There is no shortage these days of various plug-ins and toolkits out there to aid in easy enhancement of your images. With an abundance of software available, knowing what to check out and what to skip can be a little daunting.
One such toolkit however will always find a use in my post-processing workflow. Nik Software's powerful 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 the trouble of 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 first 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. It's one of those subtle filters that does so much more than simply adjusting the native Contrast or Clarity sliders.
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 DXO Nik Collection. You can download the full package including Color Efex, Silver Efex, Analog Efex, HDR Efex and more directly from DXO for $69 or try a 30-Day trial - Download Nik Collection by DXO