There's no shortage these days of plug-ins and toolkits out there for enhancing your images. With an abundance of tools available, knowing what to check out and what to skip can be daunting.
One such toolkit however will always find a use in my post-processing workflow. Nik Software's FREE Color Efex Pro 4 plug-in.
Part of a large photo effects suite from Google (now DXO), Color Efex Pro is both a standalone application and a plugin for Lightroom/Photoshop offering a range of 55 filters for color correction, retouching, and creative photo effects.
Whilst most of what this software provides can be achieved by those with a moderate knowledge of Photoshop, it saves you having to navigate Photoshop's complicated menus trying to remember how to create an effect.
All of the filters in Color Efex Pro can be applied non-destructively as layers. In addition, the software has a clever 'control points' system, which allows you to target specific parts of the image to apply effects, whilst leaving other areas unaffected.
I personally find a good workflow is to get your image as close as possible to your intended look in CameraRaw/Lightroom, and then switch over to Color Efex Pro to refine and finalize that look.
Here's my pick of the 10 best filters I personally use in Color Efex Pro.
Fantastic for enhancing dimly lit or night images, the low key filter simulates a theatrical look with high contrast and a soft ethereal glow.
I find it works best with images containing contrasting areas of light and shadow. It will crush shadow detail and enhance highlights with the glow effect.
I find this filter useful for enhancing landscape and seascape type images. This simulates a traditional two-color filter by blending two complementary tones together. There are numerous color options to choose from, even the Hollywood "Teal & Orange" look!
Glamour Glow is one of the best filters in the toolkit. Designed for softening skin to recreate a soft focus look for portraits, I prefer to apply it to foliage and water to greatly soften landscape shots.
Applied generously, it can transform parts of your images to give off that painterly feel. It is very similar to applying a Gaussian Blur with the blend mode set to 'soft light', also known as the "Orton Effect".
This unique filter increases tonality and enhances fine detail in the shadows and highlights. It works brilliantly for accentuating textures in an image.
It can be a very powerful effect to apply to single exposure images to increase dynamic range for an HDR look. In my opinion, it is the best filter in the toolkit.
Just like a traditional polarizing filter, the software equivalent does an admirable job of dulling reflective surfaces like windows, but it's best use is for deepening the tones in your skies.
Lots of cool presets here to play with to give your images that retro feel by emulating the effect of cross processing E-6 slide film in C-41 or vice-versa.
This filter can produce some radical changes in the color tonality of an image. It can be used to shift the hues of green to blue (or vice-versa), switch yellows to orange (useful for night images), or swap from a cool to warm tone.
Again, another filter designed to mimic the real thing. Grad filter plugins in Color Efex Pro are available in a variety of colors and when applied at a low opacity can help enhance an otherwise dull sky.
A major stylistic effect is the bleach bypass. This filter reduces color saturation whilst increasing contrast for that super gritty feel.
By far the most infamous of all the filters, 'Pro Contrast' is rightly so one of the most useful in the toolkit, and many photographers absolutely swear by this filter.
Pro Contrast works best as a final step in your editing workflow to bring out that 'pop'. It's hard to say exactly whats going on, but I believe it works on tonality and adjusts contrast variably across the image, rather than just a blanket increase across everything.
Below is an example showing a combination of various filters used together, starting with the before...
...and the after
Color Efex Pro 4 is available as part of the Google Nik Collection and is COMPLETELY FREE! You can download the full package including Color Efex, Silver Efex, Analog Efex, HDR Efex and more directly from Google - Download Google Nik Collection
Although Google has sadly decided not to continue supporting the Nik plug-in's, I can still highly recommend this suite for any photographer. Luckily the software is 64-bit and still works for the time being with the latest CC and standalone versions of Photoshop and Lightroom as of Oct 2017.
*EDIT - As of 25th October 2017, the NIK collection has been bought out by DXO, who will continue to offer the suite for free. This is excellent news as it will undoubtedly mean future compatibility for the plug-in with newer versions of Photoshop and Lightroom. Fingers crossed for an updated or all-new version of the suite in the future!