So you've set up all your hardware and software and have a great workflow practice in place, but there's that one thing missing - something to make everything just that bit easier! Enter the world of plug-ins...
Plug-ins, as the name suggests, effectively ‘add on' or ‘plug-in' to your existing software to work in harmony with the current set-up. Different plug-ins have different functions but will usually be a series of presets to make otherwise time-consuming tasks much quicker. Otherwise many releases may develop a plug-in to render standalone processes that improve the existing capabilities found in the original main software being used. Think of guitarists who use effects pedals to manipulate the sound, for example; a plugin is a similar idea: that one-click solution to adjust the final output in an instant.
There are endless examples of products available. Photographers of old may miss choosing specific film types that would have their own idiosyncratic qualities. Yes, you could tweak the colours endlessly in Photoshop to obtain a similar look to, say, Fuji Velvia, but there'll be a plug-in out there that takes away that pain of time and has it all ready to go in a single mouse click.
Other packages will be able to provide a whole portfolio of borders to use around your images. These can range from pseudo-film edges and emulsion finishes through to more complex wooden frame types.
Other packages seek to improve on existing technology. Take image resizing or noise reduction, for example - these processes depend on a series of clever instructions to carry out the end process. Because Photoshop or other software does this in one way doesn't mean that it can't be done differently or perhaps even better - again, where plug-ins come into play.
Photoshop, PaintShop Pro, Aperture and plenty of other software can receive plug-ins, but a word of warning - when your main software gets updated your plug-in provider's software may not be immediately compatible with the newer version (often due to 32 and 64-bit installs being entirely separate). Also, buying the one plug-in won't always make it available to all your compatible programs. Running Apple Aperture and Adobe Photoshop won't always mean that a single plug-in install will become available in both, unless purchasing a separate download for each.
Check with the manufacturer to ensure you're getting the multiple-compatibility you expect prior to purchase.
There are lots of plug-ins to take your pick from - some free, some affordable, while others have a much heftier asking price. Here we lay out some of the better ones across the range.
Round Up: Best Photography Software Plug-ins
onOne Genuine Fractals 6 $160 ($300 Professional Edition)
Genuine Fractals is designed for resizing images. When an image is made smaller or larger, the process requires either taking away or adding pixels that aren't, technically speaking, present in the original. This can result in detail loss if not done in an advanced way. Though Photoshop does a great job of resizing, Fractals - and particularly upscaling we're talking about here - does a much better one. When making an image larger, which may be required for professional stock libraries or billboard use, this is the way to do it for optimum results. Available for Photoshop, Lightroom and Aperture.
Pros: Impressively effective for upscaling images
Cons: Intensive process so can be very time-consuming per image (depending on scale)
onOne PhotoFrame 4.5 Pro £100
PhotoFrame 4.5 has a wide selection of frame masks that can be placed around your images, but are also advanced enough to integrate with them. For example, if you want your image to look 100 years old then you may want a scruffy painted-on-emulsion look with various faded-out sections. PhotoFrame 4.5 can do this and much more thanks to over 1,100 frames, film types and edges in total.
Pros: Free version with just 20 frames available as a taster
Cons: Non-photographic frames have limited use
onOne Mask Pro 4 $160
Mask Pro's absolute super-strength is hair or similarly tricky subject matter. Rather than working on a contrast basis Mask Pro differentiates colour which, for the right subject matter, makes it an indispensible tool. It doesn't work for all situations and can frustrate just as much as the next masking tool. Great when it's on form, but not perfect for all scenarios.
Pros: Different methodology for masking selection, ideal for hair and similar
Cons: Photoshop CS5's quick selection, mask and selective colour tools may negate the need for Mask Pro
onOne FocalPoint 2 $160
Wide aperture lenses produce a blurred background, an effect that FocalPoint 2 attempts to simulate. With the right image this can be done, but the nature of depth of field means that adding a plane of focus doesn't work the same as at the stage of capture. For what it can do FocalPoint 2 is a fun way to introduce aperture effects and has plenty of user-definable control to ensure quick masks cover all the right areas.
Pros: Good control of blur quality
Cons: Limited practical use, tricky to produce believable results
Photomatix HDR Pro $100
Dynamic range is the amount of picture information available
between shadow and highlights.
High dynamic range (HDR) can be achieved by combining multiple exposures to bring out shadow and highlight detail. Though Photoshop can do this, Photomatix HDR Pro
gives more control over the final image and provides a different calibre of result too.
Pros: Best results, better control than other methods
Cons: Similar process now available inside Photoshop
DxO Film Pack 2 £59
DxO's film pack can recreate your favourite film of old or create a believable cross-processed print. Choose from original film types for accurate colour and grain renditions - you can even pick the subtlety of inaccurate lab prints by adding colour casts. Even those not aware of specific film names or the nostalgia of shooting in that format will get plenty out of the quick control on offer here.
Pros: Can't accidentally overwrite files (Save As only)
Cons: Desperate for a ‘reset' button, not always responsive
Nik Sharpener Pro 3 £159
Sharpening is an integral process for optimum output results. Nik's Sharpener Pro allows for selective sharpening, detailed controls and a loupe to zoom in for a pinpoint before and after preview. It's possible to sharpen by user-defined colours for ultimate advanced use too. One for the real pros who want very specific pre-Raw open and final print output sharpening control.
Pros: Absolute control, very advanced, good user interface and preview
Cons: Unnecessarily advanced for some users
Neat Image Pro Plus 6 $80
While Raw processing software offers some noise reduction, you can opt for Neat Image's Pro Plus 6 to take control instead. The plug-in uses an area of little visible detail within an image to measure the amount of noise present as a base to make accurate adjustments from. With an advanced mode it's possible to manually adjust brightness, sharpness, luminance and colour noise levels with low, mid and high density control.
Pros: Detailed control, isolates noise where there is no visible detail
Cons: User interface, Adobe Camera Raw 6 has very good noise reduction
Nik Silver Efex Pro £159
For those who take black and white conversion seriously, Nik's Silver Efex Pro is the perfect tool. Built-in traditional black and white film types mimic films of old, with an independent grain control feature too. Six colour filters add yet more control to produce images with specific black-to-white ratio. It's even possible to mask layers and brush the desired effect in - ideal for colour popping or controlling creative colour fall-off.
Pros: Detailed controls, great results, real film types mimicked
Cons: Controls get a bit ‘clumped together' to the right hand side
Nik Viveza 2 £199
Viveza 2 provides a platform to make localised adjustments, for example the sky in a landscape. Simply adding a new control point with no complex selection needed sees the program intelligently work on the localised area with the ability to adjust Brightness, Contrast, Saturation, Structure and Curves. This is an ultimate tool for speeding up post-production and works extremely effectively.
Pros: Easy to use, very effective, a great time-saver
Cons: Should encompass a wider range of adjustment tools
Auto FX Mystical Lighting 2 $199
Auto FX's Mystical Lighting tool has a wide selection of tools such as vignette control, lens flare, film grain and a whole host of others. It's a nice idea, though the slow running speed and general feeling of separation from the main program make it feel sluggish which limits the appeal. There's a good degree of control on each effect and they're easy to manipulate as desired.
Pros: Lots of possibilities
Cons: Really slow, feels entirely separate rather than a plug-in, pricey
PixelGenius PhotoKit Sharpener $100
PixelGenius's PhotoKit series introduces the Sharpener tool. Many may question the need for anything other than Photoshop to sharpen for any need, but PhotoKit Sharpener provides a professional non-destructive three-pass sharpening solution. Though the user interface may seem a bit basic, this is irrelevant when considering the final results. Pros will love it for superb results, though it may not be necessary for all users.
Pros: More affordable than competitor products, non-destructive options
Cons: Basic user interface, Layer approach mean large non-flat file sizes