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:
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:
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.
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)
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
Top Before and Bottom After
Top Before and Bottom After
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.
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.
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