The four Photoshop plug-ins I’m reviewing here don’t perform cursory image rubdowns, for the most part; they’re more like full body massages with a sauna afterward. Yet despite their sophisticated algorithms, they need human guidance. They don’t block human creativity and judgment; instead, they let you execute that judgment faster and better. All four of these plug-ins are compatible with Photoshop CS4 and the latest versions of Photoshop Elements and are available for both Mac and PC. I tested them in CS4 running under Mac OSX 10.4.11. Most will run on Photoshop CS2, Elements 4, and other programs that are Photoshop plug-in compatible. Check the manufacturers’ Web sites for lists of compatible programs.
PhotoWiz ContrastMaster ($69.95)
Making contrast work exactly the way we want isn’t always easy. Aside from overall adjustments in contrast, we may reshape curves to emphasize the contrast in some parts of the tonal scale; we may also want to enhance contrast in some areas of the photograph and subdue it in others. We sometimes want more contrast in the extreme highlights and shadows to bring out their detail without compromising the rest of the photograph, or we wish to enhance and emphasize subtle gradation and textures without changing the overall look of the image.
Skilled Photoshop users know how using the Shadow/Highlight tool and large-radius unsharp masking brings out details and improves gradation without messing up the overall tonal scale. ContrastMaster (www.theplug insite.com/products/photowiz/contrastmaster/) goes way beyond those tools, with more controls and dramatic effects on a photograph than you can begin to imagine. ContrastMaster includes three local and four global contrast-adjustment methods as well as various masking, saturation, and brightness options. The three local adjustment methods allow you to dramatically improve contrast in small image details without blowing out highlights or damaging the image. You can apply these three methods separately or use various options to mix them together for even better results.
Complex? You betcha; there’s a serious learning curve here. ContrastMaster can create very dramatic, even bizarre effects, making a photograph look painterly or giving it the weird contrast and tone compression of an HDR photograph (some people like that look; go figure). The real power in ContrastMaster comes from using it more thoughtfully, and that requires a lot of practice. It’s worth it.
Figure 1 shows part of the control panel for ContrastMaster. Along with a daunting array of sliders, there are seven pushbuttons for bringing up different sets of contrast controls (in this example I’m using Dynamic and Mask) and a Mode menu at the top that selects which overall approach you’re taking. The default setting is Novice. That typically produces awful-looking results at 100% strength; it lets you play with the different adjustment methods and see what effect each of them has on a photograph when the strength is increased or decreased. I think of it more as tutorial mode. You may not want to use it for real photographs, but it is an extremely good place to learn what the different contrast- adjustment methods do.