Published on 6th August 2015
Color Efex Pro Tutorial - Advanced Editing Made Easy
Adobe’s Photoshop is an amazing program with infinite capabilities. I won’t even attempt to mention what one can achieve with it, BUT - Photoshop is complicated, difficult to learn and excessively vast.
Nik Software took on the challenge of condensing Photoshop’s essential photographic tools into an easy-to-use plugin. They took some really advanced and difficult-to-learn photo editing and reduced it to a few sliders and buttons. I used to be a big advocate of advanced editing – I always felt that the more complicated, the better. So you can understand that I was hesitant to try out some plugin full of shortcuts. When I eventually gave it a go, it totally changed my outlook on photo editing. Color Efex is fast to learn and easy to use. Where it used to take me many long hours teaching people how to carefully enhance their images in Photoshop, I can have someone operating Color Efex smoothly after two 30-minute sessions. They can then do everything from advanced contrast application to adding vignettes or selective colour enhancement. There simply isn’t a better or more affordable option on the market today. For $150 you get Color Efex as well as six other dedicated programs similar to Color Efex.
Step 1 – Download the program.
Visit this page and download the free 15-day trial for your specific operating system, then install it.
Step 2 – Determine where Color Efex best fits into your workflow? There are 3 options…
a) With Lightroom – This is the easiest option and it fits in well with a LR-only workflow. You can make your usual LR adjustments, then edit in the LR Color Efex plugin. When finished, the program will automatically save a TIFF file with the changes in the same folder as the RAW file.
*Color Efex also works with Aperture in this way.
b) With Photoshop – This is the workflow I prefer. You can make your RAW adjustments in LR or ACR, then open the image in PS. Once in PS, open the Color Efex plugin, make the necessary adjustments and Color Efex applies the changes as a new layer on the image. You can then apply any final or export steps you like in PS, like running a resize and sharpen action.
c) Independent – If you don’t use any of the abovementioned programs (you really should) then you can run the program independently and open any tiff file in it. This will however require saving your RAW file as a TIFF first, which is a nuisance.
The Program Layout
The Nik Color Efex workspace is divided into three main sections; the filters are shown on the left, your image is displayed in the centre, and the current filter’s control panel is shown on the right.
The filters are divided into several different categories, allowing you to reduce the number of filters displayed within the filter-list. The Favourites category displays only those filters that you have selected by clicking on the star icon shown to the left of the filter’s name. This is very handy for simplifying and speeding up your workflow in Color Efex. Just click the star next to your favorite filters and work from the favorites tab. To get started, you can favorite the following filters. The filters are arranged alphabetically and unfortunately you can't change their order.
In the bottom-right corner there is a small panel, which can either display a histogram or a 100% zoomed-in view of the area immediately under the mouse cursor. I always toggle this panel to show the histogram, since it is of utmost importance for me to ensure that the shadows and highlights don’t get clipped at any stage while working with the filters. Ironically I was on the loupe instead of the histogram while capturing the screenshots for this tutorial.
Each filter has a number of sliders and controls designed to enhance your photo in a particular way. These sliders are displayed in the filter control panel in the top-right corner of the Nik Color Efex workspace. Directly below the current filter-specific sliders you will see several other controls, which differ from filter to filter. There are two very important ones you need to know; the Shadow and Highlight protection sliders, and the control point buttons.
The Shadow and Highlight sliders limit the effect of the current filter in the shadows and highlights, respectively. The stronger you set each slider, the less the filter will affect those tones. If, for example, the current filter is making the shadows too dark, simply increase the value of the shadow slider and it will progressively reduce the effect of the filter on the shadows. This is achieved with complex and highly feathered behind-the-scenes luminosity masks. To replicate the effect of these sliders in Photoshop requires skills that are difficult and time-consuming to master.
The control points allow the removal or application of a filter in a specific area or tone with very precise control. This feature is the magic ingredient in Nik’s software suite. It is best explained with a practical example, so keep reading.
Directly below the two Control Points buttons you will find two more buttons, namely the Add Filter and Save Recipe buttons. Clicking the Add Filter button adds a new blank filter below the current adjustment filter that can then be filled with one of the filters in the filter-list. This makes it possible to stack any number of additional filters together, one below the other. The Save Recipe button allows to you save all settings (and control points) for all the filters that you have used to process a particular photo, so that you can later apply exactly the same ‘recipe’ for any photo that you process in the future.
Once you’ve installed it and familiarized yourself with the layout, you can finally start playing around. My standard recipe that I apply to images is as explained below. I have created a summarized pdf document listing the steps and values, which you can download at the end of this tutorial. While my advised values are good ones to follow, you need to experiment to determine your own Color Efex workflow. You may not like things that I prefer and you might want to use a filter or two that I never do. Its an easy program to learn and explore, so make some time and have fun with your favorite photos.
Applying the Filters
The Pro Contrast Filter
The best way to add more drama and punch to your images is to increase the contrast. Adding contrast to the entire image is not always desirable however, since it often causes the shadows and highlights to become clipped. Ideally you would only want to increase the contrast in the mid-tones areas, leaving the shadow and highlight tones intact. You could either do that in Photoshop by selecting only the mid-tones with complex luminosity masks, or you could do it the easy way using Nik Software’s Pro Contrast filter.
This filter offers three sliders - Correct Color Cast, Correct Contrast and Dynamic Contrast.
The Correct Color Cast slider does exactly what it says, but it needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. What the software thinks is correct, might not always be. I’ve found that this slider has a much stronger effect once there is some contrast applied, so I always use this one last. The Correct Contrast slider applies an even amount of global contrast across all the tones. This is the go-to slider for adding punch, but it pays no caution to sensitive highlights or shadows and will often blow/blacken them. The Dynamic Contrast slider applies contrast, but does so without damaging any shadows or highlights. This filter works a charm, but in excess it make an image look quite grungy/HDR-ish. Mouse over the image below to see the difference between 1) Correct Contrast slider at +100 and the 2) Dynamic Contrast slider at +100.
1. I always start by setting the shadows and highlights sliders both at +30. Experience has taught me that these values are useful, yet subtle. They prevent any major damage to the extreme highlights and shadows.
2. I’ve found that a combination of Correct Contrast and Dynamic Contrast works best and in 90% of cases a value of 20-30 for both adds the right amount of punch. Some photos will take more of the one than the other and you need to experiment to see what works. The image below shows the effect of both those sliders at +30.
3. Once you’re happy with the amount of contrast applied, you can test whether the Correct Color Cast slider has a desirable affect on the image. This can be applied purely to your own personal preference. If you like it, apply some, if you don’t, then just skip it completely. In this case I don't like it at all, so I'll keep it at 0. Mouse over the image to see the filter's effect.
As mentioned earlier, control points are what really make Nik’s software amazing. In the above image I have applied a decent amount of contrast to give it some punch. Despite using the shadow/highlight sliders and Dynamic Contrast to try and preserve the sensitive highlights and shadows, the highlights have still suffered a bit. The brightest highlights (RHS, just above the hill) have become too bright for my liking.
To neatly recover this detail using layers, masks and luminosity selections is a tedious process. It is tedious and time-consuming even if you’re an expert at luminosity selections. Becoming an expert at luminosity selections is a mountain of a task that takes a lot of time, practice and understanding. For many people it is just far too complicated and time consuming, but control points have changed that.
There are two types of control points: plus and minus. A minus control point removes the effect of the current filter in a chosen area, while a plus control point adds the effect of the current filter in only the chosen area. Control Points have two adjustable parameters – size and opacity. The size slider determines how large you want the control point’s affected area to be. The opacity slider determines what percentage of the filter’s effect you want removed (minus) or added (plus).
If you are familiar with masks and layers, then you are probably asking how control points are any different from the brush tool in Photoshop? The answer is that control points are tone sensitive – they only affect tones similar to the pixel that the point’s cursor is placed on. If the cursor is placed on a dark brownish tone, it will only affect the dark brownish tones within its set size/area. If you place a minus control point on the edge of a cliff, it will only affect the cliff, despite there being a lot of sky within the control point’s set area. This amazing feature makes it extremely easy to recover detail in very select areas of an image using a minus control point. Or inversely, to apply a filter to very select areas of an image using a plus control point.
After applying the +30 of both Correct Contrast and Dynamic Contrast, the contrast application has created one problematic area - the brightest part of the sky. They histogram might not be touching the RHS, but it is too bright to appreciate any details in that area. I have to take a look at the histogram to confirm this and here in lies a critical part of any good workflow; you MUST constantly evaluate what you are doing. The easiest way to do this is by toggling the filter on and off using the checkbox next to the filter title.
Upon toggling the Pro Contrast on and off in this situation, I can see that it has pushed my highlights dangerously close to the RHS and thus I need to use a minus control point in order to remove the effect of this filter from the extreme highlights. Mouse over the below image to see the histogram from before and after the filter.
1. To apply a control point, click on the minus control point button in the control panel. Once selected, the cursor will change to a crosshair if you mouse over the image. Now simply click the control point in the problematic area and make sure it is in the right tone. If you want to remove the filter from a highlight, be sure to put it in the highlight.
2. Once applied, fine-tune the size if you feel that it needs to affect a smaller or perhaps larger area. You can also set the opacity if you don't want it to remove the effect entirely. In this situation one control point at the default size did the job for me. Even though the control point's area is much larger than the problematic area, it's only affecting the problem area because it selectively removes the filter from only the brightest tones. That's the magic of control points. Below are the before/after images showing the effect of the control point.
This is where another control point feature is very useful – if you click the little arrow to the left of the ‘control points’ title, another menu drops down with a checkbox either side of the applied control points. The checkbox on the left simply toggles the control point on and off, which makes it easy to evaluate whether it is perhaps too little or too much.
The checkbox on the right shows you the mask applied by the control point and gives you a very good idea of whether it is perhaps affecting tones that it shouldn’t. The black shows the affected area and the darker the tone, the more the effect of the control point. The light gray tones show that there is a big area outside of the extreme highlight affected, but the tone is so light that it's barely visible. These are two very nifty features and I highly recommend using them to evaluate your progress.
The Darken/Lighten Center Filter
Vignettes have been coming and going throughout various trends over the history of photography. We can all be grateful that the white vignettes of the 80s stayed right there in the 80s, but a subtle color-neutral vignette will always enhance any image. By darkening the border of the image and brightening the middle, it helps to lead the viewer's eyes into the image. There are probably 717 different ways of adding a vignette in PS, but this super-simple filter adds such a vignette in a few easy steps.
1. This filter offers two different shapes of vignettes - The first is a very square one, whereas the 2nd is more ovoid. The ovoid one always looks better so step 1 is to open the drop down tab and select shape nr. 2.
2. The two main settings that create the vignette are the border luminosity and center luminosity sliders and their function is pretty self-explanatory. The default value of the center luminosity is +25 and this is usually a bit too much, so you can decrease this to about +15.
3. The default value of the border luminosity is usually around -50, which is also too much. Bring this up to between -30 and -20 for a more natural look. The combination of these two creates a subtle vignette that adds a nice touch to the image. Once finished, toggle the filter on and off to evaluate the change - mouse over the below image to see the before and after.
4. You can also change the center size of the vignette or place the center in a different area of the image, should you want to. As with all these filters, my settings are merely a guideline and you should experiment to find what suits your own taste.
5. What often happens with this filter is that it further darkens areas around the border that were already quite dark. If this is the case, simply apply a minus control point and fine-tune if necessary. In this image the vignette has made the hills at the edge of the frame too dark, so I applied two minus control points to the shadow areas.
The Brilliance/Warmth Filter
I love this filter for two reasons: the first is that it offers good old straightforward saturation, but with control points. Saturation, like any other filter, is all about local enhancement. If you apply saturation globally, some areas will be just right, some underaffected and some totally oversaturated. Most people have probably experimented with saturating colours individually, but that is a dangerous game that can lead to artefacts and unnatural looking photos. The Color Efex solution is to apply global saturation, then simply add a negative control point in any oversaturated areas and fine-tune it if necessary. This way you can enhance the colors of an image, while easily preventing specific colors from going over the top. Many people may suggest that you use PS/LR’s vibrance or Color Efex’s perceptual saturation as it only affects the least saturated colours. I have however found both of these to be pretty reckless. They oversaturate specific colours much too fast, such as blue.
The 2nd reason I like this filter is that it offers a warmth slider, something that Photoshop is sorely lacking. This may not matter to people who only work in Lightroom, as they always have access to the RAW temperature slider. My workflow (shown below) doesn’t allow RAW adjustments at a late stage, which is why I like this feature of Color Efex.
RAW Adjustments – Open in PS – Color Efex – Save TIFF – Resize and sharpen for web – save jpeg for posting.
Once I’m past RAW adjustments, I have no easy way of adjusting the warmth of an image. There are a million ways to do it in PS and I could just go back to Lightroom, but that’s unnecessary effort. I just want a slider in a late stage of my workflow. That is exactly what this filter offers. The Pro Contrast filter can effect a big change to the image and I like the option of changing the colour temperature after the contrast application.
*Note - I am aware that there are workarounds for getting back to RAW using smart objects, but I tried to keep this tutorial as simple as possible.
1. My first step was to see how much saturation the image can handle before looking overcooked and I settled on about 20. I'm one of those people who can never leave the radio volume or aircon temp. on a random or uneven number like 17, and the same applies here. So my values are usually on a 5 or a 10, but that's just because I'm a bit OCD. If you feel that 17 was the right number for you then leave it at that. Mouse-over below to see the before/ after.
2. Step 1 has oversaturated the strong blues on the left hand side of the image. The first and easiest way to counter it is to play with the Warmth slider. I like the difference it makes at +10 as it tones down the blues, enhances the reds in the sky and saturates that soft warm alpenglow on the Cuernos del Paine. This is however not enough to deal with the overcooked blue, so I'll need to bring in some control points. I added one minus control point in the blue sky top left and one in the water bottom left. Some fine-tuning was necessary so I increased the size of both so that they affect a large area. I also increased the opacity of both to about 50% so that it doesn't remove 100% of the saturation. Mouse-over the below images to see the before and after.
The Polarization Filter
This filter is totally self-explanatory and by far the easiest to use. There are only two sliders – rotation and strength. You can leave rotation at its default (105) and just up the strength.
This filter mimics the various visual effects of a polarizing filter, of which the most notable is darkening any blue areas in the sky. This is a great tool for further enhancing the contrast in skies or making clouds punchier. Experiment and get to know the pros and cons of this simple but useful filter.
For this image a value of +60 darkened all the blue in the image substantially, which gave a lot more definition to the sky. The overall difference is really impressive. Could it be any easier?
The Detail Extractor Filter
This is one of the most interesting and powerful filters in the Nik Color Efex Pro filter set. It utilises a unique new technique to exaggerate details in order to create dynamic and stylised photos. While it is easy to go completely overboard with this filter and create very unnatural looking images, careful use of the filter allows you to balance light and tonality to extract details from even the darkest (or lightest) parts of your photo.
This filter offers four controls - the main Detail Extractor slider, two sliders which control the Contrast and Saturation, and a drop-down list for controlling the radius of the effect.
Increasing the Detail Extractor slider lightens the shadows and darkens the highlights, while exaggerating the details throughout the photo. This needs to be used in extreme subtlety, as you’ll see that it immediately gives the image a very grungy look. The Contrast slider simply gives the image some straightforward contrast, which compensates for the grungy effect of the Detail Extractor slider. Similarly, the saturation slider is there to compensate for some color loss that the Detail Extractor slider often causes. The 4th option is the effect radius, which can be set to fine, normal or large. Fine works well for textures whereas large is good for larger detail like clouds. Normal obviously offers a middle-ground between the two, but I never change this setting so feel free to experiment and draw your own conclusion.
1. As stated numerous times, the Detail Extractor slider must be used subtly. I usually bring it down to between +2 and +10, depending on the image. Mouse over the image below to see the difference between the default +25 and the +5 that I settled on. It enhances a lot of detail in the rocks and some in the sky, but without making the image look grungy.
2. The Contrast slider in this filter should also be used subtly as at this stage, you have already applied the necessary contrast using the Pro Contrast filter. This slider is simply to compensate for some grunginess that the Detail Extractor might have created. This is a slider for which I can't give a good range indication as some images need none, but others may need up to +30. The key is to watch that your sensitive highlights and shadows don't blow while trying to get rid of any grunginess. For this image I settled on +15.
3. The exact same applies for the Saturation slider as does for the Contrast slider. Determine if it is necessary and apply a subtle amount. I upped it to +12 in this image. Below is my final result with the Detail Extractor filter.
4. Control points aren't required on this filter too often, but there are times that specific areas might become too grungy when applying the Detail Extractor or too dark/bright when applying contrast. Keep an eye on it and add a control point to overdone areas to remove some of the effect.
Positive Control Points
I consider minus control points a component of making global adjustments and part of my standard workflow, whereas I consider plus control points an optional extra for making finer local adjustments. There are two final enhancements that I want to do with this image using plus control points.
1. The alpenglow on the granite peaks is very soft and it can easily take some more saturation. The first step is to add another brillance and warmth filter, then push up saturation while paying attention to only the area I intend to saturate. The blues are totally over the top by the time I've reached a nice warm peak, which is why you should only pay attention to the focus area. Now I can select a positive control point, plop it down in that orange cliff face and then drastically reduce the size so that it only affects that area. The moment that a positive control point is applied, Color Efex removes the effect of the filter from the rest of the image, leaving it only within the control point's range. When working with reflections one must always ensure that whatever you do to the source of the reflection, you also do to the mirror image. One more control point in the water and I'm done. Below you can see the mask of the control points and below that is a before/after view of this filter. It's a very subtle difference, but that peak (Cuerno Principal) is such a key element of this image that it's worth the effort.
2. One of my favourite tricks with the detail extractor is using it with plus control points to lighten very dark areas. In this image, those hills on the horizon are too dark for my taste and thus I would like to lighten them up a tiny bit. It's such a small area that viewers won't really notice if it becomes slightly grungy in the process. Step one is to add another Detail Extractor filter. Then apply the desired effect globally until it looks ideal in the intended area. I settled on Detail Extractor +12, Contrast +20 and saturation at it's deafult +6.
This is a situation where the control points' fancy tonal selectiveness falls off the bus - I only want to make the hills brighter, not the main mountains behind them. The problem is that the two aren't many tones apart. Although they are clearly distinguishable to a human viewer, there's barely any contrast between the two in order for the software to distinguish the difference. In a situation like this, the control points need to be carefully placed so as not to affect any unwanted areas. I ended up placing 4 control points in the darkest spots along the horizon. The size of each had to be reduced to minimise it's effect on the areas above and below the dark hills. Below is a view of the mask showing the affected areas - as you can see some of the effect did spill over onto the mountains, but it's not an amount to worry about. See the image below the mask for a before and after. Again, it's not a big difference, it just makes the detail in those dark areas comfortably visible.
To get back to where Color Efex fits into your workflow; There is a very specific reason why I choose to use Color Efex in Photoshop. Once I click the OK button in the bottom right hand corner, the applied changes are added to my image as a layer. This offers me a final evaluation step to see if I overcooked it or not. Most of the times I do, but if so I can simply lower the opacity of the Color Efex layer to reduce the effect. In this case I have brought it down to 70% for a look that I'm happy with. Mouse over the 2nd image below to see the difference between 100% and 70%.
This tutorial may seem lengthy, but lets recap everything that I did -
1. Pro Contrast
2. Darken/Lighten Center
5. Detail Extractor
6. Local Brilliance/Warmth
7. Local Detail Extractor
To do all of this only takes me about 2-4 minutes and that is what's so great about this program. The thing that's even better is that people can reach such a level of proficiency within a couple of sessions using the program. Of course it's better to know luminosity selections to be able to do all this stuff manually, but 99% of people don't have the time to acquire the skills. If you want to exchange time behind the computer for time behind the camera, then this program will become your new best friend. Below is a final before/after of the image .
To download a printable PDF of the basic recipe explained in this tutorial, click here.
If you find anything confusing or you have any nifty tricks of your own to add, please leave a comment!
Credit - This article is a modified and updated version of the one done by Paul Bruins two years ago, so a lot of credit is due to him.