Specialized Software

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Software plug-ins and specialty software can make your life easier as a digital photographer. Sure, Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Lightroom, Aperture and other programs are very powerful and let you do a lot with your digital photos. But there are some things they simply don’t do well, or even at all, that can be important for your images.

Specialty software can expand your photo possibilities, including making digital photography more fun. Plug-ins can make your life at the computer easier, more efficient and more effective for the time you spend there—and that can be valuable for anyone working with digital images.

By plug-ins, we’re referring to software that fits inside a host program and helps it do something different, better or both. They’re often referred to as Photoshop plug-ins, but they usually work in Photoshop Elements and other image-processing software. By special-purpose software, we’re referring to software that does unique or specialized effects with images, such as HDR (high-dynamic-range) image work or noise reduction. This software is often of the stand-alone type, meaning it works independently of any other software, but some specialty software can be used as a plug-in, too.

The advantage of a plug-in over a stand-alone program is that it can fit into your workflow quite easily without any effort on your part. The advantage of standalone software is that it can always be used—you never need a host program to run it.


Imagenomic Noiseware

Nik Software Dfine 2.0

One of the most common needs for image processing is to reduce the impact of noise. No matter what you do, sooner or later, you’ll run into noise challenges. Noise-reduction software uses special algorithms to help discern the difference between noise and other details. It comes in both stand-alone and plug-in programs.

Imagenomic’s Noiseware is a powerful noise-reduction program that works extremely fast and can take advantage of dual-processor computers. It includes DetailGuard to protect important image detail that can be confused with noise by other programs. List Price: $49 (Standard); $69 (Pro).

Nik Software Dfine 2.0 includes a photographer-friendly interface that allows you to control where noise reduction is applied based on color. Often certain colors have more noise than others, so you can target those areas without harming other parts of the photo. Select areas for control both automatically and manually. List Price: $79.

HDR (high-dynamic-range) photography allows photographers to capture a very large range of tones from a scene, brightness levels far beyond the capabilities of any camera. It ranges from natural-looking images that give a truer interpretation of many scenes than the camera can do alone to stylized, “artsy” images that have little relation to reality.

HDRsoft Photomatix

Imaging Luminary Essential HDR

HDRsoft Photomatix is the de facto father of this type of software. It is why many photographers first got excited by HDR images. It creates an HDR image file that’s then tone-mapped so that it can be displayed properly and used. It’s commonly used for both extreme stylization and more normal-looking photography. List Price: From $79.

Imaging Luminary Essential HDR is a more recent entry into HDR work. It has a very easy-to-use interface that works well for natural-looking images. The Detail Revealer tone-mapping engine looks at each pixel of your multiple shots in order to produce a high-quality final image. List Price: $69.

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onOne Software Genuine Fractals

Alien Skin Blow Up 2

Printers capable of doing monster-sized prints, like those common to labs and other retail-printing facilities, make prints measured in feet rather than inches. In addition, many photographers realize that they want to use a smaller part of the photo than the original, yet they want this cropped image to print at reasonable sizes. Specialized enlarging plug-ins work well when you really need to increase the size of your photo.

onOne Software Genuine Fractals has long been an important tool for enlarging images and uses a set of patented, fractal-based interpolation algorithms. Version 6 can enlarge images up to 1,000% with outstanding results that maintain edge details like the original image. List Price: $159 (Standard); $299 (Pro).

Alien Skin Blow Up 2 uses the latest in computer technology, including multi-processor and multi-threading operating systems, to give you enlarged photos quickly. It includes over 100 presets for common output sizes to make image enlargement easier and faster right from the start. List Price: $249.

Nik Software Silver Efex Pro

Black-and-white has gained a new status in photography. It was once a poor second to color and was relegated to the “cheap” publications and books. But today, it has become an elegant option for showing off your photography.

Nik Software Silver Efex Pro is a superb program for black-and-white conversion of color photos. Not only does it allow you to change tonal interpretation of varied colors, but it also includes the company’s patented U-Point technology to selectively change these interpretations over the photo. And it includes over 20 preset styles to quickly let you try different looks for your images. List Price: $199.

If you need to cut out a subject from a background, such as collage work, giving portraits new backgrounds or processing a background totally separated from the subject, you need to be able to quickly and easily isolate your subject from the background with a mask and with clean, good-looking edges. Specialty software plug-ins made for this purpose is a great option.

Vertus Fluid Mask 3

onOne Software Mask Pro 4

Vertus Fluid Mask 3 works extremely well even with detailed photos that make edges hard to find. New edge-blending algorithms allow you to refine edges so they look their best, including a new hair-blending feature that really helps when you have to cut out hair. This version also includes numerous speed enhancements. List Price: $149.

onOne Software Mask Pro 4 uses color instead of edges in order to create masks that work well with hair and transparent objects. It includes 12 separate tools to make masking a subject from the background more effective. These tools work with everything from large background removal to fine-detail masking in hard-to-mask areas. List Price: $159.

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There are a lot of plug-ins available to make Photoshop more manageable, more than we have space for here. They’re generally very results-oriented, in other words, about the photography, not the software. You get controls to make photos look better in specific ways, such as adding the look of a graduated filter, and you don’t have to know anything about applications like Curves or layer masks.

Nik Software Color Efex Pro 3.0

Nik Software Color Efex Pro 3.0 has a full set of tools that offer both traditional and stylized effects. The complete version includes 52 filters and over 250 effects, ranging from Glamour Glow to Classical Soft Focus to Color Contrast Effects and Graduated filter effects. List Price: $299 (Complete Edition).

Nik Software Viveza

onOne Software PhotoTune 2

Nik Software Viveza allows very specific and targeted adjustments to your photo without using layers or layer masks. You don’t even have to understand them. Viveza lets you click on something, then set the controls to favor it and nearby areas for adjustment as needed. List Price: $149.

onOne Software PhotoTune 2 is one of the easiest-to-use exposure and color-correction tools that you’ll find anywhere. If you’ve ever struggled with Photoshop or Photoshop Elements adjustments as you try to perfect an image, this may be the plug-in you need. It includes automated adjustment features, as well as manual controls that are fast and easy to understand. List Price: $159.

Tiffen Dfx Digital Filter Suite

Most specialty software focuses on just one aspect of photo enhancement. Tiffen Dfx Digital Filter Suite is different, bundling many of the capabilities of these single-purpose applications into a suite of tools that

includes over 2,000 filters and special effects. Available as a standalone program or as a plug-in for Adobe Photoshop or Apple Aperture, Dfx V2.0 adds layer and masking capabilities, too. You’ll find all sorts of filter effects that mimic traditional photo filters, such as Black Pro-Mist or Polarizer, plus unique lighting effect algorithms such as Light/Gobo. It also includes tools for cloning, red-eye removal and batch processing, as well as nondestructive cropping, rotating and scaling. Practically everything you’ll want to do with a photo is possible with Dfx. List Price: From $149.

Picture Window Pro 5.0

Nikon Capture NX 2

Picture Window Pro 5.0 is more of a full-featured image editor than a highly specialized application, but its unique approach and broad set of creative tools—like HDR compositing and a suite of special effects—make it worth noting here. This program is Windows-only, but for the sheer power and breadth of tools, it’s tough to beat at a list price of $89.

The power of Nikon Capture NX 2 is in the Control Points. Instead of using complicated masks to apply image corrections, simply drop Control Points onto problem areas and use simple sliders to refine the effects. Control Points can be set to apply their effects to the selected area only or to the entire image except for that area. Effects include Nikon’s own D-Lighting exposure enhancements, focus controls, noise reduction, sharpening and more. Capture NX 2 also includes organizational solutions like labeling and rating, plus tools to control lens distortions and chromatic aberration. List Price: $179.

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Portrait Professional Studio 9

Auto FX Dreamsuite

Touching up portraits can be one of the most challenging photo processes. You want to ease blemishes, but retain details. Portrait Professional Studio 9 can be used as a stand-alone application or as a Photoshop plug-in to make sophisticated portrait enhancements—without complicated masking—in a fraction of the time it would take with Photoshop tools. List Price: $149.

Auto FX has a whole range of special-effects plug-ins. The DreamSuite series of software creates very creative looks from putty to liquid metal and more. Mystical Tint Tone and Color 2 includes dozens of filters that you can combine and layer for practically endless creative possibilities—especially useful for portraits. List Price: From $99 (DreamSuite); $249 (Mystical Tint Tone and Color 2).

Create unique edges for your photos that can give a creative and classy look for prints with onOne Software PhotoFrame 4. You get over 1,000 base frames and edges that you can combine, modify and apply to your photos quickly and in real time. List Price: $159 (Standard); $259 (Pro).

Get terrific and creative blur effects around your subject that mimic the look of specialized and expensive lenses with onOne Software FocalPoint. It’s like having a virtual selective-focus lens inside of Photoshop. Focal Point creates the complex masks needed so you don’t have to do the work or mental calculations. List Price: $159.

onOne Software Photo
Frame 4

onOne Software FocalPoint

Alien Skin Bokeh

Alien Skin Snap Art 2

Alien Skin Eye Candy

Alien Skin Xenofex

Another blur-effect software is Alien Skin Bokeh. This allows you to manipulate focus in front of and behind your subject as if you were using a fast lens with a wide maximum aperture. Those lenses are very expensive, so this can be a great alternative. You get a very photo-realistic look to the blurs. List Price: $199.


ien Skin also has a number of special-effects software plug-ins. Snap Art 2 lets you create painterly effects with your photos with a single click. Eye Candy plug-ins give you all sorts of special effects, from unique textures to natural effects like smoke and fire. Xenofex gives you cloud and lightning effects with a single click. List Price: From $99 (Eye Candy); ($129) Xenofex; Snap Art ($199).