Tuesday, March 5, 2013

What Plug-ins should I buy?

Ron Martinsen’s March 2013 Best of the Best Ranking of the top Photography Plug-ins

Imagine that you were as rich as Bill Gates and retired. Even if you were and you have all the time on your hands to learn new things, I still doubt that any one normal human could use all of the great plug-ins available for Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom (or Apple Aperture). There are just so many choices and so much overlap that it can make your head explode trying to figure out which ones you really need! What’s more, there are a lot of very good ones available that do save you lots of time, but you may waste a lot of time tinkering around with all of the options they offer!

I’ve tried to be selective about what I review on this blog based on my own research. The products I focus on are mainly what I determine are the best products and what I’m hearing my Top Photographers telling me that they use.

I have found an awesome collection of products that do really make my editing process quite enjoyable, but I must admit that as much as I love most of the products I have it is hard to find time to use them all. As a result I’ve decided to finally throw down the gauntlet and rank the products that I have on my machine in order of importance to my personal workflow. What this means is that if I could only use X (i.e., 5) then you could look at numbers 1 through X (i.e., 5) to see which ones I’d keep.

With this information available to you, you can then look at your budget and make your selections based on either your own research.  You can compare that with my advice to come up with the best plug-ins on the market to help make you more productive.

This list is only about plug-ins, even though some may run stand-alone in addition to being a plug-in. This means that some programs that I can’t live without (i.e., ImagePrint) will not appear on the list. I also will just flat out say that Lightroom is my #1 photo editing and asset management product but I’d have a hell of a hard time living without Photoshop. I’m not a fan of Aperture, but it is a nice product that will be perfect for some – just not me. As a Canon shooter I also find Canon Digital Photo Professional has a horrible user interface, but it is still a critical part of my workflow for certain RAW processing tasks. I know there are Nikon shooters who feel the same way about Capture NX2, which is actually a decent product that can serve as an end-to-end solution if you are on the Nikon platform.

Ron Martinsen’s Photoshop/Lightroom Plug-ins Stack Ranked List as of March 3, 2013

I know this will spark a holy war with some, but keep in mind that I am only stack ranking (in order of importance to my workflow) the plug-ins I have installed on my machine(s). If someone were to ask me what my top 5 favorite are, then you’d only have to look below for numbers 1 through 5. The same is true for my top 10, etc… If you trust my advice based on the articles in this review and you are trying to figure out where to spend your pennies, this may be a useful resource to help you to decide where to put your hard earned dollars:

  • Nik Software Color Efex Pro 4 – I can’t live without this product. Version 3 was the first Photoshop plug-in I ever owned, and version 4 knocked my socks off. I can’t imagine editing photos without it.
  • Nik Software Dfine or Imagenomic Noiseware - (tie – Noiseware won my Noise Reduction Roundup and I find myself using it the most. However, Dfine is almost as good).
  • Nik Software Viveza – I hate creating layer masks for complex objects. It takes too much time and keeps me up late at night. When I discovered that Viveza seemed to read my mind and allow me to do complex changes without needing to create layer masks (thanks to U-Point controls), I was hooked. Now I can’t do my final display and print edits without using this tool!
  • Nik Software Sharpener Pro – Idiot proof sharpening for both display and print.  
  • Imagenomic Portraiture – I can’t do skin softening without this anymore. It’s just too damn good! Penny pinchers can survive using the Dynamic Skin Softener filter in Color Efex, which was my favorite until I used this product. However, I use Portraiture exclusively for skin softening now. Some may find PerfectPortrait (version 7 notes) to be a little easier and faster at first, but Portraiture is still the king in my book.
  • Nik Software Silver Efex 2.0 or Topaz Labs B&W Effects (tie) – I hated black and white photography before using Silver Efex, but now I love it. Both of these products did well in my comparison of Nik Silver Efex–vs–Topaz B&W Effects–vs–onOne Perfect Effects
  • Nik Software HDR Efex Pro 2 or HDRSoft Photomatix – If HDR is important to you then one of these has to be in the top 5. I used to not do a ton of HDR, but the Canon 5D Mark III built-in HDR feature has me experimenting with it much more. For as good as it is, I still prefer third party software and these are the bests on the market. Personally I prefer HDR Efex Pro 2, but Photomatix in the right hands is still quite powerful. See my HDR Comparison article to learn more about HDR Software.
  • Topaz Software’s ReMask –  This is the fastest and easiest tool to create complex masks fast. onOne Software’s Perfect Mask has the potential to be greater, but I’ve just had a much harder time mastering it. It should be noted though that Perfect Mask supports Aperture, Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, & Lightroom whereas ReMask only works with Photoshop. With that said, I find ReMask to be much easier to use and very powerful. It can save you a hell of a lot of time separating your subject from a complex background or doing complex masks that can’t be adequately handled using Nik Software’s U-Point control technology or the vastly improved Refine Edge feature of Photoshop CS5 & CS6. 
  • Topaz Labs Adjust – Just like Photomatix above, if you are going for the surreal HDR looks then this mandatory. For me, I just like for giving some drab images some more oomph, but it can do wonders for your HDR stuff. If you enjoy Trey Ratcliff’s work, then know that this is his secret sauce!  
  • onOne Software Perfect Resize – There was a time where this would have been #1, but resizing in Adobe products and printer drivers have gotten pretty good so this is more useful when you need the best possible results or when other methods just don’t do a good job. Generally speaking if you are going to increase an image by 200% or more, then this is the best game in town.
  • onOne Software’s Perfect Effects (version 7 notes) – Lot’s of good stuff in here to make my life easier, and it’s latest version with real-time previews of the effect on your image addresses my biggest issue with its predecessor PhotoTools. Honestly if you are going to get this you should try to just get Perfect Photo Suite since it can run stand alone without Photoshop with advanced layers support. Perfect Effects feels like it picks up where Color Efex leaves off, so there’s little duplication between the products. Perfect Photo Suite has this plus Perfect Layers, Perfect Portrait, Perfect B&W, Perfect Resize, Perfect Mask and FocalPoint.
  • Topaz Labs InFocus – Probably the best image save product on the market once you figure out how to use it properly. It blows away Focus Magic, so don’t waste your money on that one.
  • Topaz Labs Detail – This is a decent replacement for Adobe product based sharpening, but it’s a bit more complex than Sharpener Pro. For some the latter issue will be a benefit but for me it isn’t.
  • Topaz Labs Simplify – Great for turning your images into cartoons or drawings. It’s a cool app, but this isn’t something I do very often so that’s why it’s low on the list. I actually used this quite effectively on this photo to simplify (as the name suggests) the distractions in the background, so if you have the need for what it offers then it is a great choice. 
  • Alien Skin Blowup – For display resizing Blowup rocks which is why it won my comparison between it and Genuine Fractals (now known as Perfect Resize). However, during my printing series I’ve done a lot of resizing and more times than not I found that images resized with both products would favor the Genuine Fractals/Perfect Resize version.
  • onOne Software FocalPoint or Alien Skin Software Bokeh – (tie) Actually I usually try both when I need this tool and decide which works best. You can’t go wrong with either one.
  • Topaz Labs Star Effects – while the 1.0 version isn’t perfect, it can do some nice effects not easily replicated anywhere else for this price point.
  • Imagenomic Real GrainI said good by to grain when I went from film to digital, and I don’t miss that from the past. I know that this tool can be useful for printers to add some grain back into the photo for better printing result, but it’s not something that’s part of my workflow.
  • Alien Skin Snap Art & Alien Skin Eye Candy – Graphic Artists swear by these products, but that’s not what I do so I don’t really use them – yet. I hope to change that later this year as I find time to dig into some more cool plugin-ins like these.

    It should be noted that even products lower in the stack like FocalPoint and Bokeh are excellent products, so don’t infer that something appearing lower in the list isn’t as good as something higher in the list. It just means that I don’t use it very often and if I had to pick one over the other, I’d pick the one higher in the list. For ties you can assume that both are very good so if one of the products is included in a bundle that you purchased, then you probably can live without the other one.

    A Word About Bundles

    One thing that is very clear is if you think you’ll ever want to own more than 2 or 3 products from a given company then you should just bit the bullet and get their largest bundled version. While it might be painful in the short-term buying such an expensive product, you’ll spend exponentially more if you find yourself buying all the products over time. The bundles are a great deal and the only way to go if you can make that happen. With that said, I do a quick run down of my favorite bundles here in priority stack ranked order:

    1. Nik Software Complete Collection – Simply put, there is no better bundle on the market today that will improve your photography and give you that professional look that simply isn’t possible with the best camera and glass available on the market. Don’t believe me? Check out this photo’s before and after which was taken with the Canon 1D Mark III (replaced by the 1D Mark IV) which went for about $5000 at the time that shot was taken and the Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS USM (soon to be replaced by the 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM)  which lists for $7,190 for a total of $12,000+ USD. This was the best combo money could buy from Canon not long ago and the image is blah and muddy until it gets some love from Nik Software’s Dfine, Color Efex and Sharpener Pro. Good gear helps, but if you don’t have good photo editing software you won’t have pro quality looking images by today’s standards – period. Nobody does it better than Nik Software!
    2. Imagenomic Pro Plug-in Suite – Noiseware is the winner of my noise reduction series and as of now, nothing has changed that. I also have become obsessed with Portraiture as my preferred skin softening product, so you may as well get the bundle if you want the best. You’ll effectively get Noiseware and Real Grain for free it’s really a great value.
    3. onOne Software’s Perfect Photo Suite – As great as the Nik suite is, there’s simply a lot of things that they just don’t do – and that’s a good thing. onOne Software does a great job of filling in for the things that Nik and Adobe don’t do so that you can spend less time editing photos and get back to shooting. The latest release features the ability to run stand alone (no Photoshop required), has layers support, and even Perfect Portrait (which blows away Portrait Professional), runs in 64-bit bit, and is the most reliable version I’ve seen from onOne – ever. This is good stuff, so even if it failed to impress in the past you should give it another look!
    4. Topaz Labs Plug-In Bundle – It has taken some time, but Topaz Labs has done a good job of revamping their product line into something that is more compelling and worth your hard earned dollars. I find myself using Adjust and B&W Effects 2 quite a bit now. I also use InFocus, ReMask, and Lens Effects more often these days as well. I’m still not going to switch to DeNoise or Detail over their Nik Software counterparts, but this is a pretty inexpensive bundle by comparison so it might be a good starting point for someone just getting started. Clean looks pretty cool too, but I just haven’t tried it out yet. I’d buy the other two bundles mentioned here first if I had the budget, but for the tightest budgets this might be a more economical starting point to get improvements over what Lightroom or Photoshop alone will give you. The newest additions of B&W Effects and Star Effects make the bundle totally worth the money as it really can help you to make your photos look unique and stand out from the masses.  PhotoFX Lab is also awesome because it allows you to run the plug-ins without Photoshop and have layer support – yeah the 1.0 version was lame, but the latest one is pretty solid.

    You really can save a bundle by getting bundles, so before you make that stand alone purchase ask yourself – will I want to buy any of these other products in the future? If you say yes to at least 3 products offered in the bundle then pony up now to save big later – get the bundle!

    onOne Perfect Photo Suite vs Nik Software Complete Collection

    One question I get a lot is “which suite should I get?” and the answer is one you don’t really want to hear – both. Despite what some might think there’s actually very little overlap between these two suites and both have their strong points that simply aren’t addressed in the other product. I consider them to be complementary rather than competitive suites.

    The reason why I say both is because Nik has no product that competes against Perfect Resize, Perfect Mask, Perfect Layers, Perfect Portrait and FocalPoint.There are some similarities' between Color Efex and Perfect Effects, but the results of the filters offered are drastically different with each offering a large set of effects not found in the other. The only place they now compete is on the black and white front (see my comparison), but even there they are very different products (i.e., Silver Efex has U-Point and Perfect B&W has adjustment brushes with limited overlapping presets) that can live in an environment where you can use both. In fact, for a limited time onOne is even offering Nik Software users a special deal for a low cost way to get their suite.

    I will set expectations that for as great as Perfect Effects is and its sibling products found in Perfect Photo Suite, I still think that you’ll will need a good noise reduction program like Nik Software’s Dfine (or Imagenomic’s Noiseware). Personally I can’t live without Viveza, Silver Efex, and Sharpener Pro either. While Adobe will have you believe that Photoshop CS6 and Lightroom have made some of this software unnecessary, based on my experience I find that they are still substandard and cumbersome noise reduction and sharpening solutions compared to those found in the Nik Software Suite.

    I love em both, and use em both, but if could only have one it would be the Nik Bundle primarily due to its powerful U-Point control technology.However, Lightroom users will appreciate the stacking (aka layers) concept of the onOne solution and with its Perfect Layers which is a hit with Lightroom users, it’s going to be hard to not want both.

    Topaz Labs Photoshop Bundle – The Next Place to Spend Your Money

    I’m going to be blunt and say that when I was first approached by Topaz Software to add DeNoise to my Noise Reduction Series that I was highly unimpressed. Actually, that’s an understatement – I really thought their software was crap that was worse than freeware. However, I’ve got to give Topaz a lot of credit for persevering and making great improvements to their products over the last couple of years. Starting with my review of Adjust I began to take notice and loving what they brought to the table. In fact, I find myself using Adjust, B&W Effects, ReMask, Lens Effects and InFocus very often these days. They offer many more products which I’m sure are good, but I just haven’t had the bandwidth to get to them all. I’m hearing great things about the latest version of Denoise and I have enjoyed playing around with Detail. Star Effects is pretty fun and Clean starts to make this a pretty feature rich collection. It’s tough not to recommend people consider the Topaz suite when times are tight and pennies must be pinched, and when you’ve got extra money to burn it’s a fun one to have.

    The thing I like best about Topaz is that their products are dirt cheap compared to the other players in this market, and a product like Adjust can really kick your images to the next level with a single click. it’s a staple in Trey Ratcliff’s HDR workflow and he uses it quite often in his HDR DVD Workshop set. In fact, after seeing what he could do I dusted off my copy and found myself giving it a try nearly every time I edit photos!


    Imagenomic makes three popular products which can only be purchased separately. The first two mentioned below are staples in my regular work, so I couldn’t live without them.

    Based on my extensive testing during my Noise Reduction Roundup, nobody out performed Noiseware.  It’s a great product that I go to for my most important jobs because I know it will do the best job to preserve the detail. It’s only disadvantage is the lack of Nik’s U-Point controls, but most of the time I will just create a layer mask and roughly sketch out where I want selective noise reduction, so I’ll just use Noiseware in both those and global noise reduction scenarios.

    I’ve stopped using my long-time beloved Nik Software’s Dynamic Skin Softener (filter found in Color Efex) in favor of Portraiture which does the best skin enhancements I’ve ever seen. I turned my mentor on to this product after his copy of Color Efex wouldn’t work on his upgraded version of the Mac OS, and he loves Portraiture more than anything now! 

    Real Grain isn’t my cup of tea, but most people probably don't realize that it simulates a lot of films which could be handy to some. It also has nice grains which can prove useful in printing or dramatic stylistic effects like reproducing the artificial grain found in the movie Saving Private Ryan.

    Alien Skin Software

    For a while BlowUp and Bokeh were staples in my regular workflow, but I find myself using them less and less due to the quirkiness of the user interface and the fact that the competition has kicked things up a notch.

    Some of the Alien Skin Software products are a hit with graphics designers, but not so much for Photographers (at least that I am aware of), so I find myself never using it. However, Exposure 3, BlowUp and Bokeh all offer great goodies for the photographer, and Snap Art is really quite cool for those playing in both worlds.

    I no longer make a commission off of Alien Skin Software, but I still think they make good software. Download the demos and check it out!

    The Rest

    There are thousands of Photoshop & Lightroom plug-ins, and many of them are fantastic. However, I don’t have the bandwidth to test everything, nor can I use everything, so what you see in this article represents my reality. Don’t assume that if  product isn’t mentioned here that I don’t like it, but rather assume I probably haven’t used it very much – if at all.

    I will say that I’m no fan of Portrait Professional and Focus Magic as I feel both offer mediocre solutions for which there are much better options.

    If you’ve got a great product that you think I must know about then feel free to leave a comment with your suggestion(s). Do not link as spam comments will not be approved.

    Parting Thoughts

    Choice and competition bring about great innovation. It’s this fundamental reality that got me addicted to computers, and it is what keeps me jazzed today. If you’ve got the cash, then don’t feel guilty loading your computer with all of the add-ins that I have – I have em and use em. However, you may want to avoid loading them all at once as they will slow Photoshop down and sometimes destabilize it. It’s worth your time to be acquainted to where your plug-ins are really located on your computer. It’s been less of a problem on 64-bit than in 32-bit, but you can always help Photoshop by limiting it to just what it really needs to get your job done.

    I hope you enjoyed this article (and that I haven’t pissed off any partners by drawing this line in the sand on my thoughts).

    Special Offers

    Visit my Discount Coupon Code page for specials on plug-ins and a wide variety of products – many of which aren’t available any where else on the web!


    Some of the companies mentioned here are partners of the blog which means they provide me with free software and I may get a commission if you purchase using their links. Please support the blog by using the links or making a donation.

If you enjoyed this article, please support future articles like this by donating a dollar or saving several dollars by using my discount coupon codes. Either way, your support is greatly appreciated!

Click here to learn more about how this blog is funded.


Dawn said...

GREAT article!

I started with the Nik bundle (which I love), but wondered if I was missing out, and purchased the OnOne bundle too.

I find I use Nik much more, specifically Dfine, Viveza, Color Efex, and Sharpener (when it comes time for printing). I have yet to pursue B&W, so haven't used Silver Efex yet. Suprisingly, I bought the bundle for HDR Efex Pro, but don't use it at all. I've found the filters in Color Efex give me the look that I want.

I've only used OnOne's Perfect Resize once (it did a great job), and Photo Tools once, for a model photo shoot that I just couldn't get to look right using Nik's Color Efex.

I just purchased the Topaz bundle, after hearing so much about Adjust. Looking forward to trying out their software too!

Dave Cearley said...

Ron, there's a $125 price difference between the Lightroom and Photoshop versions of the NIK suite. Do I need the photoshop versions for portrait photography?

Dave Cearley said...

Ron, do I need to spend the extra $125 for the Photoshop version, or is the Lightroom version of the NIK suite just as powerful?
I shoot portraits.

Dave Cearley said...

Ron, I'm interested in the NIK suite. I the Photoshop version necessary, or worth the extra $125?

Ron Martinsen said...


Yes, I think so because I still find layer masks faster for some things. U-points are great and I use them a lot, but for portraits I prefer to use some effects only on the skin, eyes or clothes individually and usually I have masks for them for other work I do.


Digital Lady Syd said...

I am into plug-ins big time too. I really think Topaz Black and White Effects is a fabulous product that creates looks Nik's Silver Efex Pro cannot do. Also the new photoFXlabs v1.1 has a great Dynamics slider that gives that Topaz Adjust look without overdoing it and I am finding it is really great. My favorite plug-in overall is Nik's Viveza 2 - can't live without it! Love your blog too.

David B said...

Any comments on the new onOne Suite 7?

Ron Martinsen said...

Hi David,

I haven't had a chance to look at it yet. I hope to do an update review in mid-December where I can comment on it.


Cattledog Mom 2 said...

I would call myself an above average amateur photographer. My equipment is older.
Please don't laugh....I have a very old Minolta Maxxum 5D D-SLR and a Canon PowerShot SD1000 that I use to take photos with.
I have LR4 and CS6 (still learning both of them! I was a PS7 girl until very recently) I take pictures of animals, scenery and some people shots. I also have to fix other people's photos for fund-raising projects I do.
I tried the trail of Color Efex Pro 4, and was also thinking about trying Viveza 2. I'd sure like your opinion.

Ron Martinsen said...

Cattle Dog Mom,

My review of Color Efex says it all - I'd not be where I am today if it wasn't for that product and I couldn't live without it.

Viveza is extremely helpful as well - especially if you aren't a guru at creating masks.

I love em and use them both, but I do use Color Efex Pro more than Viveza so if I could only have one it would be Color Efex Pro.

Cattledog Mom 2 said...

Thank you, Ron! I appreciate you taking the time to reply!
I got Color Efex 4 today....
Mia, Cattledog Mom!

Juan Vasquez said...

I appreciate your information, but could not help but notice that it was created in 2012. Lord knows how quickly these programs become outdated. I was hoping to find information partaining to extraction. I currently have Ps CS5 and while I feel it does a great job at extracting, it also takes me a lot of time in order to get the job done to my liking. Would you suggest any given program that does a better job at extracting than Ps does? And by better I mean faster with similar results.

Chris said...

I have purchased most of the popular plugins. But the deeper I delve into Lightroom (an amazing piece of software), the more I am seeing that it's really not necessary to use plugins. You can essentially do the same things as these plugins with the tools Adobe has provided. It's simply a matter of knowing how to use the tools.

Incidentally, I use Lightroom 4.

Ron Martinsen said...


Correct, and you can use a hand saw and a traditional hammer to build a house. However, a power saw and a nail gun sure make things go by faster, and that's effectively what these tools offer. What's more, many of the things done by these products aren't easy to figure out nor are many of them readily available on the web (sure with enough experimentation and perhaps enough web crawling you might find similar solutions).

What these products buy you are:

1. Time to focus on doing what you want to accomplish rather than mechanics. This is especially true of the Nik U-Point controls which effectively eliminate the need to create complex masks which saves hours in some cases.

2. Variety - lots of options that you can experiment with a single click rather than doing things manually which can be cumbersome. Those who do it in PS directly often have one workflow and stick to it because experimentation is too expensive.


Jeff Clow said...

Fine review of the best options out there, Ron....I found myself nodding at your comments on each. Over the years I've tried lots of plug ins myself and I concur with your assessment of the best out there today.

Well done.

Chelsea Peterson said...

Ron -

I don't know why it took so long for me to find your website. I have been looking for a competent photographer-blogger for years and here you are! I am a recent start-up looking for all the latest and greatest true tips by a photographer who isn't paid off for biased articles. YOU ROCK! And I hope we may someday meet so that I can give you a mushy hug.

Thank you, and I will definitely spread the word.

Charli White

Ron Martinsen said...

Hi Charli,

Ha, ha - thanks! You made my day!

My wife would probably be happier if you just shared links to your favorite articles with your friends and social networks (including Pintrest, Digg, Stumble Upon, etc...) and photography forums!


Boaz Minitzer said...

Hi Ron, nice blog and articles, I stumbled across it yesterday.
Quick question, I've bought phototools 2.6 and PerfectPhoto Suite 7, however I currently mostly use Perfectly Clear by Athentech.
Any thoughts? I didnt see anything about P.C or Capture One Pro (which is nice, but I like P.C better)

Royi A said...

Have you tried Wow! Tonal Equalizer?
It seems very impressive.