Being the conductor of your own orchestra- the power of plugins.

Being the conductor of your own orchestra- the power of plugins.


Wool sack and graffiti, St James shearing shed

Wool sack and graffiti, St James shearing shed . Fujifilm XPro-1. 35/1.4 lens

“True intelligence operates silently. Stillness is where creativity and solutions to problems are found” – Eckhart Tolle

“Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine, and at last, you create what you will”

 – George Bernard Shaw

From time to time I am asked what plugin suite to buy, to extend PhotoShop and allow more creative postproduction options. What they are really asking is: what ones do you use? What ones do you prefer and why?

Well, I have a few.

Over the last few years I have invested (yes, that is the correct term), in a few. Well, more than a few…. Allow me to explain.

It seemed to me, when I was a darkroom guy, quite some years ago, that there were two camps; on the one hand there were the people who used, say, only one brand of film, developer and enlarging paper, the rationale being that the manufacturers must surely know how to match these things for the best effect. There were Ilford guys, and Kodak guys and the odd Agfa guy. But they all stayed true to the brand, apparently because they were convinced the manufacturers knew  best.

Then there was the other camp, with people like me, restless souls convinced that there must be something better. It seemed to me that all the manufacturers made great, time-tested products, and that perhaps my match made in heaven might lie in testing and combining different products. In the process, which was naturally time-consuming but salutary, I evolved a range of products and techniques suitable for the different types of photography I did. Shooting the grand landscape usually involved Kodak T-Max film, processed in Tetenal chemicals and printed on obscure Eastern-bloc silver-rich papers. On the other hand, studio portraiture would see me breaking out Agfa APX 100, processing it in highly-diluted Rodinal and printing on Ilford paper. It worked for me. All that testing and experimenting gave me a range of options which I could use for different types of photography and types of subject matter.

Well, that was then, and this is now.

I guess this restless soul mentality has followed me through into the digital world. I meet people who do everything in PhotoShop, or Lightroom, or even PaintShop Pro (yes, I know you are out there…). When I ask them why they are not trying out the opposition products, inevitably the answer goes something along the lines of… I just don’t have the time to….

Well, I hate to say it, but the biggest block on the path to mastery is when you say to yourself “I just don’t have the time to…” If you are not pushing the boat further out into the ocean, then you’re going nowhere.

I’m an eager beaver and a product addict, I will admit it. However that testing and experimentation ethos I brought through with me from my film days is still there. Maybe I am just a sucker for advertising, but then I don’t have to buy the products in the first place. I can try them for myself, test them out, and see if they will add anything to my workflow, methodologies, or current picture-making strategies. I may well find that they deliver less than they promise, or occasionally sometimes more. A 30-day trial will tell you an awful lot about whether a particular piece of postproduction software (read: film developer) will add anything to your armoury.

If you are willing to make the effort.

I see it this way.

PhotoShop and Lightroom form the foundation for my postproduction workflow. Both serve their purpose, and while each of them uses the same process imaging engine, the results they deliver a somewhat different, due in part, I believe, to the fact that they work in quite different colour spaces. PhotoShop seems engineered to work happily within the Adobe RGB colour space, while Lightroom’s native colour space is Prophoto RGB.

At the moment, I use three major suites and a handful of other plug-ins. These are:

  1. Topaz labs suite of products. These are truly affordable plug-ins which will take you a long way. They have an innovative approach for not a lot of money, and offer the ability to make creative effects relatively easily and simply. Disclaimer: while I have them, my personal workflow over the last couple of years has evolved to the point where I don’t use them very much. My current aesthetic does not seem to have much place for them at the moment. If yours does, well and good. Enjoy.
  2. Nik software. The Nik range has some truly astonishing plug-ins, including HDR Efex, Color Efex and Silver Efex Pro 2, to my mind arguably the best black and white converter on the market at the moment. Of course that is quite likely to change at any point, as other manufacturers bring in new products to compete. Sharpener Pro is an astoundingly good Sharpening package, and Define is a superior noise-reduction tool. Of all of these, perhaps the tool I use the most is Color Efex, which allows me to create individual effects, adjust them using blend modes, and then mask to apply them selectively. Over time I have evolved ways of using some of them in atypical ways, to create natural effects. For example, I will often use the solarise filter to enhance the texture in clouds, by applying it, changing the blend mode to perhaps luminosity, and then using a layer mask to selectively blend it in unobtrusively. What’s not to like? Well, for one thing the price. Until now, my bank balance has rebelled at paying € 500 for the entire suite. I might add, I picked up my now-aging suite in an auction for not a lot of money, and for the time being it will have to do. But the results it produces are exemplary, and if your bank balance can stand it, then I wholeheartedly recommend it. To my mind this is a product which can nudge your photographs gently, give them a jolly good boot up the backside, or take them to new places altogether. If you are a digital Dr Frankenstein, passionate about totally reworking the DNA of your pixels, then there is a lot to love about this suite.  Interestingly, I note that they have just been bought by Google, mostly for Snapseed I believe, as an adjunct to Instagram. It will be interesting to see what Google make of the new acquisition, and whether Google muscle in the R&D department means we have a superior product at a more affordable price.
  3.  OneOne software Perfect Photo  Suite 6/7. A friend rang me up the other day, to ask whether he should invest in Nik or OneOne. My reply was that he should do both. Here is why. They are the same only different. Perfect Photo Suite contains a series of quite separate applications which, while they overlap, offer different choices. Perfect Effects is a superior tool for manipulating your image to match your vision, and it is so simple to use, that it will blow you away with what can be achieved. However Perfect Photo Suite has tools which none of the others do. For example, I use Perfect Resize to upscale my images prior to printing them for exhibition. The application has a number of cool, and subtle but important tricks up its sleeve which make the prints look better after they have been resized. You target the resize to the end use and end size, and then it makes adjustments to suit. Perfect Portrait is an astonishingly easy way to optimise portraits, and should, I believe, be in every wedding and portrait photographer’s toolbox. Not long ago I did a portrait of a person whose skin was… less than perfect…. Perfect Portrait removed the… strong texture of the skin… and the pimples in about two clicks, leaving a face which would have graced the front cover of Vogue magazine. Where Perfect Photo Suite scores brilliantly is in its functionality, ease of use and the power of its production. Oh, and did I mention the price? At $US249 for the entire suite, it represents, to my mind, great value for money. A Disclaimer is an order at this point: yes, I am an affiliate, and I do get the opportunity to look at the software early in the piece. As you will see from the coupons over this website, I do take a small commission when you click through and order it. And I mean small. However, I do suggest that seven applications for $US249 ($US35/application) is not a lot of money.
  4.  ALCE. No matter how good your camera, and no matter how careful you have been in capturing a file, there is always work to be done in postproduction. Even Jpegs need help. Alice (I call it that) is an astonishingly effective tool for enhancing local contrast. No, it is not a substitute for the clarity slider. I use both of them in tandem. What it is, as far as I can tell, is an incredibly complex PhotoShop action, which uses a combination of edge and high pass sharpening, along with a bunch of other clever PhotoShop tools. I’m sure the PhotoShop gurus do this sort of thing all day, but when you can fix your pictures by dragging one slider and pushing  the ’go’ button for €28, why would you bother? It’s simple, powerful and effective, and you will be amazed at the three-dimensional effect it can give your photographs.

And so to the header image. I went out for the afternoon on a bit of a photographer’s road trip with two dear friends, David and Carl, who are both photographers closer to the literal end of the spectrum than me. We headed over the pass and up into the back country on a cold windy day, which is often the best time to be out. I was enjoying being with them but not particularly enthusiastic about making a great masterpiece. After some (vaguely) four-wheel-drive adventures we made our way back to the village, and then stopped at the shearing shed which sits up in the trees in the Valley above and behind the village. While I had driven past it many times, I had never bothered to step inside and have a look around. David, however, as he so often is, was a man with a mission. He had a picture in mind, and his methodology clearly mapped out, and he was over the horizon and far away before the rest of us had got our equipment sorted.

I hadn’t been in this particular shearing shed before, and frankly I wasn’t sure if I was that enthusiastic. But I went anyway.

But I was in for a pleasant surprise. To the best of my knowledge people have been bringing sheep to this shed for at least a century, and the marks were all over the walls and floor. This was a building with a history. I wandered around, looking at the gnarled timbers, the lanolin-soaked panelling, and the carved and stencilled graffiti. It was absolutely fascinating. Then, as I turned the corner, I saw the woolsack, hanging on the wall. It contained remnants of wool from some recent shearing in the past, and it was surrounded by boards literally coated in graffiti and stencilling. I stood there staring at it for quite some time, allowing the relationships and context to seep into me until the photograph began to present itself. The sense of history and time passed was hitting me on every sensory level; sight, smell and sound (or rather lack of it). Once I could picture the finished image in my mind, along with postproduction techniques, I knew what had to be done.

I went back to the car to get my camera and tripod. After setting up the camera, my XPro-1 , on a ridiculously large Induro tripod, I carefully made my composition and checked the metering. Then it was a simple matter of screwing in the cable release (try finding one of those in a camera shop these days!) and making a series of exposures.

I held the vision in my head, because so often what we see either through the viewfinder or on the LCD will be quite different to what we picture and our mind. Part of mastery, I believe, is holding to that vision and knowing which tools to use to get there. That is the payback for the attack on your wallet and all the hours spent in testing and experimentation.

In the computer I made the initial adjustments in Lightroom, and then exported the file to PhotoShop. First of all I dipped into Nik Color Efex, and used the Pro Contrast and Brilliance/warmth filters. Once those had been tuned, blended and brushed to my satisfaction, I took the file into Perfect Effects, where I applied an angled vignette filter and some further warming.

Finally, I applied Alice twice consecutively, using masks to adjust to selectively and different parts of the image.

It seems to me that postproduction and the knowledge of which tools to use is critical to mastery of the digital photography process. As Ansel Adams says, the negative (file) is the score, and the print (postproduction) is the performance. If we wish to be the conductor of our photographic orchestra, then it seems to me we need to know how to play as many instruments as possible.




4 Responses

  1. John Suckling says:

    Tony, just wanted to let you know that on my screen that sack hung off it so well I could put my nose in and smell the hay!

  2. Virginia Gray says:

    As a farmer’s daughter I can relate to your woolshed experience. St James belonged to my nephew’s father-in-law until Helen was determined to pay megabucks to buy it for the nation! Bless her?

  3. Mike says:

    Thanks for such an informative post, Tony. I’ve been a fan of Nik products for a while, but worry that the Google buyout might mean an end to them. I’ll check out your other recommendations.

    How do you find Lightroom with X-Pro1 RAW files? Is the reported “smearing” for real, or just controversy stirred up by people who like to moan on the Internet?

    The wool sack image is beautiful – as real as an image could look.

  4. Tony Bridge says:

    Hi Mike:
    many thanks for the kind words about my woolsack image. I think what stunned me the most was seeing it as an A0 print. I didn’t think an image of quality at that size was possible from the little FUJI X pro. It all goes to show you what is possible when you really put in effort into capture technique.
    Interestingly, i haven’t seen the smearing myself, since I’m more interested in the real world performance of the camera, and I prefer to make pictures, rather than sit there pixel peeping. That said, my own work flow may eliminate many of those issues.
    Lovely work from the beach post, and it really reminds me of a wonderful day walking along the beach outside Perth. Very special light.

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