Awaken The Artist Within

The Beatles were wonderfully talented musicians and songwriters, creating original music that seems to never go out of style. On occasion, however, the Fab Four got a little help from their friends—friends who included music icons such as Eric Clapton and Billy Preston. Who knows, those friends may have inspired the song “With a Little Help from My Friends.”


Like the Beatles, do-it-all image processors like Photoshop are great all by themselves. However, the awesome creative power of these applications can be further enhanced with plug-ins. Plug-ins add functionality and simplify complex tasks, running within a host application like Photoshop or Aperture. Most plug-ins are available as a 30-day trial, so you can be sure they suit your needs. No doubt they can help you awaken the artist within.

AFTER Silver Efex Pro

In this article, we’ll take a look at several of my favorite plug-ins. Keep in mind that the end-result image shown here for each plug-in is only one possible end-result image—one out of endless possibilities that await you. Also know that you may be able to come up with the same effect in Photoshop without a plug-in, although it would take a lot longer than a click of your mouse or a tap of your stylus. Let’s get plugged in!

Silver Efex Pro

With today’s inkjet printers and specialty inks, it’s easy to make a great black-and-white print. However, you still need a great black-and-white image to print!


Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro ( can get you there. In the Control window, you can choose the exposure, brightness, contrast, grain and tone curve (to name a few options) to turn your color file into a beautiful black-and-white image.

AFTER Color Efex Pro

Here, I applied the Antique Plate effect, after which I boosted the contrast and brightness with the control sliders in the plug-in.

Color Efex Pro

The name of this plug-in, Color Efex Pro, also from Nik Software, doesn’t mean that it’s designed exclusively for pros. Anyone can take advantage of the hundreds of color effects, which can be fine-tuned with the control sliders.


I like my straight-out-of-the-camera shot of a Himba woman, whom I photographed in Namibia. But I wanted it to look different from all the pictures my work-shop students took of the same woman. I applied the Bleach Bypass filter, which resulted in a striking image.

AFTER Photoframe Professional Edition

Professional Edition

Adding a digital frame to a picture makes it stand out on a web page or a printed page. It dresses up a picture and gives an image a unique and creative look.

ORIGINAL and AFTER Phototools Professional Edition

With PhotoFrame Professional from onOne Software (, you can quickly and easily see how a frame can enhance an image because thumbnail previews are provided for a quick pick. Once a frame is selected, you have many more creative options, such as controlling the background, edge, border, glow and shadow.

Frame sets include Art Supplies, Photographic, Digital, Texture Overlays and Man Made. Here, I used one of the Acid Burn filters to intensify one of my favorite Kenya sunrise images. Man, that’s hot!

PhotoTools Professional Edition

Portrait, landscape, wildlife, nature and travel photographers (did I leave anyone out?) will find hundreds of image-enhancing effects in this plug-in, also from onOne Software. PhotoTools Professional Edition can simulate many in-camera effects, such as using different films and filters, to many postprocessing techniques, including cross-processing and print tinting.

To soften the skin of the model in this image, I applied the Kubota-Angel Glow A2 effect—and then faded it slightly. When you apply any filter, go to the Fade slider to fine-tune the effect. More fun and creativity await you.


This plug-in from Alien Skin Software ( can save you money, as well as help you save a shot. It can save you money by simulating the wide-open aperture effect—shallow depth of field and a blurred background—that you get with an expensive, fast ƒ/2.8 lens. It can save a shot by blurring a distracting background while keeping the subject sharp. As with the other plug-ins mentioned here, you have creative control within Bokeh. You choose the effective lens and aperture and the amount of blur.


Before you plug in to Bokeh, you need to make a careful selection of the subject in your image-editing software. Take your time making that selection, and you’ll get more realistic results.



Photomatix, a popular high dynamic range (HDR) program from HDRsoft (, is both a plug-in and a stand-alone application. First, you take several pictures overexposed, underexposed and correctly exposed with your camera mounted on a tripod (set to the aperture-priority mode) and fired with either the camera’s self-timer or a cable release to avoid camera shake.

Then you use Photomatix’s Details Enhancer and Tone Compressor, along with the options in the submenus, to create images that go way beyond the recording capabilities of a digital camera’s image sensor.

Topaz Adjust

Enter the Topaz “Twilight Zone.” Topaz ( is a relative newcomer to the world of HDR image-making. It offers an easy, not to mention very effective, method for creating an HDR image.

AFTER Photomat


Topaz Adjust allows you to create an HDR image using only one image, as opposed to most other HDR programs that combine several images that are overexposed, underexposed and correctly exposed. What’s more, you can use the noise-reduction feature for super-sharp, noise-free images, or you can blur the noise to the point where you get a painterly-type image, as shown applied here to a photograph I took at Bodie State Historical Park in California. Presets are available, which are cool. But to really unlock your creativity, use the manual adjustment tabs.



Flaming Pear

I’ll do almost anything for a photograph. However, I won’t lie down in freezing cold water and get soaked without the proper gear. That’s something I can simulate in the digital darkroom while working in my warm and cozy studio.

To create the watery effect, I applied the Flaming Pear Flood filter ( to the photograph, which was taken in the sub-Arctic when the temperature was -35° F. Cool, don’t you think? I darkened the sky with the Graduated Filter in Photoshop CS4.

As you experiment with plug-ins, try to think outside the box and let your imagination go wild—and awaken the artist within.

AFTER Flaming Pear


Rick Sammon has been called the “Prince of the Plug-Ins” because he shares his enthusiasm for them in his books, web TV shows, lectures and magazine articles. Visit

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