Saturday, April 13, 2013

REVIEW: Nik Software Color Efex 4–The Most Important Plug-in You Can Buy

Nik Software Color Efex 4
Color Efex Pro 4 by Nik Software

When I finally gave up on trying to do everything myself in Photoshop, I began a mission to find the best plug-in for the buck. I am super tight when it comes to my money so I didn’t want to waste a penny on something that wasn’t going to pay for itself tenfold. After much research in early 2008 I ended up buying Nik Software Color Efex 3.0 Complete because its wealth of high quality plug-ins and performance stood above and beyond anything else I had ever tried.

The $300 I invested in Color Efex was the best money I’ve ever spent. Since that fateful day my photography went from being ordinary and forgettable to something that led to the birth of this blog and all of the success that followed. Nearly every photo I’ve edited has some usage of Nik Software and 99% of them include at least one or more filters from Color Efex. In short, this product changed my life and launched my career! No other product on the planet can make that claim, so when I took on the task of reviewing the new 4.0 version I wondered – how in the hell is Nik Software going to top that?!!!!

The User Interface


The Old 3.0 User Interface


The New 4.0 User Interface

When I first reviewed Color Efex in March of 2008 I had limited experience with Photoshop plug-ins and a nearly 20 career of developing user-interfaces (part of which was at one of the most successful software companies in the world). I worked on user-interfaces that changed the lives of hundreds of millions of people with some of the best designers money could hire, so my bar was crazy high. My review of Color Efex 3.0’s user interface (UI) was harsh to say the least. In fact, I was downright hostile about it! I had no experience with the state of plug-ins in this industry, so the lack of simple features like a maximize button or proper zoom was maddening to me. I’m happy to report that since the late 2011 release of Color Efex Pro 4, my faith in what is possible has been renewed.

The new user interface in some ways is familiar which is a great thing for those who are migrating. However, it’s also vastly improved which is even better for those who hated the limitations of the old UI. The new improvements begin with the support for “layers” of filters that can be enabled and disabled, reordered, and even saved as a collective “recipe” for future use. Here’s a look at the new right panel:

Nik Software Color Efex 4 Right Panel

Everything we liked before is still there but what’s really great is that the stack able filters act much like Photoshop & Lightroom’s concept of non-destructive edits when you are in Color Efex. There’s also Viveza 2’s wonderful concept of U-Point control groups and the ability to easily see the masks being created by your control points via clicking in the right hand column across from them.

You are free to experiment to your hearts content and your image is never touched until you hit Ok/Brush (in Photoshop or Save in Aperture & Lightroom). This gives you the freedom to try different things, experiment with the order of filters, and even the opacity to build the perfect solution that you can then reuse by saving a recipe. What’s more is that you can even see your history and traverse through the steps of your progress:

Nik Software Color Efex 4 History Panel

This is powerful stuff that I demo in my video later in this article because it’s hard to appreciate in a static image on a blog. What’s even more amazing though is that the recipes not only save all of your hard work, it also makes real-time preview possible on your future images – a feature that is ironically absent from the stand alone filters for reasons I don’t quite fathom.

Nik Software Color Efex 4 Recipes Panel

Your recipes may then be exported and shared with friends, assistants and more importantly your other machines! This is good stuff folks, so don’t underestimate the value of this feature when you are trying to decide if you should upgrade. For some, this time saver may alone justify the upgrade cost!

Of course, all of this great user interface stuff is useless if it doesn’t create “wow” images. After all, that’s why you buy a product like this right? I’m happy to say that the wow factor of my images has definitely increased since I started using this product as you can see from a couple examples here:


Before (Notice the eyes, teeth and background buildings)


After (notice the color of the jacket)


Before


After

These images have the impact that they do thanks to Color Efex 4 (and in some cases other enhancements from the Nik Software family of products).

Okay, the UI is great, but what about the filters?

Nik Software Color Efex 4 Tonal Contrast
Tonal Contrast is the secret of the Pro’s
It’s back but WAY better than 3.0

This is the #1 question I get from readers and friends. Everyone wants to know if the filters are basically the same and a few useless ones added. I’m here to tell you that while it is true that many filters haven’t changed (if it ain’t broke, why fix right?) that some of the best have been improved for the better. Tonal Contrast is by far the biggest secret of the pros to make their images have the pop and contrast that pleases without looking tacky, so during the beta when Nik Software changed it they got some harsh feedback. Fortunately this was a good thing because the final result is perfection! It now offers 5 contrast types with a new standard that is just perfect on everything but people 99% of the time. For people you’ll usually want to kill the midtones or choose a different contrast type, but you’ll find plenty of happiness with this one.

Nik Software Color Efex 4 Pro Contrast

Others like Pro Contrast were craptacularly bad in 3.0 have now been improved so that they are worthy of the name “pro”. I can’t tell you what Dynamic Contrast really does, but it works. The correction sliders are going to be a life saver for newbies as well.

Nik Software Color Efex 4 Reflector Efex

I’ve always been a huge fan of the reflector filter in the prior release. I called it the “save my ass” filter for the times when I forgot to flash fill, so I’m happy to say that it’s got some subtle improvements that are sure to please.

image 
Color Film Efex: Vintage – Think of it as Silver Efex in Color

There’s also a lot of improvements in the film simulations including the new Film Efex: Vintage filter that has 29 film types to choose from (unfortunately numbered and not named). You can also change the features of the effect so users of Silver Efex will feel right at home. It is really like the color film version of Silver Efex which probably could have sold successfully as a stand alone product. It’s inclusion in this complete collection here is sure to please.

There’s also several other new ones like Detail Extractor which is great for pulling details out of soft images, image borders for fast and flexible borders, and various contrast related filters to help you build your signature look for your photos.

There’s good stuff here and you’ll get your money’s worth out of the upgrade in a hurry.

Performance

When Color Efex 4 is running, the performance is excellent. Even when stacking multiple images I’ve had extremely fast response times thanks to the use of video card hardware acceleration. If your video card doesn’t support this feature, then your experience may differ. I also have 8GB of RAM on my 5 year old Dell XPS 420 where I do most of my work, and on my last generation MacBook Pro so I’m sure that the memory helps too. In fact, on the Mac the performance is just blazing fast, but sadly on the PC I’ve noticed that Color Efex 4 really has slowed down the start time of Photoshop CS5 drastically. I also have had a 300% slow down launching Color Efex 4 versus 3 on my PC using the default Photoshop user settings. From Lightroom the launch time was about twice as fast on the PC, and smoking fast on the Mac so I suspect I need to dial in the right plug-in performance settings on the PC side to get this working better.

I haven’t had any issues with crashing since I got the retail build, but I do religiously save my file before launching ANY plug-in as a security measure. Fortunately I’ve never had to deal with a crash where that actually helped me though.

I did experience some slowdowns when I had multiple Dynamic Skin Softener filters loaded at one time, but only when used stand alone from Lightroom on the PC. This feature isn’t nearly as good as Portraiture so I find myself needing several and U-Point controls to get a similar level of results that usually end up being a tad bit more waxy that I’d like. Fortunately the opacity sliders save the day there!

Video Review and Tutorial


Play in HD

If you enjoyed this, you may also enjoy my Color Efex 4 Tutorial where I edit three more images in more detail than what is featured here. Here are two of those images from the video tutorial including their before and after:


Before


Seattle Sunset
Top Before and Bottom After


Before


Outdoor Model
Top Before and Bottom After

Conclusion

Version 3.0 of this product changed my life, and 4.0 takes everything that was good about that and added a whole ton of new greatness. If I was only allowed to run one plug-in on my computer for Aperture, Lightroom or Photoshop this would be the product – no if’s, and’s, or but’s about it.

If you are tired of dull images that just don’t have the color pop or oomph of your photography idols images, then this is what you are missing. Yes, you can do much of this stuff in stand-alone Photoshop without it, few possess the skill to do it as well – and no one can do it as fast as you can using this product (especially when you consider the speed of U-Point controls).

In my opinion, this remains as the best plug-in on the market for Aperture, Lightroom and Photoshop. It will improve the quality of your images, it will save you time, and it will put a smile on your face when you learn how to use it effectively. If you only own one product after Lightroom (and ideally Photoshop) to help make your images look better, this is without question the product you should get. I give it my highest possible recommendation.

Existing owners of ANY Nik Software product get the upgrade for free, so just install the Nik Collection by Google.

Don’t believe me? Watch my videos here and then download the free unobstructed trial version from Nik’s web site to try it for yourself. Use the filters I mention above and see for yourself why I’m such a fanboy of this awesome product!

See my What Plug-ins Should I Buy? article for more of my thoughts on the best plug-ins for Aperture, Lightroom and Photoshop on the market these days.

Special Offer

This info has moved to here:

Nik Complete Collection by Google
now only $149 ($126.65 with coupon code)

Other articles you may enjoy

If you enjoyed this article, then you might enjoy these as well…

Disclosure

I may get a commission if you make a purchase using links in this offer and/or my coupon code.

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.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ron - Thanks for the info... I concur... Nik Software has empowered my minimal PS Skills and have allowed my Images to really have a special look... U-Point Technology is the Best !!! T

Jim Clark said...

Great review. I don't know what I'd do without Color Efex and some of other Nik products.

Sean Daniel said...

I have to also agree with Ron's post. I *was* a huge camera only photographer and I just couldn't get the photos to pop like I saw them in my mind. Ron's Color EFex 3 post convinced me to get that. It was good, but the nag was a little harder to use than 4.

I took a free NIK Webinar (which are awesome by the way) and thought 4 was *way* easier to navigate.

I picked up Color EFex 4 and noticed instantly that I can get more pop from my pics, I also notice that the images that I share that are processed with 4 get more "likes".

Unknown said...

Hi Ron, I found your blog while bumbling around looking for reviews and tutorials on Nik software, and I am so glad I did. Not only is your site full of really useful information, but I used your Nik Order Form for European sales, and am now the happy owner of the Complete Collection for Lightroom :) Thank you!

rubenn said...

Dear Ron

Having read with great interest your review of Dfine I find that the code "martinsen" is not recognised by the company and therefore I cannot take advantage of the 15% discount. Has this offer expird? I notice that the article was written in 2009
Best

RubennDovar

Ron Martinsen said...

RubennDovar,

The coupon code is RMARTINSEN - you missed the R.

You can also use the code RONMART at this time.

In the future, always check the discount codes tab at the top of the blog for the latest codes just to be sure.

Anonymous said...

Make your mind up Ron, one day OnOne is tne best thing in tne world, then the next day it's Nik, we are all starting to think that you will promote - say anything for a five :)

Paul

Anonymous said...

Following your blog closely! One question: Your don't discuss the difference between select edition and complete edition. I would like to see two or three words about the value for money comparing editions.

gauteov

Ron Martinsen said...

Anonymous,

You don't discuss the difference between select edition and complete edition.

The reason why I don't discuss it is twofold.

1. In the longrun, the Complete edition is a better value as the buy select and upgrade to complete path isn't very cost effective.

2. The select edition lacks the #1 most popular filter - Tonal Contrast - the crown jewel of the Nik Software filters. This is the "if I could only have one filter" filter.

Select does offer some decent filters, and if it had Tonal Contrast I'd probably say that if you were really strapped for cash then go for it. However, it doesn't have TC (and never will - TC is too important to give away in the entry level edition).

If you use the trial, one thing to keep in mind about Tonal Contrast. You'll want to set midtones to 0 in many cases to avoid skin looking awful. Sometimes you also need to zero out its saturation boost too.

Ron

Ron Martinsen said...

Paul,

Ouch, don't hold back and tell me how you really feel - ha, ha! However, I'm glad you raised that question though.

For starters, there are a bunch of good plug-ins out there that I do honestly like and am impressed with. However, I realize that doesn't help people who don't have the luxury of having them all. To help with that reality I wrote my
What plugins should I buy? article where I draw a line in the sand and stack rank the most popular ones.

Now I'll admit that I need to update that article because onOne has made huge progress and Topaz is a improving and offers fantastic value.

In my article I also list them based on importance because I might like Viveza quite a bit, but most people will need a noise reduction program more than Viveza.

As to the anything for a buck comment, I'd also like to point out that I've tried to be up front that this blog is a business and I do hope to earn income for my effort. Unlike most of my competitors I'm very up front about disclosing when I'm given products to test (either free or loaners) as well as the possibility for me to profit. Do you see others disclosing that? (and in most cases they are MUCH more profitable than this site)

Unlike most other sites, I also give "bad" reviews or point out flaws in products. This has pissed off my partners on many occasions, but I've always said that if people want press release reviews they can go to most magazines and other sites for that. On this blog, I offer honest feedback that I'd give a friend.

With all that said, I can't use every plug-in. I have m own workflow - some of which is based on habit. If I don't use another product, it's typically not because I don't like it - it's just because it overlaps something else i"m already used to using. I also recognize that some people have reasons for preferring the onOne suite or Topaz suite more than the Nik suite, and that's fine because they are good products too.

I write reviews for as many products as I can so my readers can have the info they need before buying, upgrading or switching to a different product or suite. I also make readers aware of promotions (such as the recent onOne deal for Nik Software owners), which is probably why you might be asking this. I don't see people "switching" to onOne from Nik - I actually see them using them both for their individual strengths - as I do.

I hope that helps to clear things up - if not, fee free to write me offline.

Wes Odell said...

You say "Photoshop," but does it work with "Photoshop Elements?"
As always: Thanks
wes odell

Ron Martinsen said...

Wes,

Yes it is supported by most, not all, Nik products:

www.niksoftware.com/support/usa/entry.php?view=system_requirements_compatibility

audimackid said...

Ron,

My initial reaction was the same as Paul's - it seemed that one day you were saying that onOne's Perfect Photo Suite may be poised to knock Nik off the throne, and the next day you once again highly praise Color Efex Pro 4.

I am a long-time user of Nik's Complete Collection, and in particular Color Efex Pro 4. I was tempted enough by your recent promotion to purchase Perfect Photo Suite. While I haven't had a chance to give all of the Perfect Suite plugs-ins a complete try, I have to agree with your comment to Paul - I don't see people switching from Nik to onOne but rather using them in combination. As you said in your review of Perfect Suite, Perfect Resize is perfect and Perfect Portrait works very well. Both of these compliment the Nik software.

Ron Martinsen said...

audimackid,

Exactly - while they have overlap, I wouldn't consider them an either OR proposition.

Naturally if you can only afford one you'll make due, and both suites offer enough compelling features that you'll do just fine. However, if you have both then you have the luxury of picking and choosing your favorite features from both - as I do (as I also do with Topaz and Imagenomic as well).

Sorry for all of the confusion. My primary reason for bringing these articles back up (and they are both old articles) was so people who were new to my blog could read my old reviews and then decide if they wanted to pick up a Nik product so they could get a deal on the onOne Suite. Color Efex is the product I'd recommend they do that with and you'd have the best of both worlds!

Ron

Anonymous said...

Paul...

Don't mind me Ron, and first of all thanks for your reply, I am considering one suite, while I can afford both I can do without the learning curve and complicating my workflow and life, even though both excel in different areas, right now I am leaning towards OnOne, my line of taught is now that google has Nik well they are like everyone, out to make money and I feel they will simplify it in order to appeal to the masses rather than the expert editor..
Again thanks for the blog and sorry for my lack of diplomacy ok rudeness :)

Paul in Ireland.

Ron Martinsen said...

Paul,

Ha, ha - no I'm glad you spoke up as I think a few other people felt the same way you did.

It was worthwhile for me to respond to keep people from misunderstanding my intentions.

Best wishes,
Ron

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for the discount code... I ran accross this and was so thankful for the savings.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for the discount code!

David Salahi said...

Excellent overview of the Nik Software. Even though I continue to maintain and improve my Photoshop skills I still find myself going first to Nik Software for most of my photo editing because of the time savings. Their control points are fabulous, eliminate so much time spent masking. And the new, low price is irresistible.

Pino Pinto said...

Hi Ron,

I'm a (very) amateur photographer, and so far my workflow is entirely based on Lightroom 4 and Scott Kelby's The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 Book for Digital Photographers great tips.

Since as far as I understand Nik Complete Collection, which I'm considering to buy, completely overlaps (and goes far beyond) Lightroom development tools, I'm curious whether you still use (or recommend) anything in LR Develop module or use LR just as a digital asset manager.

Ron Martinsen said...

Pino,

No, that's not quite correct. Photo editing begins in the Develop tab to correct the exposure, white balance, crop, etc... but you use Color Efex to finish your photo. This is where you take the photo from ordinary to extraordinary using one of the many filters that offer stylistic effects that are not easy (and in some cases impossible) to create in Lightroom.

Color Efex is not a RAW editor or asset management tool, so it doesn't replace Lightroom - it complements Lightroom.

Color Efex is the secret sauce of many great pro photographers, so I encourage you to download the free trial and check it out. If you decide you like it then be sure to come back here and use my link and code so you can get a discount!

Keep in mind that Google is ending the discount program at the end of July so act soon if you want to get the discount!