printed, some of this contrast is lost, so at my print sharpening stage I add in a small amount of contrast enhancement with Nik Sharpener Pro. I then apply this via a mask, so as to avoid any oversharpening of the mountains (see the Nik Sharpener review for much more about this)

Dillon Lake, Colorado - triptych

It's also worth applying a small amount of such sharpening to versions of images produced for web use.

The (IMHO) vastly oversharpened version below, shows what happens when you push such tonal contrast 'enhancement' to extremes using the tonal contrast filter in Nik Color Efex Pro.

Dillon Reservoir reflections.

It was pointed out to me during checking of this article that even my 'over the top' version of the image didn't actually look too bad, which I suppose just goes to show how tastes vary :-)

Masking and Control Points

Some filters may be appropriate to just small parts of an image.

There are a number of ways of achieving this.

For example, the 'Foliage' filter, which applies enhancements to greens and yellows and can make foliage look 'better'.

foliage filter

In normal use the filter returns a new layer that holds the filtered image. I could just use a layer mask to paint in (or out) the effect as needed.

For this filter use, it was easiest just to use a mask to paint in the effect on the trees by the bridge.

Color Efex Pro itself allows the adding of 'Control Points' which can be used to apply or negate the influence of the filter.

In the example below, I've applied the contrast filter, but added a control point in the sky to limit the loss of cloud detail that the filter would produce.

selective contrast enhancement

Control points have a radius of influence.

In the picture below I want to enhance the yellowness and contrast of the rape (canola) flowers, but not affect the contrast of the sky.

I've adjusted the tonal contrast filter to make the yellow area much clearer, but it affects the look of the tree and sky too much.

selective colour contrast enhancement

If I turn down the 'Apply to entire image' slider, the effect vanishes.

However, if I then add a control point (move mouse over image below to see), the effect is reapplied in the area of influence (the circle).

masking colour enhancement

You can see the area of influence extends beyond the circle - this is one of the smarter features of the control points, in that there is some analysis of the image where the point is placed, and this is used to prevent filter effects spilling over.

Because of this, it's often worth moving the point slightly to see how the effect alters.

The effects mask preview option makes this clear - the lighter areas are where the filter is being applied - this is much finer than you could easily achieve by 'brushing in' the effect.

selective filter application

After some practice with Control Points, I've found that they are a rather useful aspect of the Nik filters. You can see more examples of their use in the reviews of Sharpener, Viveza and Silver Efex.

More options

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.

Nik menu - selective tool

The tool shows all the installed Nik plugin modules, and for Color Efex, it groups together the filters by type.

Conclusions

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Could you do all this in Photoshop? Well if you could then you are certainly quite an expert - far more than I am ;-)

Like many plugins, Color Efex Pro makes some tasks easier to do - it's up to you to decide just how much your own workflow would benefit.

I've shown a range of the filters, but do remember that I don't do portrait or wedding work, where there are more effects such as the dynamic skin softener, which you can use creatively or just to cover up various problems ;-)

As a photographer looking for accurate representations in my work I suspect I'd have less use for many of the more stylised filters.

I see this part of the filter set as of much more use to people actually 'doing things' with my images.

As I mentioned, the filters also allow you to apply some very fashionable (and in my opinion quite ghastly) effects to images.

By all means try things out, but be very careful about using some effect to try and turn an average image into something it isn't. I see a lot of black and white toned prints for example - I see far fewer where the toning is an integral part of what the image is about.

Why not try for yourself? The time limited demo version of the software is well worth a go.

With experience, I've found that the use of Control Points can give a degree of subtlety and control over filter application that is well worth taking the time to learn.

I'd go so far as to say that the use of control points to restrict the influence of graduated filters actually makes them considerably more useful than most applications of glass ones.

There are a number of tutorials and demos of the software available on the Nik Software site.

Summary

Easy to use filter collection supplied as a plugin, for altering and stylizing images.

System Requirements

** Nik Software product filters are developed to integrate seamlessly into many popular image editing applications that support the Adobe plug-in architecture and there are numerous software applications that accept Adobe plug-in compatible filters. Please consult your image editing application’s documentation for compatibility and installation instructions for 3rd-party plug-ins.

*** Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2.3 compatible with Color Efex Pro 3.0 Complete Edition only.

The full list of filters in each version is as follows:

* = New filters added to Color Efex Pro 3.0

Available both standalone and in various bundles, so it's worth checking for offers and the like.

There is more information at Nik Software.

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