** Look for Aug 2016 in the body for the updated section

There are a few Photoshop plug-ins out there specifically for us, photographers.   Even though you could do almost everything in PS without these plug-ins, however, with the right plug-ins, they will save you lots of time.

Without these plug-ins, your tasks will take a lot longer to get done and probably you’d not be as creative as you could with them.  The reason for this is basically very simple, at least for me.  With some of these plug-ins, you’d be able to experiment and see pretty much instantly the options/possibilities that your images might become, unless, you are pretty much know what you want as your final vision, which sometimes, happens.  Even with that vision in mind, you can still benefit from these plug-ins if you know how to use them well.

Let’s cut the story short, there are a few categories that I would list them as top photoshop plug-ins, based on what I know:

  • Image adjustment.
  • Raw conversion.
  • Noise reduction.
  • Images sharpen.
  • Lens effect.
  • Portrait related.
  • Clone tool.
  • Re-sample.

Caveat Emptor:

  • These are just my opinion, based on my experiences and use knowledge on these plugins and my style of photography.  Some plugins, due to the free-trial time allowed, I was not able to explore all of the options and functions, however, I believe that I’ve gone thru most of the more popular and basic functions of these.
  • All have some goodness and badness, but again, based on what I consider the best under my style and what I found useful for me.
  • Other people might find what I say here incorrect, or disagree with what I say here which is totally alright because their experiences, styles and knowledge might be totally different than mine.
  • Something that I say are not positive, might be perfectly fine for other people.
  • I run all of my PS under Windows 7 platform, others might have different opinion if they run on Mac.
  • The list that I have below are only the ones that I had the privileges to use, which does not mean that there are no other plug-ins besides these.

Order listed based on most favorable to least, however, the differences might be small, but in absolute ranking, that is my experience.

  • Image Adjustments:  These are based on general flexibility, stability and ease of use:
      • Nik Software Viveza 2, Color Efex Pro 4.  Incredible flexibility and speed.  Least prone to bugs and blow up while using them.  The proprietary Control Point local adjustment technology and multiple filter layer capability are their best selling point.  One you use these, you don’t want to use other local adjustment methods.

      • Topaz Lab.  Very fast and easy to use, however, I do think the Nik is just a tad easier to use, however, these plug-ins are very stable.

    • OnOne Suite.  Much better than previous version, however, a bit slower than Nik and Topaz and I do prefer the proprietary Control Points of the Nik software. With version 8, it seems to be more stable now. I don’t use it too much anymore and since both Nik and Topaz has given me all I need.
    • Alien Skin Exposure 6. This new version 6 is very nice. I like the ability to hover the cursor over the presets and a small window pops up to show you what your image looks like if you apply that preset. Also the right-side control pane is very clear and gives you a lot of flexibility. This new version is the one that I usually resort to when I want to see something else in my image and experiment or fine tune what I’ve already worked on with other plug-ins.Link to Alien Skin website
  • Raw Conversion:  This category is not easy to determine since all conversion software are so good now a day…however, there are still some that are a bit better, however, these are not going to significantly downgrade the image quality visibly.
      • Capture One 9.2.  If I don’t have LightRoom, I would buy this raw conversion and image processing software as my main one.Updated Aug 2016: My top Raw conversion software as of now.  Any chance I get, I use this software to see my raw files and depends on what I would want to do with my Raw images, either I use this directly to bring the images into Photoshop or if I have to merge them into Pano’s, then I use LightRoom.  I will write about this more in details of why one should switch.  However, at this point in time, I don’t totally switch to it yet, because I need it to provide me with the ability to merge multiple images into Pano’s without the needs to create TIFF files, then load them into Photoshop or other software to merge them.  This is one of the biggest hold-back that I see with Capture One as of now, and I wish that they provide that capability soon.   This is one of the advantages of LightRoom, which does give you so much flexibility!  (end of Aug 2016 update)

        The interface is nice and logical, and more importantly, the raw conversion and image adjustments are fantastic.  It seems like it doesn’t allow you to go overboard with your adjustments, says, the most common mistakes that I’ve made sometimes is to overly saturate the images at this stage, the pre-stage prior to transferring the images to PS for more post processing.  With version 8.1, it now allows you to transfer the edited images to PS and back, which is a great added feature that I missed before in previous version.  Due to this, I’ve downgraded DxO, and use it now as the general RAW conversion.  The only issue that some might hold back on this is their ability to support various lenses during the RAW conversion as in the Lightroom case, which supports almost all lenses on the market today.  For this reason, I still hold on to Lightroom.  Aslo, Capture One doesn’t require you to import your images first in order to work on them.

      • DxO Optics 10.  With these raw conversion, the resulted TIFF images are outstanding.  However, this is at the cost of an extra step in your workflow.  For me, I do want to be able  to have all of the other plug-ins incorporated into one interface, such as when I use LightRoom. I only use it when I believe that the shadow and highlight recovery process is needed for some under/overexposed image due to my carelessness, lack of time, weird conditions, etc… during photographing. Also, even the latest version 10, the interface still not as intuitive as Nik or Topaz.

      • LightRoom 6.4.  This is my main and currently raw conversion software since it is flexible and good enough to use without having to go thru many steps.  It does almost everything as well as the other ones, with all the flexibility and functions others might not have and the most important one is the tight integration with PS.  Last but not least, LightRoom presets are a joy to use, especially if you want to experiment with a variety of looks of your images in seconds!  In terms of Raw file conversion and post-image processing options, it is as flexible as other ones listed above, and 90% of the time, perfectly great.  The order of listing is basically based only on RAW conversion quality, and the other ones above might be just a tad bit better, but not by much, and probably not as noticeable as I made it to be, but noticeable nevertheless.  However, this one remains the one that I use most often because of a few important points:
        • Very fast.  This is due to the fact that it requires the new images to be imported and during the process, it generates the thumbnails as well, and in this case, you only pay for this once, not every time you open the software.
        • Integration with most other plug-ins and especially PS.
        • Most importantly, it supports PSB file type AND it will bring in all of your layers in the images to PS when you bring them to PS from Lightroom.
        • With version 6.4, the 3 most new features that I’ve been using are:  HDR merge, Pano Merge, and Dehaze.  These features save me countless of hours spent on using other external products.

  • Noise Reduction:
    • Imagenomic Noiseware.
    • Nik Define.
    • Topaz Denoise.
  • Image Sharpener:
    • My own methods, since depending on the images and the areas of the images, I apply different types of sharpening.
    • Topaz Details
    • Nik Sharpener Pro
    • ***NEW****  Piccure+.  A break through product in the area of image sharpening!  Its unique image sharpening effect surpasses any products mentioning previously!  According the website, the technology has been developed thanks to a sophisticated set of algorithms and the latest deconvolution routines (link to the website).
      The sharpening effect is so natural and addictive that after a few tries on your previous developed images and you’ll be hooked!  I’m going thru some of my previous processed images and trying them as I’m writing this.   If your lenses are not already the sharpest, or if the corner performance is not as good as the center, you can basically apply the plugin, then mask out the center of  the images, then you’d have an image that is sharpen all over.   If you already have the sharpest lenses from Nikon, Canon and Zeiss, etc…, then the true effects can’t be seen clearly at small display, however, when you’ll blow it up to 100%, you’ll see the differences more clearly.  Basically, if you frequently do large prints,  you’ll see the obvious benefits at that level.  Furthermore,  if you don’t have the best and sharpest lenses, the product will be even more beneficial, from displaying your images on the web, in small resolutions or prints.  I encourage you to try it out and see.  I’ve and enthusiastically recommended this product.  Caveat emptor:  Due to its sophisticated algorithm to perform the process, it can be very slow on less powerful workstations, and sometimes, with Photoshop CC (Windows 10), it never comes back and I have to close its background process to force it to save the work, and come back to my Photoshop session.  I hope they’ll come up with a fix or tell me how to get around this issue.
  • Lens Effect:
    • Topaz Lens Effects.  This is such a unique plug-in that allows you to simulate lens specific bokeh, such as the Canon 85mm f1.2.  Even though the end results might not be exactly like what the real lenses give you, but close.  I did use it on some images to great effects, however, it might take some work to do, if you really want the final results to look realistic and not too obvious.
    • Nik Software Efex Pro 4 also offers some options to create bokeh with one of the its filter, and I do use it once in a while.
    • OnOne Focal Point.  This is a great plug-in when you want to create vignette and blur for your images.
  • Portrait Related:
    • Imagenomic Portraiture:  A great plug-in to smooth skin and adjust skin tone.
  • Cloning Tool:
      • Photoshop CS6 tools, which are what I use most of the times.

    • Topaz Lab ReMask 3.
  • Image Re-sample, Blowup:
      • OnOne Perfect Resize 7.5.  The most natural image resize available today.  This 7.5 version is a lot faster than previous version for either down-scale or up-scale images.  Just tried it today and it seems to be at least 8 times faster than the older version.
      • Alien Skin Blowup 3.  I tried it and for most cases, produces great results and very fast, however, I do prefer the natural look of the end-results from the Perfect Resize.

Hope that this might help some of you when determining which plug-ins to buy.  And base on what I have listed so far, you can see that there is no one-size-fits-all.  Some plug-ins are great for certain purposes.

You can give me feedback if you’d like, however, like I said before, these are my own experiences and opinion and does not represent opinions for all.  You might like other plugins much better than the order that I listed them above…but it is all one’s references and most will do wonderful jobs if you know and like the looks and feels, and most importantly the end results.

NEW!!!!  Nikon 20mm F1.8 Compared to Zeiss 21mm and Nikon 16-35mm

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