Buyer's Guide 2009: Software Plug-Ins

Plug-ins are one of the best tools photographers have in the digital darkroom. They extend the power of our primary photo application—some by adding new functionality and others by making complicated adjustments much faster and more intuitive. There’s a plug-in for just about every essential task, from color correction and noise reduction to creative effects and finishing touches.

Until recently, plug-ins were designed for use with Photoshop and a handful of other applications that comply with the Photoshop plug-in standard. One of the big developments in plug-ins this year is that Apple opened Aperture’s architecture to use them, too. It’s important to note, however, that Aperture plug-ins and Photoshop-compatible plug-ins aren’t interchangeable. Aperture users are limited to those plug-ins that have been specifically coded for Aperture. The good news is that many popular plug-ins are available in both formats.

There are too many terrific plug-ins to include all of them here, so we’ve featured a few of our favorites. Be sure to check out these software makers’ websites for othaer plug-ins offerings.

Nik Viveza

selective correction and enhancements without the need for detailed masks or complicated selections. Viveza does this with Nik Software’s U-Point technology, which uses Color Control Points to isolate changes to select areas of a photograph. Simply choose a new Control Point and adjust for brightness, contrast, saturation and more using the easy-to-negotiate sliders. By increasing or decreasing the size of the coverage area, you control how much of the image is affected by the change.

The plug-in’s U-Point technology uses color and tonal data to isolate the area that will be affected by the This innovative plug-in provides photographers with the means to make adjustment. So whether it’s the blue sky or a yellow rain slicker, the U-Point technology isolates the change to a specific area in a way that removes the tedium of using a mouse or a stylus to make a detailed selection. Photoshop and Aperture compatible. List Price: $249.

Vertus Fluid Mask 3

Masks and selections are an important part of precision photo editing. Changes in color, contrast and color saturation often are meant to impact only a small area of a photograph. Whether you intend to replace the background behind a model or change the color of a product in a still life, Vertus Fluid Mask 3 makes the process of creating such masks as easy as a brushstroke.

A selection of brush tools allows the software to use its sophisticated edge-detection and edge-blending technology to create ultrafine selections even with the most challenging subject matter—hair. By simply painting along the edge of the subject, you’re instructing the software as to what you want to include and exclude from the selection.

Featuring a full screen display, the plug-in allows you to take complete advantage of your entire desktop. The interface window where the image appears features what looks like a paint-by-numbers overlay. This helps to inform you which areas are linked to each other by color and tone, making the use of brush tools that much more convenient and accurate. List Price: $239.

Tiffen Dfx 2

For many of today’s digital photographers, the importation of the image into the editing application is just the beginning of the process. The digital darkroom provides us with the raw materials needed to release the full potential of our imaginations. Tiffen’s Dfx v2 offers photographers many classic and new visual filters and effects to not only correct color or enhance contrast, but to completely transform images in a way that once was only possible using filters and advanced darkroom techniques.

Offering more than 100 individual filters, with over 2,000 filter and special-effects presets, the Dfx v2 plug-ins, available for either Photoshop or Aperture, allow you to apply simulations of Tiffen’s optical filters, as well as specialized effects, such as film grain. Digital effects of custom photo-lab processes developed for use in several major motion pictures, all in either 8- or 16-bit, also are standard. Apply changes globally or, with one of seven easy-to-use masking features within the plug-in, isolate changes to any portions of the image—a Dfx exclusive. Layer multiple filters, special effects and masks to create your own unique look to an image. Digitally adjust color, luminance and more by zone to an image!

One of its greatest strengths includes filters and effects based on traditional tools, allowing the photographer to take advantage of analog “looks,” but within a digital workflow. Photoshop and Aperture compatible. List Price: $99.

Alien Skin Software Exposure 2

There can be a certain uniformity to the look of digital photographs that can rankle those who remember the diversity of film emulsions that was once in our toolbox. Those differences of color, grain and contrast can be found in Alien Skin Software’s Exposure 2, which provides simulations of film emulsions including TRI-X, Velvia, Agfachrome and other films that haven’t been commercially available for decades.

The plug-in does more than just offer a tool for nostalgia. It provides the means to enjoy the diversity of color, contrast and grain that was once at the fingertips of film photographers. Whether it’s cross-processing, infrared or black-and-white conversions, this plug-in provides the means to get not only amazing simulations, but also the flexibility to refine those simulations to your own individual taste using simple-to-use controls for fine-tuning.

The interface includes a large filter window that allows you to see the effect of your film choice and your changes easily and clearly. This makes the ability to create and save your own custom user settings easy. List Price: $249.

DxO Optics Pro 5

The choice of what software to use when importing images into the computer often revolves around concerns about obtaining the best color and greatest amount of detail from your original file. Increasingly, however, it’s also important that the unique characteristics of the lenses that you’re using are considered, as well. That’s one of the strengths of DxO Optics Pro version 5.

This plug-in uses measured data from actual cameras and lenses to provide amazingly precise corrections for not only color and contrast, but also optical distortions. Issues such as vignetting and color fringing are remedied using solutions specifically tailored for individual lenses and cameras, resulting in exceptional control and accuracy. Whether adjustments are being made to single or multiple images, the elimination or removal of camera noise, lens softness or distortion is made while maintaining optimal exposure and dynamic range. Its advanced database of camera-specific information enables batch processing that delivers consistent results, saving both time and effort. List Price: $169.

onOne FocalPoint

The choice of what the photographer chooses to render sharp and what to leave out of focus always has been a major part of successful image making. Though often controlled only by lens selection and aperture, onOne FocalPoint provides the additional ability for digital photographers to emply focus control usually enjoyed only by photographers using a large-format film camera.

More than just another soft-focus filter, this plug-in allows you to achieve realistic depth of field while also controlling the plane of focus. This provides you with the ability to simulate the look achieved by using the swing-and-tilt feature of a large-format camera. Plus, you can maintain the sweet spot of your image and its sharpness, while diffusing the surrounding area in a natural-looking way. The software also allows you to create vignettes around the corners and edges of your images. This delivers a classic look for portraiture and lets you direct the viewer to the most important part of your image. List Price: $159.

PictureCode Noise Ninja

One of the greatest advantages of shooting digitally is the capability to change the ISO on the fly. This ability to adjust for changing light levels, particularly low light, allows photographers to make images that might not be possible unless you use flash. However, the raising of the ISO also increases the presence of noise in the images. PictureCode’s Noise Ninja offers an effective remedy to counter that. Its manual and automatic noise analysis and camera-specific profiles allow the plug-in to reduce the presence of noise, while maintaining color fidelity and image sharpness.

The effectiveness of the plug-in comes with a straightforward interface that makes noise removal a simple thing. Whether applied to a single image or a collection of photographs, the plug-in allows you to selectively remove noise using the noise brush and remove noise from the luminance channel, chroma channel or all color channels simultaneously. This level of control helps to deliver images that can be enlarged without being weakened by the presence of noise from high ISOs or long exposures. Photoshop and Aperture compatible. List Price: $79.

Digital Anarchy
Knoll Light Factory

Lighting effects can be an important component of a successful photograph. How-ever, it can be a challenge to achieve that in-camera, particularly when you don’t have the benefit of complete control over the shooting situation. Digital Anarchy Knoll Light Factory provides realistic lighting effects such as flare and sparkle, which can be used in anything from product photography to landscape or portraiture.

Designed by Photoshop cocreator John Knoll, this plug-in combines naturally occurring visual light effects to create looks that can be rooted in reality or inspired by your creativity. Not only can you use a variety of presets that are included, but you also can combine multiple effects and make adjustments to create your own custom lighting effects. This allows you the flexibility to add lighting elements that can be as subtle or as dramatic as you want them to be. List Price: $149.

Auto FX Software Photo/Graphic Edges 6.0

Digital Film Tools Light! 3.5

Creating visual effects in a photograph after the actual shoot is one of the great promises provided by image-editing software, but it’s a difficult one to fulfill well. Digital Film Tools Light! 3.5 helps on that count by providing photographers with the ability to add realistic lighting and shadow effects to images. With a library of 565 patterns, Light! 3.5’s effects can simulate the use of gelled lights, gobos, vignettes or other light modifiers and diffusers.

The ability to apply these effects globally or selectively provides the control needed to make such lighting effects appear natural and realistic, but with the flexibility and control only available through software. Photoshop and Aperture compatible. List Price: $50.

Imagenomic Professional Plug-in Suite

Bundling three powerful programs into one, the Imagenomic Professional Plug-in Suite removes noise, retouches portraits and adds the textural look and feel of an image shot on film. Noiseware 4 automatically calibrates a precision noise profile from your pictures and chooses a noise-removal setting. Every time an image is filtered, the program learns more about your camera and creates a more precise profile.

Portraiture fixes people shots by removing unwanted flaws (like blemishes) and smoothing skin, while preserving texture and other facial details. A smart auto-masking tool allows selective smoothening only in the skin-tone areas of the image. The masking feature recognizes the optimal skin-tone range as the first step in either manually fine-tuning or batch-processing your images.

If the soft, grainy look of a photograph processed in a darkroom is what appeals, RealGrain achieves that effect digitally. The app simulates grain patterns and the color and tonal range of different film types and scan resolutions. Grain size is automatically adjusted based on the image’s physical dimensions. This allows the program to render accurate grain patterns for varying image sizes. List Price: $239.

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