Friday, March 16, 2012

Plugins vs. Photoshop

I've used Adobe's Lightroom for my raw processing ever since the first version. There are other processors and catalog programs that are just as capable, and devoted users of each swear by their favorite. Because of the limited development capabilities in that first version I needed to take the plunge into the deep intricacies of Photoshop. Because there was so much functionality available, I had to decide to do what I needed and forgot about the rest. As Lightroom improved with each successive generation I tried to rely less and less on Photoshop, but there were many things that were not possible in Lightroom.

I watched demonstrations by the various developers at photo shows of how the plugins they were marketing worked. I wasn't impressed because I thought I could do the same thing in Photoshop, if I could learn the proper technique. That's a big 'if'. The manipulations that each plugin could do, if done in Photoshop, would require hours of learning and practice, and then, if I could do the manipulation, lots of time at the computer to do the procedures. 

At one point I threw up my hands. I often shoot in low light situations - at concerts, in warmup rooms, in churches and synagogues, in deep shadows on there street - and had to push my ISO to the limit. I needed some kind of processing that would perform adequate noise reduction, better than what Lightroom was  offering in version 1. I tried a number of plugins and felt most comfortable with the intuitive interface of Nik Software's Dfine. It really did the trick for me, but the downside was, as with all noise reduction software, the image was softened slightly. So, I tried Nik's Sharpener Pro. The interface was very similar to Dfine, and again, was very intuitive.

I began my photography odyssey as a b/w film shooter and wet darkroom developer. Having tried quite a number of different procedures for converting my RAW color images into b/w, and not being satisfied with any of them, I gave Nik's SIlver Efex Pro a run. I was mightily impressed. I could do anything with that software that I could have done in my wet darkroom. No odors (except mine). I could walk away from the computer, come back hours later, and pick up where I left off. I was so impressed with the software that I went for the whole enchilada and bought Viveza and Color Efex Pro. The technology behind the software saved me many hours of work on my images. Then, along came VIveza 2, Silver Efex Pro 2, Color Efex Pro 4, and HDR Efex Pro (I'm not a big fan of HDR, but enjoy playing with it for a diversion). The possibilities that the new software opened up were mind boggling. 

To be fair, I must also say that I played with plugins from OnOne Software and Topaz Software. There are two that I use on just about every image I process: OnOne's Focal Point and Perfect Resize. Whenever I used their processing plugins - Photo Tools and Photo Tune - I always found myself thinking ' ..... if I could just drop a control point there ......' (not to get too deep into this, but a control point is a tool developed by Nik's software engineers to create a very specific local adjustment).

I mention all this because a few days ago I had the pleasure of attending a class given by Nik's senior manager, Tony Corbell. Nik's commitment to providing education to it's users through daily live webinars is unmatched by any other software developer. It's a smart way to market software - to get people interested in the products, and to let them know that after they purchase the products there is a deep commitment to educating them on how to use it. Kudos to Tony and the whole Nik team.

Now for the fun stuff. I'm going way out on a limb here. I shot this photo on Fifth Avenue, on a bright sunny day. The moment happened right in front of me, and I knew it would only last a few seconds. No time to play with the camera settings, no time to find the ideal shooting position. Just the normal everyday street shooting situation. I'm saying this right up front, this first image is the RAW exposure right out of the camera. It's a rare street shot for me in that, since her back was to me, I had a split second to pick the camera up to my eye and zoom to get the right composition. The exposure is very much to the right, and the contrast is quite lacking. But in digital, as opposed to film, exposure to the right is not so terrible. Having familiarity with what my software would be able to do, I was able to visualize the final shot with the subject looking at the objects of her affection, and the reflections in the window.

The ISO was 200 so I knew noise would not be an issue. I did my usual basic adjustments in the Lightroom (version 4) develop module by adjusting the white and black points, bringing down the highlights to a reasonable level, opening the shadows a little, and giving the image some pop with the clarity adjustment. The processing took about two minutes, and this was the result:

The image could probably stand by itself just like this. But I saw it as a b/w when I shot it, so I took it further. I put it through Dfine to reduce what little noise was present ( even the best digital shot has some noise). Knowing how Silver Efex Pro 2 will render the various colors in the conversion, enabled me to create separation in those tones using Viveza 2 so that it wasn't an issue when I switch over. My standard operating procedure in creating b/w images is to optimize the photograph as much as possible in color - especially contrast - before converting. I do this most often with my 'go to' filters in Color Efex Pro 4: Pro Contrast and Tonal Contrast. After flipping the image in SEP2, the processing becomes unique to each situation, but I almost always finish off by burning down the edges and adding some warming to the 'silver' tones. Here's the final image which I titled Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend: