Digital Workflow Tools

Plug-Ins!I thought it would be good to review the tools (aka plugs-ins) that I use for my digital workflow. I primarily use Adobe Photoshop, the gold standard in image editing, for all of my image work. It can be intimidating to begin working with Photoshop and while it truly is an amazing application, it is also a little daunting to get the results you want. For this reason, I’ve found it much easier to go with plug-in tools that do a whole lot of work without a whole lot of work. Of course, I still use the standard repertoire of Photoshop tools, such as curves, levels, hue/saturation and so on…but for advanced functions and things that cannot easily be done within PS, it’s just easier to spend a few bucks on a plug-in.

I also have also tried not to over-do the plug-ins that I use…I definitely apply the KISS philosophy here. I require “bang for the buck”…one could spend thousands on plug-ins, and frankly, I’ll only spend money on things that will provide results. Two of my absolute requirements for any plug-in that I might use are that it works with 16 bit images and will work with automation via Photoshop’s actions.

  • First up, noise reduction. Anyone that outputs to larger print sizes, has a point & shoot camera or uses a high ISO in their digital photographs needs to consider noise reduction. It’s essential when you go beyond about 8″x10″ prints as noise becomes too distracting, unless that’s the “look” you’re going for. There’s a lot of options out there, but I use Noise Ninja from Picture Code. It’s mostly automated, has plenty of tweaks for getting it just right and best of all, works on 16 bit images. I’ve tried a few plug-ins of this nature, but finally settled on this for my solution.
  • Next, I absolutely fell in love with the products from PixelGenius. I didn’t care for the results of their sharpening plug-in, PhotoKit Sharpener, but both their PhotoKit and PhotoKit Color 2.0 products are top notch. The plug-ins are built with the photographer in mind and provide an array of tools that, anymore, I would be lost without.

PhotoKit Color 2.0, from PixelGenius, is probably my favorite plug-in of all. With an extensive array of tools for a color photographer, it’s amazing what one can do. Want to enhance the shadows or boost the contrast? No problem. Want to darken or lighten the blue/green/red/etc? Absolutely. Want to raise or lower the exposure? Check. Color correction? Sure. Film effects such as various chromes? Done deal. A color overlay? Cake. Split toning effects? Yep. Cross Processing? Part of the package. Burn or dodge using gradients over parts of the image? Included. It’s rather amazing what one can acheive from this plugin alone and almost every one of my images sees something out of this kit. What I like most about it, though, is that it applies the changes as a layer, which means you get much more creative control over the final effect when you play with opacities and other layering effects.

Second from PixelGenius, the PhotoKit plug-in. This is primarily designed for black and white work and provides a wide gamut of tools for B&W photography. It gives the photographer a large number of B&W conversion methods, color casts such as sepia, a standard array of contrast correction and several other tools. For B&W photography, this tool is one of the better ones I’ve found for pure flexibility and bang for the buck. Almost all of my B&W work is done with this tool. The only thing it’s lacking is a preview capability, which is found in the PhotoKit Color plug-in above. Hopefully they’ll bring this product up to par so we can preview the results without having to constantly undo/redo if we’re not happy with the results.

  • Next, sharpening. After far too much time spent learning the finer points of Unsharp Mask and Smart Sharpen, I sought a sharpening plugin that was much more predictable. The tool I settled on was Nik Sharpener Pro 2.0. What I liked about it was the extensive output methods that allow one to apply just enough sharpening for the output method that will be used. Anyone that knows anything about sharpening knows that an image must be sharpened differently for the output of choice, be it the web, an inkjet printer, or a professional printing service. This tool provides all of that in one package and all I have to think about is: how sharp do I want the image to be? I’ve had some trouble with using this app in PS actions, so I’m still looking for a similar tool (or upgrade) that will provide great results with better automation capabilities. I’ve found this to be OK as sharpening is usually a manual step, anyhow, that is performed near the final stage of image output.
  • Finally, I use Genuine Fractals for image enlargement. When I need to print images at a larger resolution than my camera’s output, I prefer to use a 3rd party application to resize the image. From my research, the 3rd party apps simply provide better enlargement results, although some argue that the “stair-stepping” method may be superior. While I don’t believe GF’s hype of 1000% image enlargement without loss of quality, it does a great job when I approach 100-200% enlargement, or so. Though my prints are usually 12″x18″ and below, I’ve printed up to 20″x30″ from an 8 megapixel image and the quality was superb enough for my purposes. (I started with a good image, however. Crap in, crap out very much applies here.) It does the job…there may be better stuff out there these days…but I’ve been using this for 3 years and it works for me.

That’s really it…like I said, keep it simple stupid. I only need what I can’t easily replicate in Photoshop with minimal effort. The way I see it, the more options there are, the more time I’ll spend exploring them and the further I get from the original image. I go with what works and what suits my needs…and have so far, resisted the urge to be a plug-in junkie.

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