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Tools for Creating Special Effects

By James Martin - June 28th, 2005

Editor's Note: 

Author and outdoor photographer James Martin's column on outdoor
digital photography appears regularly on GreatOutdoors.com. His new
book on the subject, Digital Photography Outdoors, was published in
Fall 2004.

As photography moves toward a completely digital world, computer applications become crucial to the successful image. Photoshop, for example, has become indispensable to the serious amateur outdoor photographer. A tremendously powerful program, its complexity can be daunting when performing even simple tasks. I'm always looking for shortcuts to produce the effects I want without learning the intricacies of the software. And I record the steps for frequently performed task as macros, which are called "actions" in Photoshop. For example, I use an action to change the image size of files and file type to meet the needs of a stock agency. The same action produces a JPEG version at the same time, so I've got a thumbnail version of the photos.

Over the years, a series of plug-ins have become available for Photoshop that can make using the software easier. Plug-ins are simply "actions" written and marketed by third-party vendors. Among these, Color Efex Pro 2.0 from Nik Multimedia has become a staple in my arsenal of quick fixes and magical transformations.

Color Efex 2.0 is a set of filters they can be used for color correction, to mimic special effects such as cross processing or infrared, or to create otherworldly images. Nik offers three versions: Standard (19 filters for $99.95), Select (45 filters for $159.95), and Complete (75 filters for $299.95 ). When installed the filters are found in the Filter pulldown menu in Photoshop, divided into Traditional and Stylized categories.

Let's look at several filters.

I've always loved the look of black-and-white infrared images. You can approximate the look of black-and-white infrared film in Photoshop by converting a digital color image to grayscale or using Channels to make a black-and-white version, increasing contrast, and adding appropriate blur. Color Efex's black-and-white infrared filter does the same thing at the click of a mouse. With the plug-in, simply create a duplicate layer over the original color image, click on the infrared filter found under Color Efex Traditional in the Filter pulldown menu in Photoshop. The preview pane shows you how the image will look if you use the filter at full strength. Apply the filter and voil'a, instant infrared, turning even an ordinary image into something special.

The trick to controlling any filter is the Fade command. After applying the filter, open the Edit Pulldown Menu and click on Fade. A slider menu appears that allows you to fade the opacity of the filtered image to let the underlying color appear to a greater or lesser extent. In the case of the IR filter you end up with a de-saturated, slightly grainy image. If you want a simple black-and-white infrared void of color, don't bother with the fade command. Once you are satisfied with the results, flatten the image (the command is at the bottom of the Layers pulldown menu) and save it.

Sometimes I return home with images that would have benefited from the use of a graduated neutral density filter. I can see by my histogram that there is information in the bright areas, but the skies look overexposed, what photographers call "blown out." There are a number of ways to control the excess of contrast in Photoshop, but the Color Efex graduated neutral density filter performs a serviceable job quickly and easily.

It works like this: open a duplicate layer, click on graduated neutral density filter in the Traditional filter menu, and adjust the image in the preview pane to modulate brightness in the light and dark areas before applying the filter to the image. The fade command allows you to further adjust the strength of the filter before flattening and saving.

Some days the light refuses to cooperate. Every shot looks drab. The Sunshine filter can rescue these images with a single click. By following the same procedure as before, i.e. creating a duplicate layer and applying the filter, the Sunshine filter floods the image with light and warm color. Sometimes the filter looks unnaturally warm. Fade judiciously for best results.

Many of the filters step beyond the bounds of the possible into the realm of abstraction. The Monday morning filters, midnight filters, and cross processing filters provide simple ways to achieve the colors and atmospheres found in fashion and fine arts photography. Most of these filters reside in the Stylized menu. It's fun to play with the surreal, but the results are not to everyone's taste.

Despite their power, these filters don't replace traditional glass and resin filters in the photographer's bag of trick. For example, the digital version of a polarizing filter can't see through glare on a wet leaf to reveal the underlying green. I usually prefer the results I get from a glass filter over the computer version of a graduated neutral density, but when I needed GND after the shoot, the Color Efex version is a lifesaver.

The Standard version lacks important filters. Check out the Select and Complete sets to see which filters will enhance your photography.


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