Thursday, December 10, 2015

What Plug-ins should I buy? [Updated Dec 10, 2015]

Ron Martinsen’s December 2015 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. 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 and other industry experts are 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.

Recommended Plug-ins as of Dec 10, 2015

Previously this was a stacked ranked list of what I’ve reviewed but with my Dec 2015 update, I’ve decided to trim it down to just what I’d recommend to a family member or close friend. Yes, there are a lot of other products on the market, but this boils it down to what I’d get if I had to start all over from scratch today.

  • Topaz Labs Adjust – I used to think of this as the secret sauce for HDR images, but now I use it for so much more. In fact, Topaz has so many strong offerings that I’m often telling people that this product is just as valuable as Color Efex, so if you only buy one bundle then go for the Topaz bundle and trust this. Yes, some effects are hideous until you learn how to use them, but watch my one of my webinars and you’ll see that they don’t have to be.
  • Imagenomic Noiseware - Noiseware won my Noise Reduction Roundup and I find myself using it the most out of all the products I’ve tested (including some not featured on the blog).
  • Athentech Perfectly Clear / Lucid – I tried this product out a couple years ago and hated it, but now I find myself constantly using it both on my computer and my phone. I’ve edited more photos this year with this product than any of the others – combined (especially on my phone) – and I didn’t even start using it regularly until March! While I hate the skin softening results, I do find that it does make images look great – often by default – so I’ve poured countless images through Perfectly Clear. If you haven’t seen or tried this one out yet – you MUST – it’s pretty good with no hassle. [Note: Lucid is the stand-alone version with some reduced features so check out my review for more info.]
  • Imagenomic Portraiture – I process a lot of portraits every year so I’m always re-exploring skin softening products to try to make this process easier. While many products have come a long way, there is still nothing better than Portraiture.
  • Topaz Labs B&W Effects – There’s lots of great products in this space, but if I’m going to advise a friend to spend their hard earned money on only one then I have to go with this one. Topaz Labs has emerged as the industry leader in innovation with an active community to support it. Yes, Silver Efex Pro is good, but I’ve yet to find myself unable to get the same or better results with B&W Effects, so I’ve finally given up on it in favor of B&W Effects.
  • Topaz Software’s ReMask –  This is the fastest and easiest tool to create complex masks fast. onOne Software’s Perfect Photo Suite has the potential to be greater, but I’ve just had a much harder time mastering the masking features. 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 recent versions of Photoshop. 
  • MacPhun Aurora HDR [Mac only] or HDRSoft Photomatix (esp with Trey Ratcliff’s Photomatix Presets) – If HDR is important to you then one of these has to be in the top 5. For as good as built-in HDR processing is in Photoshop and Lightroom, I still prefer stand alone applications. Aurora HDR is simply the best product on the market for HDR – bar none – but currently it’s only available on the Mac, so PC users will have to use the long-time industry standard Photomatix. Photomatix can create great results, but it’s cryptic controls can be difficult to master – especially if you want realistic results (and white clouds). Yes, you can go to Photoshop and work around its shortcomings, but Aurora HDR makes that easy to do in its UI without the need for Photoshop (or anything else).
  • Topaz Labs Texture Effects, Glow and Impression – These are the hottest new plug-ins on the market for a reason – they create amazingly original looking work from the most boring of images. I really, really, love these products, but I do wish that they were all just merged into one product.
  • Topaz Labs Restyle (alt review) – This is another one of those one click editing solutions that I love, but I don’t use it as much as I’d like to because it has so many choices! Seriously, I love choices but I sometimes find myself spending 20 minutes just pouring through all of the awesome choices it offers!

    It is very usefully for coming with up a “look” or “theme” for a project and leveraging favorites help reduce the time spent in the app. I adore this product and STRONGLY recommend you to check it out as this product is a game changer for those who want to focus on their photography, and not photo editing – yet still have professional results that don’t look like it was processed on Instagram.
  • on1 Perfect Resize – There was a time where this would have been in the top 3, 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. Sadly it’s a hidden feature that is an optional install for the latest version of the on1 Photo bundle. My review covers an older version, but nothing has really changed in this product for quite some time. Sadly you can only get this with the entire on1 Bundle.
  • Topaz Labs Simplify (review) – Great for turning your images into cartoons or drawings. It’s a cool app that I didn’t used to use that much, but I’ve learned that with the right scenes (especially leafy landscapes) it can create some exciting images that people want to buy. I also like to use it on busy backgrounds sometimes to remove distractions. This isn’t a product that most photographers would use every day, but when I pair it with the right image I often get a big grin on my face. Topaz Clean also is capable of doing this and more, so check it out while you are at it to see which works better for you. Personally, I tend to favor Simplify.

There’s of course a lot more that isn’t included here, so check out the Software Reviews section to the right or on my recommendations page to see if I’ve reviewed your favorite product. If you’d like my opinion one one not featured on my site then contact me.

What Happened to the Nik Collection by Google?

For as long as this blog has existed, I’ve been singing the praises of what used to be called the Nik Software Collection. They were the defacto standard by which all others were judged, and myself and so many others couldn’t live without it. However, my personal opinion of Google’s purchase of Nik Software, is that it seemed to be more of a patent grab than anything else as the innovation that Team Nik brought vanished after the acquisition (as well as many of the Nik employees).

If my calculations are correct, we are approaching 4 years since the last update of Color Efex and 2 years since the last update of anything (Analog Efex). As a result, it’s appears that these products are in sustained engineering mode. Given Google’s history of cutting products and services that aren’t part of their core business, I can’t escape the fear that one day an operating system change will come and we’ll hear that the Nik Collection will not be updated to support it.

With this in mind, I’ve been trying hard to wean myself off my favorite products like Color Efex, Silver Efex Pro, and Viveza for fear that I’d be up a creek without a paddle if I had an important job and they stopped working – with no plans to fix them.

I’ll be clear and state that these are still phenomenally good products, but if I’m going to advise my readers to spend their hard earned money then I want to point them to software solutions built by people with a ton of passion to make their products better (i.e., companies like Topaz Labs with their Complete Collection and MacPhun with their beautifully designed Creative Kit).  Sure, if you have bought the other recommended products and have an extra $149 to spare, then by all means pick these up as they are still quite good. However, I don’t recommend that people with limited funds make this their first purchase for the aforementioned reasons.

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. Topaz Labs Plug-In Bundle – It has taken some time, but Topaz Labs has gone from the bottom to the top thanks to so many creative and game changing products. I find myself using Adjust and B&W Effects quite a bit now. Texture Effects, Glow, Impression, ReStyle and Simplify highlight the amazing innovation coming out of this new industry leader in photo editing.

    These products can give your photos that wow with minimal effort allowing you to focus on photography instead of photo editing, and save shots that would otherwise be duds. I’m also a huge fan of ReMask when I have to do masking because it is much more accurate than Refine Edge in Photoshop. As a result, these 8 products easily justify the cost of the bundle (which is available at a discount on my blog).

    While many people swear by them, I don’t really use Clean, Detail, Lens Effects,or Star Effects that much, but the other products still make the bundle worth it. I don’t care for  DeNoise , so I always use Noiseware when I need to do digital noise reduction (from using higher ISO’s).

    This is my new “if you could only have one” bundle choice because it offers so much to help create new art from your photography, that I think it really deserves the top spot.
  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 for both photos and videos, so you may as well get the bundle. You’ll effectively get Real Grain for free, so it’s worth getting the bundle.
  3. MacPhun Creative Kit – This company has some of my friends from the once brilliant Nik Software, and its beautifully built user interface is the one by which all other products should aspire to mimic. While it lacks the brilliant U-Point controls that are the secret sauce of the Nik Collection, it has everything else and so much more. This is really a great solution for Mac users, but sadly isn’t on Windows yet so I can’t give it a better rating.
  4. Google Nik Collection – As I previously mentioned, this had been my favorite for many years. However, the product seems to be in maintenance mode with all of my Nik contacts leaving Google without any apparent replacements. Google has no meaningful financial interest in the product anymore, so I have concerns about its future. As a result, I’m reluctant to recommend it anymore, despite the brilliant software that remains.

    Yes, this is still a great product and I adore it, but I’m lost as to what Google is really doing for its future. As a result, IF you’ve got the other suites and a an extra $149 lying around then it’s a worthwhile investment – just make sure you have a plan B if it stops working unexpectedly in the future.
  5. on1 Photo 10 – I used to be a big fan of onOne Software, but this suite has been dumbed down so much with its confusing user interface that it’s left nothing really compelling to me anymore. I’m also tired of it coming out with new names and releases before they get the bugs out of the current one, so I really can’t get excited about this one anymore. Yes, Matt Klosowski makes it look pretty cool, but unless you’ve got his gift for photo editing, I think you’ll find yourself frustrated with the results you get with your own photos.
  6. Alien Skin Bundle – Alien Skin makes decent products, but with so much goodness offered these days I just don’t find myself saying “I need that” over the other products in my workflow.

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!

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

Adjust is a mainstay in many great photographers digital workflow because it’s a product that is so unique that really nothing competes with it. Topaz created this same kind of magic with Glow, Impression and ReStyle all of which are super hot sellers that I love. With ReMask still being the best manual masking solution and the strength of Simplify and B&W Effects, you really have a true artist toolkit with this bundle. Lens Effects, Clean, Detail. Star Effects  and InFocus add value but I just have so many plug-ins that I don’t have a need for them. I’m still not a fan of Denoise even though some readers swear by it.


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.

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.

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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? 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? 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. 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!

Unknown 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. 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.

Unknown 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 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)

Anonymous said...

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

Unknown said...

Hi Ron,

Thanks for mentioning us in your blog!

Alina from Macphun

DAVUD said...

NIK Collection via GOOGLE is now FREE for Windows/Mac!!! said...


Yes, thanks. I just blogged about it:

However, I fear it may mean the end of life for that product in the near future which would be a crying shame.

Unknown said...

is there any quality loss when using color efex pro? said...

Chamuditha Madusanka,

It depends on how geeky of an answer you want. Almost any alteration of the original pixels has some cost, but there's nothing you should be concerned about. You'll have more quality loss showing your photos on the web than anything the average plug-in will do.

Generally the biggest impact is the loss of tonal range and you have control of that by how much you use the effect, but even that can be desirable if the image looks better after editing.


Unknown said...

Hi Ron,
At this point, do you still recommend Topaz above all other Nik replacement options?
I'm ready to cut the cord with Nik and learn a new system.
Thanks said...


I need to update this article but if you are on Windows then Topaz is definitely my favorite right now. They are transitioning to a new platform called Topaz Studio that takes some getting used to but it has potential. I still prefer the full blown versions over Studio, but my workflow still is heavily integrated with Photoshop and Lightroom.

On the Mac side, Macphun is a good alternative with their products Aurora HDR 2018 and Luminar and a Windows Beta Version is out so it may become relevant on Windows next year.