Photoshop Plug-Ins That Tune Up and Tone Up Your Photos

By Ctein Back to


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 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.

I’m not even going to try to explain my settings in Figure 1; that would require a whole article in itself. Figure 2 shows you what ContrastMaster did with those settings. The top illustration is the original photograph. The middle illustration shows the improvements to highlight and shadow tonality and the enhancement of detail achieved through Photoshop’s Shadow/Highlight tool and large- radius unsharp masking. The bottom illustration shows what ContrastMaster can do with the original photograph. I’ve made the effect a bit stronger here than I would find attractive, so it will show up well in magazine reproduction. Dial it back in your head by about 25%. In all three photographs the extreme highlight and shadow points and overall contrast grade of the photograph haven’t changed very much. The difference is in the details. Literally.

Figure 3 shows a more subtle and complex manipulation using ContrastMaster. The top illustration is the straight photograph and the bottom one is what ContrastMaster did to it. Figure 4 is a composite of the different control panel settings that went into this correction. It’s a mix of dynamic, local, and global contrast adjustments, and it took a lot of fiddling to get it to look the way I wanted. I wish the program’s author had provided me with a more detailed explanation of what each of the contrast-adjustment methods does; the information is pretty sparse, so I’m having to spend a lot of time playing with this tool before I understand it well. I have a few quibbles with the interface. I can’t scroll and pan within split view, and repositioning the “focus point” didn’t work properly in the Mac version. I mostly stayed in the single image view and clicked on the image to switch between before and after versions of an image. Also, it would be nice to have the Info box displayed at all times and show both the before and after channel values. Still, this is one great plug-in; if I hadn’t gotten a reviewer’s copy, I’d buy it.

OnOne PhotoTune 2 ($159.95)

I can do straightforward photo manipulations myself, so I’m usually more interested in plug-ins that do things that would be difficult to achieve manually. Sometimes, though, the straightforward stuff can be time-consuming, especially when a lot of photographs need to be worked over in short order. There’s no long learning curve on PhotoTune 2 ( prodLine_id=27). It has two modules: ColorTune 2 does broad- based color and tone correction; SkinTune 2 is intended for correcting f lesh tones (but I found that it’s good for fine-tuning many photos with important colors in that part of the spectrum).

Many serious printers work best with trial prints, test strips, and ring-arounds. ColorTune 2 uses a comparison approach that is more like a game of Twenty Questions. You tell the plug-in which of two test images looks better and it homes in on your preferences. You can save the final adjustment settings as snapshots to use on other photos that need similar corrections and batch-process photographs using your saved settings.

It’s a real timesaver when you need something more akin to high-quality production printing than custom lab work.

I started with the photograph in Figure 5, upper, and used ColorTune 2 to correct it, using the six-stage process shown in Figure 6. That produced the much-improved middle illustration in Figure 5. The trick to getting the most out of ColorTune 2 is to not overthink the problem. I stumbled a bit at first, because I’d be trying to decide which test photo looked good, as opposed to merely better than the other. Frequently neither the left nor right versions looked good. Eventually I realized that often the right choice was to leave the intensity slider at its lowest setting, pick whichever version struck my fancy, and not worry too much about it. Just as with the game Twenty Questions, the early answers aren’t going to be right. They are only there to help guide the software to a good solution. The final control panel (bottom of Figure 6) lets one modify the settings. In this case, I dialed back the cyan to 2 down from the software’s choice of 5, and I increased the saturation to 39, up from 0.

Given how close the lion’s fur color is to skin tones, I decided to see if SkinTune 2 could substantially improve the picture. I selected a reference point between the whiskers on the muzzle. Using the settings shown in Figure 7, I got the bottom illustration in Figure 5. I picked the tannest color, made it a bit redder and yellower with the sliders, and kicked up the saturation a bit. All in all, it’s quite decent for only a few moments’ work.

Honestly, there’s not much more to say about this plug-in. That’s a feature; you don’t want a steep learning curve on a tool like this. (For Photoshop CS2 or higher and Photoshop Elements 4 or higher.)

Nik Viveza ($249.95)

Nik Software’s Viveza (www.niksoftware. com/viveza/usa/entry.php) and Silver Efex Pro serve such different purposes that you may never use them on the same photo, but both make use of a novel interface called “U Point.”

U Point is a visual control tool. You define a region of the photograph that you want to modify by clicking on it and placing a control point there. The control point identifies the object you clicked on by a number of characteristics, including position, color, saturation, and texture. A slider lets you expand the size of the region being affected by that control point, so you can narrow it down to cover only a very small portion of the image or broaden it so that the control point affects the photograph everywhere with similar content. You also can manually paint in or erase regions of the photograph that you want a control point to affect.

You can use as many control points as you want, each one with different image-modification settings. In particular, one use of control points is to prevent unwanted changes; a control point whose sliders are all set to zero locks that control region to its original appearance, no matter what other control points may do to the rest of the photograph. The more control points you use, the better the plug-in gets at distinguishing between the parts of a photograph you want a control point to affect and the parts you don’t.

Viveza does local color and tone correction. Think of it as a way of doing really sophisticated dodging and burning, except you’re doing it in full color, and you can alter contrast characteristics on top of everything else. Each control point has eight controlling sliders (besides the size slider): Brightness, Contrast, Saturation, Hue, Red, Green, Blue, and Warmth. The control panel is intuitive in use (Figure 8 ) and simple and clean in appearance.

In fact, the display is a bit too simple for my taste; I seriously missed having an info readout that would’ve told me the values of pixels before and after filtering. That information is vitally important to me to determine whether I’m clipping highlights or shadows, especially since the preview window in Viveza is not an exact representation of the final rendering. The controls also lack an Undo function, so you can’t readily switch between before and after views of a slider adjustment to see if you like the change. Fortunately, Viveza can render its effects in a new layer, leaving the original unaltered. More usefully, Viveza can be applied as a smart filter. Then you don’t have to get everything perfectly right on the first pass; you can edit and refine your settings and control points to tune the image more perfectly.

I took the top photograph in Figure 9 and added five control points. The one on the sun locks the highlight values. The two points in the shadows open them up by increasing the contrast, brightness, and saturation. The left control point in the sky burns in the area between the trees a bit. The right control point in the sky, which is the one that’s active in this illustration, darkens the clouds, increases their contrast and saturation, and makes them a little cooler in tone. You can see those settings in the details box in the right of the illustration in Figure 8. The control-point list above the details lets you choose which control points you’re looking at, turn them on and off, and view the selection mask associated with each control point.

Viveza can save you the trouble of constructing complex masks and figuring out sets of adjustments to make corrections like these. Viveza is not a total replacement for hand- masking work; sometimes you’ll need control far beyond Viveza’s selection capabilities. Once you become proficient at using Viveza (the deceptively simple interface hides a great deal of decision-making on your part), it will let you do much of your image correction far faster and more flexibly than before.

Nik Silver Efex Pro ($199.95)

Silver Efex Pro (www.niksoftware. com/silverefexpro/usa/entry.php) is all about making black-and-white photographs, especially from color originals. If you’re not into black- and-white, move on to the next article now, and thanks for your time and attention.

Just a quick glance at the interface (Figure 10) told me that Silver Efex Pro is one of the more capable products out there. There is a long set of presets (partially visible on the left) that do an amazing job of simulating film and wet-darkroom photographs. Some of the modes seem a bit silly. (Do you really want to emulate a Holga instead of using one? Doesn’t that miss the point?) But they’re all extremely faithful emulations. The most useful ones to me are those that have direct craft equivalents, like push-and-pull processing, various kinds of on-camera filters, and detail- enhancement modes that look a lot like Howard Bond’s unsharp masking.

There are additional classical emulation tools, including ones for toning, vignetting, and edge-burning. There are even Zone System indicators that show what parts of the image correspond to what Zones. The pulldown menu of preset f ilm types does a remarkably good job of reproducing that film’s look. If you’re so inclined, a set of controls lets you create your own film spectral sensitivity, granularity, and characteristic curve shape. Others preserve highlight and shadow detail and let you tone the resulting photo.

All this would be impressive even without the U Point interface. Each control point lets you adjust brightness, contrast, and “structure” (how much fine detail is emphasized). As described in the section on Viveza, the effect is limited to portions of the photograph that have characteristics similar to where you put the control point, and the overall extent of the control point’s inf luence can be controlled with a radius slider. The controls have the same deficiencies as Viveza—no info box and no undo— but as with Viveza, you can apply Silver Efex Pro as a smart filter.

Truth be told, I had more fun playing with this plug-in than any of the others. I was honestly surprised at how well my color photographs converted to black-and-white. Usually when I do those conversions in Photoshop the results are lackluster; that’s not surprising, since I meant to make a color photograph in the first place. Silver Efex Pro showed me that in several cases there were some potentially interesting black-and- white photographs lurking in that color image. In that vein, I used Silver Efex Pro to convert the color photograph at the top of Figure 9 to the one at the bottom, using the control points and settings shown in Figure 10, to show how dramatic the transformation can be.

Usually my photography is very goal-directed. I know exactly the kind of photograph I intend to make when I look through the viewfinder, and that vision stays with me until the print comes out of the printer.

What I most like about all these plug-ins is that they let me play. Instead of staying focused on the predetermined goal, I can wander all over the aesthetic landscape and see what happens if I think about those photographs in a different way. And that, in and of itself, is a very valuable experience.

About the Author

Ctein is a technical writer and expert printmaker. He is also the author of Digital Restoration and Post Exposure—Advanced Techniques for the Photographic Printer.