Monday, April 15, 2013

Ask Ron: Do I need anything besides the Nik Collection to edit my photos?

Gyeongbokgung Palace in Nothing But Nik Collection
Gyeongbokgung Palace HDR in Nothing But Nik Collection

Gyeongbokgung Palace using multiple plug-ins
Gyeongbokgung Palace HDR using multiple plug-ins

With the great deal on the Nik Collection (click here) that’s everybody has been taking advantage of, I have been getting questions about the collection and where other products fit in. One of the most common questions is:

Can I do everything with just the Nik Collection?

The answer that is yes and no.

Here’s the thing – we all know that in theory you can do anything a third party add-in does in Photoshop by itself, so “technically” you don’t need any plug-ins. However, the reality is that many effects are hard to create and some are just so easy using plug-ins that it doesn’t make sense to roll your own. As a result we buy plugins to both make our lives easier and to add new tricks to our toolbox. 

What I’ve found is that the more tools that I have in that toolbox, the more I tend to use them which varies the outcome of how I edit a photo. Honestly if I used the same software and edited the same photo twice I’d probably have some variation (just like if you have two photographers photograph the same exact subject at the same time),  but I tend to vary more when I add more editing tools into my workflow.

Here’s the example images I used to test this theory using these three exposures:

Original 3 Images
Original 3 Images (-2, 0, +2 EV) Metered off the sky for the 0 Ev exposure
Canon 1D X, f/10 @ 28 mm, ISO 1000, No Flash

Since I wasn’t happy with any of the bracketed exposures I decided to do an HDR which was prefect for this test since the Nik Collection includes HDR Efex Pro 2 which did well in my HDR Comparison article. I also had noise since this required ISO 1000, so it also gave me a chance to use Dfine in one and my favorite product – Noiseware in the other. 

My restricted to Nik only workflow

Here’s how my layers palette ended up for the mostly Nik only version after using HDR Efex Pro (on the Background layer – after tone mapping):

Nik Collection by Google ONLY*

I have an asterisk here because I allowed myself to use Photoshop features like masking and the Photo Filter (for the dull sky to give it some nice blue color), but beyond that and standard healing brush stuff to clean sensor spots – this was an all Nik workflow for the first image in this article.

The workflow was basically HDR Efex, followed by noise removal with Dfine, then clean up some sensor spots. I then did some pre-sharpening on my clean base image using Sharpener Pro followed by some selective adjustments with Viveza. I warmed up the image with Brilliance / Warmth and then made some contrast adjustments using Pro Contrast – both from Color Efex. I then did a little more corrective work with Viveza and then used Silver Efex to create a low opacity layer to just give my midtones some more oomph (I do this quite often). Finally I didn’t like the sky color compared to the non-Nik only one so I used the same photo filter as below from Photoshop. I finished up with Sharpener Pro for the final creative sharpening.

Using whatever I wanted (my natural workflow)

Without any limitations, here’s how I processed this particular photo with all my plug-ins at my disposal. I did forget to try out Topaz Adjust which I use quite often, but it was getting late and I just forgot. That said, I’m satisfied with the results, so here’s how I got there:

Mixed Plugins starting with Photomatix

The big differences here was that I started by using Photomatix to do my HDR, then I brought that into Photoshop where I used Noiseware – my favorite noise reduction product. I was a little unhappy with the color cast so I used a white balance technique I learned in Welcome to Oz 2.

I made a little curves adjustment and then went to the Color Efex Skylight filter to give my image some warmth, but I used U-Point controls to remove the effect from the sky. I had forgot to clean my sensor spots, so I just did that here.

I then made the sky blue using the Photo Cooling Filter #82 that comes with Photoshop and then I worked on the sky issues I got from Photomatix. I then used my favorite filter, Tonal Contrast to give the image some nice color and detail. I warmed it up a bit more with the Brilliance and Warmth Filter. I then went to Perfect Photo Suite and used the Red Enhancer filter in Perfect Effects to give it that extra pop that makes it stand out from the Nik only version.

I finished up with some sharpening using PhotoKit just to mix things up.


The net result here is that I used different products and got different results. There’s so many variables involved that I don’t think this proves that one method is better than the other – they are just different. I’m satisfied with both versions, but I like the mixed products version better (and it was the one I did first).

To answer the question head on, I don’t think that you necessarily NEED any additional plugins after you have the Nik Collection. It’s a great group of products and you can see that I used some in both workflows. In fact, on any given image I might have used more Nik products (especially Viveza). However, I like the ability to use my favorite noise reduction software and explore different plug-ins. In this example I didn’t use too many, but very often I’ll use Portraiture with people and Topaz Adjust with pretty much any shot that doesn’t feature people.

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