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adjustable split view of filter effectReview 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 from Nik Software for this review.

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.

Update March 2016 - The whole Nik Collection is available for free from Google.

Image filtering

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.

Original article written Oct. 2011

What do you get with Color Efex Pro?

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.

color effex v4 boxed versionUsing 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.

Bluebells in Jubilee wood, leicestershire, EnglandThe 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.

New in V4

The key improvements (as listed by Nik Software) are:

The filters

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 (See examples at Nik Software)

list of color effex filters

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 area of effect can usually be varied and with many filters there are different varieties of effect. They are not all as obvious as the fog (move mouse over image to see).

applying a fog effect filter

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

vertical image split view

or put the before/after views next to each other.

side by side display option

The split line can be moved as required.

Note that this is just the preview - the filter applies to the whole image.

adjustable split view of filter effect

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.

When you select a filter from the list, there may be preview versions, to help evaluate some of the options.

Move you mouse over the image below to see quick examples of the 'Polarization' filter.

example of color effex pro v4 filter

I've a few more examples of individual filters, using a shot of the stones at Stonehenge.

'Contrast Color Range'

the 'contrast color range' filter

'Tonal Contrast'

tonal contrast adjustments

'Detail Extractor'

detail extractor effect

A bit less subtle - 'Old Photo' - a print showing how little it has changed since 1975 when I first went there.

old print effect


solarization effect

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.

convert to black and white

Stacking filters

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.

adding second filter to an image in Color Effex Pro

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)

This is usually something I'll leave up to the client's ad designers, but we do sometimes offer additional Photoshop work as part of our business (mouse over image to see one variation)

more subtle application of filters to an image

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.

adding the brilliance/warmth filter to an image - split view

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.

split view showing bicolor filter effect

I'll show a series of filters applied to this shot taken on a cloudy September Equinox at Avebury stone circle.

First up I'll add the useful 'pro contrast' filter (mouse over to see)

an initial filter added to an image

Now the 'tonal contrast' (mouse over to see)

adding a second filter to the image

Then the 'Photo stylizer'

adding the photo stylizer filter

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...

adding a picture border effect

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.

visible sensor dust


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.

saving custom recipe

  • 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.

range of preset filter recipes

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.

recipes overwrite exisiting filter sets

Below, the 'Warm Sunset' recipe applied to the picture of the woods.

applying a recipe to an image

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.

software can take a few seconds to catch up

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.

filter recipes can be exported

If anyone wants to experiment - you can download the 'creepy stones' recipe [filter - zip file]

Three examples of what it does to everyday images...

split view of filter recipe applied to street

applying saved filter recipe to an image

...and how several of my friends remember festivals at Stonehenge ;-)

stonehenge - as recalled from the 1980's

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.

Mouse over the image to see the effect (look at the colour of the building).

selecctive filtering with conttrol point

It's quite easy to see the area of influence of the control point (or multiple ones).

Move your mouse over the image to see.

area of influence of a filter

After experience with Control Points, I've found that they are a very useful aspect of the Nik filters.

If it's not clear, there are many more examples of their use in the reviews of Sharpener, Viveza 2 and Silver Efex 2.

It really is worthwhile taking time to appreciate this powerful masking feature.

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. 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.

history of activity when using plugin


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 (I can help with the photography side, but I'm not cheap! ;-)

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.

dust spots and noise in the blue sky area of a photo

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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 - if it's of interest, visit Nik's web site and try the demo version of the software.


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 both boxed and downloadable versions - time limited demo available.

System Requirements



There is more information at Nik Software.

More Info

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