photography

Nik Software Silver Efex Pro Review

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This week I'm reviewing NIK Software's Aperture and Photoshop plugin, Silver Efex Pro. While I really like Aperture, its black-and-white conversion leaves a lot to be desired. One thing is certain, all black-and-white conversion is not created equal. There are no hard and fast rules on exactly where to assign your grey and without savant-like abilities, you can destroy the look of your photograph with careless conversion. I know, quite simply, because I have done it.

My solution to this problem has always been to do the conversion in Photoshop. It has all sorts of interesting tools like the channel mixer that allow you to tweak your black and white conversion to your heart’s desire. The problem I keep running into is Photoshop’s unrealistic assumption that I have a clue what I am doing. Sure. I watched the screencasts, read the books, and sacrificed old film canisters to the appropriate photography gods but my results were still spotty at best. Silver Efex Pro takes the voodoo out of black and white conversion.

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After activating this plug-in, it opens a large pane with your image. On the right are a variety of sliders and buttons to allow you to manually adjust and on the left are a series of previews applying different professionally developed black and white filters. The workflow usually starts on the left where you can look through the various preset styles. These vary from the neutral to the artistic. There is also a nice antique effect with the crinkled edges of old photographs. The interface allows you to preview the images giving you a nice feel for what to expect.

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Once you’ve chosen your preset you can further tweak it using the sliders and buttons on the right side of the preview. These include common settings like brightness and contrast. It also has some more exotic controls like shadows, highlights and colored filters changing the tinge of your black and white photograph.

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The editing doesn’t stop here though. Once you know you are in the ballpark you can perform local adjustments. That means if there is just one part of the image you want to adjust while leaving the rest alone, you can. Silver Efex Pro remembers the original colors and allows you to use this to your advantage. For example, one photograph I was processing was of my daughter with a red brick wall behind her. Using the control point technology of this application, I was able to identify the red brick and adjust its black and white conversion so as not to interfere with my daughter’s image. The application left the rest of the photograph untouched. This is a really powerful feature. You can select multiple control points in any image all with their own controls. Before long you will be fine tuning your black and white image with more granularity than you thought possible.

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Speaking of granularity, if you want to give your image a film grain look, it comes with a pre-defined set of film types that can give your photograph that film look. It is an impressive list and it is fun seeing the changes brought by different film types. There is also a series of sliders that allow you to manually adjust the grain, sensitivity, and tone curve if you want to do it yourself.

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Once you have your image just so, you apply your changes and it drops you back in Aperture with a new image in its black and white splendor. Silver Efex Pro costs $200 and while that may seem a bit steep for a black and white converter, the results I am getting with this application are breathtaking. I could Vulcan mind-meld with a Photoshop guru and I still don’t think I could do better with black and white conversion than I’m getting with Silver Efex Pro. Even if you don’t have the money to spend on this, download the free 15-day trial of Silver Efex from NikSoftware.com so you can see the dramatic results available with the control point technology. It is a lot of fun.

You can listen to this review on Surfbits Episode #185.

Nik Color Efex Pro 3.0 Review

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This week I’m back to photography. A good friend and reader recently turned me on to Nik Software that has a series of excellent photography software products. In particular, their Color Efex Pro plug-in for Aperture and Photoshop.

I know I’m supposed to be objective as a reviewer but I just have to say this plug in rocks. Have you ever seen those photoshop svants that can take a picture and then work their black magic on it. I’ve always admired it but at a certain level accepted that I’m about as likely to learn how to do that as I am to build a fission reactor in my attic.

This is where Color Efex Pro steps it up. It installs as a plug in for Aperture or Photoshop and it has a pile of digital filters that enhance your photos with the touch of a button. I’m not just talking black and white here. This is 52 filters with over 250 effects that make your photos look professional.
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Pro Contrast Filter

These filters include several traditional filter effects such as polarization and color gradients. Since I don’t shoot with anything but a UV filter, this allows me to experiment on my shots.
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Sunshine Filter

That is just the beginning though. There are also a host of filters that just make your photos look better or more interesting. There is one that softens your skin. Solarizer gives you an incredible contrast for portraits. One darkens the edges and lightens the center. Another takes your modern fancy image and magically turns it into an antiqued old photograph. Are you taking glamour shots? One click sets you up. Need extra light, the sunshine filter allows you to add it in with a large degree of granularity. You can turn day to night with the midnight filter or get that hazy James Dean look with the Monday Morning filter. I’ve spent hours playing with these filters and could ramble on. In the plug-in it even organizes the filters in convenient tabs such as portrait, landscape and traditional.
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Bleach Bypass

Applying these filters in Aperture is easy as selecting the image, activating the plug-in and clicking on your filter of choice.

Nik Software explains the benefit is that you can do your edits faster. I think they are missing the point. Color Efex Pro allows you to do edits that are completely unreachable to us mere mortals. It is like having your own little photoshop genius in your pocket.
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Glamour Glow

The Color Efex Pro filters do come at a price. There are three versions that range from $100 (with 15 filters) to $300 (with 52 filters). I know for the “point and shoot” crowd that is probably more than their camera cost but if you are an SLR owner and serious about dramatically increasing your digital enhancement skills, this one is worth a serious look. You can see samples of all the filters and download a trial at Nik’s website found at NikSoftware.com. Check it out.

You can listen to this review on Surfbits Episode 176.

4th of July Photography

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I hope everyone had a nice Fourth of July. The nerdy side of me particularly enjoyed shooting my family with sparklers. For these shots I put the Canon on a tripod and set the ISO to 100, the Aperture to 9, and the exposure varied between 5 and 10 seconds. The above shot is of me.

We also went to Disneyland on the third but one of the legs on my knock-off Gorilla Pod broke. I'm going to see if I can return it. As a result I ended up having to prop the camera on a trash can for this shot.

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Finally, with no trash can or tripod, the fireworks shots came out jiggly. Feel free to laugh.

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New Link - Photography and the Mac

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I've recently added a new link for a great photography themed blog called "Photography and the Mac". This site is the brain child of LA Times staff photographer Robert Lachman. Robert has become an e-friend of mine as he helps out at the MacReview cast and my personal photography sensei. What makes Robert's website particularly RSS worthy is the eclectic mix of articles. Robert seems to take great pictures on anything from the most high end equipment to something simple like a camera phone. He gives common sense photography advice that everyone can use. Head over and check it out.

Playing with HDR

Lately I've been trying out some new photographic techniques. One of them is HDR (High Dynamic Range photography) As I understand it, this is usually accomplished by combining multiple exposures at different stops and digitally combining the best parts. This allows you to get details in both shadows and bright spots. It is becoming much more common as you see these fantastic skyline pictures showing up all over the internet. For my first attempt I cheated a little bit. I took a single shot and adjusted the exposure in Aperture to make a high, medium, and low exposure version. I then exported the versions and did the HDR work on those three versions.

The original shot ...

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After HDR adjustments ...

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It certainly fixed the trees in the shadows but I actually prefer the non-HDR shot. This is probably due to operator error more than anything else. If things go according to plan, I am going to Hawaii this summer and I definitely want to get this figured out before that happens.

How to Read a Histogram

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Here is one for photographers ...

For a long time I looked at those funny graphs in my photo applications and just scratched my head. They are actually very helpful though both in the field and at the computer. I have more-or-less understood them now for awhile but I recently stumbled upon this excellent article that really helped me "get it."

Aperture 2.0 Initial Impressions

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I spent a good part of my weekend getting comfortable with Aperture 2.0. I've been using Aperture for about a year. I'd like to say my choice of Aperture was the result of long testing and analysis between Adobe Lightroom and Aperture but in the end it came down to a very good deal when CompUSA was going out of business and the knowledge that an Apple product would inherently integrate better with OS X (which it does).

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I really didn't have much problem with version 1.5 and found it quite useful. That being said, 2.0 is a significant improvement.

Library Organization



Aperture has always been good for organizing your library. I really like that they put some of iPhoto's innovations in to the new version. Particularly image scrubbing and .mac web galleries. I have roughly 8,000 photos in my library and it is very easy to find and work with all of them using Aperture.

Image Correction



Not only is the user interface easier to grok, there are some new tools that are fantastic. I particularly like the sliders for recovery (blown out highlights) and black point (too dark darks). Likewise the new vibrancy slider is a really nice tool for giving an image pop without screwing too much else up. Another tool I'm starting to experiment with but a little intimidated by is the dropper on the Color menu which allows me to adjust a specific skin tone.

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So does Aperture replace Photoshop? No. However, if you do a decent job at the time of image capture, Aperture will be all you need for alot (if not most) of your images. All of the pictures in this article were only corrected in Aperture.

I'll write more on Aperture once I get a bit deeper. For the time being, if you are considering Aperture, I recommend you go watch Apple's very good tutorials right here. Any other Aperture jockeys out there? If so write in or comment.

50mm of Convergence

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I've been trying to improve my photography skills. As part of this, I've been thinking about putting a better lens on my Canon than the one that came with it. I read an article about a month ago about the merits of a fixed 50mm lens and started thinking about picking one up. Then, in just the last few days, I have been bombarded with 50mm propoganda. Merlin Mann bragged about his on MacBreak Weekly and I stumbled upon this excellent article by Gary Voth. Well I sort of fell into a good deal for a 50mm lens and while I've only played with it a bit, I really like it. Very sharp and that open aperture makes the flash almost superfluous. Once I get a few presentable photos, I'll post them.




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