Friday Foto Talk, Part V: Plug-ins   8 comments

First post!  Happy New Year!

First post! Happy New Year!

This post concludes a mini-series on post-processing.  Find parts I – IV here.  My intent is to summarize the approach I’ve found to be helpful for me.  It’s not to give specific instruction on how to edit your photographs on the computer.  You can find these tutorials in many different places both online and in print.  But be selective and only go with the most experienced teachers.  Much of the online instruction in particular can be a little misleading and not all that helpful.  Everybody is different and will approach specific editing tasks differently.  Only very experienced teachers factor this in to the right extent.

You should develop your own unique “workflow”, or general sequence of steps, while being flexible enough to take any given image in a different direction than the one you took the last image.  Editing is, in fact, just like capturing images.  The more you do it the more comfortable you become.  If you’re fairly new to digital photography, don’t expect to get to that post-processing comfort zone without some degree of frustration.  Don’t despair; it’s all part of the learning curve.  And so, on to plug-ins:

Last week I posted a winter Crater Lake.  This one is from late summer with smoke from distant fires turning the sky orange.

Last week I posted a winter Crater Lake. This one is from late summer with smoke from distant fires turning the sky orange.


Plug-ins are software programs that work with Lightroom, Aperture, Photoshop CS and other programs to add functionality and ease of use.  They are the classic editing extra.  I’m talking only about those plug-ins which apply post-processing techniques to your images.  There are plugins that do all sorts of things – automatically publishing your pictures on websites, for example.

As the name says, these programs “plug in” to your main editor (Lightroom, Photoshop or Aperture).  When you install a plug-in, you link it to your main editing program.  Editing plug-ins are designed to, in effect, take your images on a round-trip from your main program to the plug-in (where you apply edits) and back again.

In Lightroom for example, you simply right-click on a picture and click “edit in”.  Then from the drop-down menu you choose one of the plug-ins you have installed and, from the box that pops up, select how you want to save it.  After you finish with the image and click save (or apply, or whatever the plug-in says), your photo is automatically sent back to Lightroom, thus creating another version of it in a non-RAW format (Jpeg, TIFF).  Once you’ve done it a few times, it’s a pretty simple procedure.

A bare winter tree

A bare winter tree


Although you can almost always do with Photoshop what any plug-in can do, these little programs can almost always do it quicker and easier.  By and large, a plug-in, like any editing extra, will impart a certain style to your picture.  Plug-ins can lend quite magical or painterly effects to your images.  Many of them do what filters did in the film era.  But they go far beyond simple filters.

The power of these little programs means it’s very easy to overdo things, resulting in an image with the wrong kind of impact.  But, at least with the better plug-ins, it also means you can exert a fair amount of subtlety and control.  This control is best applied by combining the judicious use of sliders and opacity.

Some of the more popular plug-ins for photography include Nik, onOne, Imagenomic and Topaz.  There are others.  These companies offer bundles, which are a good deal if you plan to use two or more of their products a lot.  For instance I use Nik’s Silver Effex & Color Effex quite a bit, so I bought the bundle and for nearly no extra money got their excellent Dfine for noise reduction and HDR Effex for HDR.

The charming town of Quetzaltenango (Xela for short) lies in Guatemala's western highlands.

The charming town of Quetzaltenango (Xela for short) lies in Guatemala’s western highlands.

As mentioned, most editing plug-ins are quite powerful, and thus they’re often used with Photoshop because you can easily apply them as a layer and then dampen the effect simply by changing layer opacity.  Also, you can apply layer masks in Photoshop, limiting the effects of the plugin to local areas of the image.  But even here the creators of these programs have figured out ways to allow their use without Photoshop.  .

With many plug-ins, you can adjust opacity while still inside the plug-in software itself.  And to take it a step further, in the better plug-ins you can adjust the effect in local areas of the image.  Some plug-ins have masking as their sole function, competing directly with Photoshop.

All this allows photographers like me to largely avoid Photoshop, using the plug-ins in conjunction with Lightroom (which doesn’t have layers or layer masking).  As described in Part IV, I use Photoshop itself as a plug-in, only occasionally taking photos from Lightroom to PS for specific tasks, then saving right back to my LR catalog.  If you plan to use plug-ins in conjunction with Lightroom instead of Photoshop, I recommend those that allow a lot of adjustment to the overall effect (opacity) as well as the effects of individual sliders.  All plug-in software offers free trials.

The roof in Carlsbad Cavern's Big Room is studded with thousands of stalactites.

The roof in Carlsbad Cavern’s Big Room is studded with thousands of stalactites.


Plug-ins have an effect you’ll see all over the internet, especially on social media.  Some of these looks become quite popular, and soon enough it seems like 9 out of 10 images you see have been edited by the same plug-in, with the same effect applied.  Of course this isn’t the plug-in’s fault.  It’s just our “ape” ancestry showing through.

But don’t let this stop you from trying the plug-in.  Just be thoughtful and you’ll be okay.  Your job as a photographer stays the same throughout the post-processing minefield, rife as it is with Facebook fads and 500 px rankings.  Edit your images so they express your particular vision, taking strong account of exactly what was happening at the time you pressed the shutter, and how you felt about it.  If that means using a look that happens to be popular at the moment, then so be it.  Don’t be shy!  If it means going with a look that gets 3 likes on Facebook, that’s fine too!  In other words, to beat a dead horse, just be yourself.

While rambling southern Africa, the call of the "go away" bird might make you feel just a bit unwelcome.

While rambling southern Africa, the call of the gray “go away” bird might make you feel just a bit unwelcome.

Canyon hiking in the Guadalupe Mountains, Texas.

Canyon hiking in the Guadalupe Mountains, Texas.


If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know I’m more into the capture part of photography.  I started out hating post-processing, but now I’m much more in tune with it.  In the end, it’s up to each of you to learn how you want to approach editing your images.  Just like it’s up to you to choose (and then learn how to use) the software you think will get your photography to where you want to take it.

You’ve likely noticed that I recommend basing things off Lightroom.  That’s because it does such a great job of organizing and editing both.  And boy do I need organizing!  Supplement with Photoshop (or Elements) if you’ll be doing a lot of cloning and/or composites (merging images).  Add a few plug-ins that you enjoy using and that jive with your needs and style.  If you take this approach, you’ll be doing the same thing most pro photographers do.

A long post, thanks for sticking with me!  Hope you got something out of it.  Good luck and have a fun fun fun 2015!

A recent sunset, Cimarron River.

A recent sunset on the Cimarron River.

8 responses to “Friday Foto Talk, Part V: Plug-ins

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  1. Gorgeous beautiful pictures!! 😀

  2. Thanks for this very helpful post! I haven’t used plug-ins before, but it sounds like there are some useful ones out there, which can replicate some of PS’s functionality in LR. I would rather stick to one software, and I find LR pretty easy to work with. I love the shot of the summer Crater Lake BTW… did you use a particular plug-in to edit that? BRW, I also liked your play on words… “just our ape ancestory showing through” 🙂

    • You’re welcome Kan, thanks for reading it! I used Nik Color Effex to edit that Crater Lake image, and it just added a bit of glow and color contrast. After it came back into LR I subtracted back out a little vibrance and saturation.

  3. Thanks so much for this information Mike. I have yet to purchase any plug-ins but am going to check out Nik.

  4. Very helpful. You always explain things so clearly

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