Perfect your digital photos with plug-ins
Jul 1, 2009, 15:17 GMT
Washington - Want your digital photos to stand out? Plug-ins may by the answer. These small add-on applications, intended to be used along with popular image editing software, are often designed for a single purpose, and the best of them can turn what would otherwise be hours of tinkering into a fun exercise that takes just a few clicks.
It's true that you can use almost any photo editor to make basic adjustments to digital photographs. Changes in brightness, contrast, and even colour are fairly easy using the built-in controls of Photoshop, Gimp, Picasa, or any of the free photo editors that come with most digital cameras.
But these types of adjustments can only go so far. Often, people want to see photographs that represent not life as it really is but life as they'd like it to be. Smooth skin, appealing skin colour, and radiant eyes are the stuff of classic portraits, and people are happy to see themselves in images when they look a bit better than life. When it comes to landscapes and other types of outdoor shots, the ones that are most memorable aren't necessarily those that roll right out of the camera. They're the ones that come closest to how we remember scenes and places: magical skylines, vibrant colours, and dreamy sunsets.
And that's where plug-ins come in. Here's an overview of some of the best plug-ins that can help you turn photographs of people and landscapes into works of art.
--- Perfect skin
When it comes to rendering people's skin in a pleasing way, too much detail can get you into trouble. Put simply, people don't want to see every blemish, scar, or wrinkle on their faces. They want photographs that portray them in the most flattering way possible.
Several plug-ins can help you in not only correcting skin colour that's a bit off but also in smoothing and 'glamourising' skin tones. One Software's PhotoTune 2 (http://www.ononesoftware.com/detail.php?prodLine_id=27) and iCorrect Portrait (http://www.pictocolour.com/portrait.htm) are both adept at taking skin tone that is slightly off - as a result of incorrect white balance or simply because of a camera that does not do well rendering skin tones - and making it pleasing. These plug-ins are point-and-click simple: once launched, you just point to the skin area of a photograph and choose the type of skin you want. Finer adjustments from that point on are easy as well.
Skin smoothing is another way to make people look their best in photographs, and one of the best plug-ins for this is Imagenomic's Portraiture (http://www.imagenomic.com/pt.aspx). A number of presets allow you to apply various levels of smoothing, and even the mildest settings will generally do a great job in masking wrinkles and blemishes in a convincing way.
--- Magical scenery
It's difficult for today's digital cameras to capture landscapes and other scenery with the kind of pizzazz that most of us are after. In great part, that's because of the limited dynamic range of digital cameras. The eye can discern much more detail in scenes that contain both shadow and bright light than a digital camera can. When the camera is focused on a scene of high contrast, the bright parts take precedence, and the shadows are often left murky, lacking in detail.
The best way around this is to employ a technique known as HDR - short for high dynamic range photography. HDR tools will take one photograph shot in your camera's RAW image format or several identical photographs, exposed differently, and merge them in order to extract the most detail from both the bright and the dark parts of the image.
The result are scenic images of great impact. To see examples of HDR photography, point your browser to 2 Expert Design's '85 Examples of Beautiful HDR Photography' (http://www.2expertsdesign.com/2009/06/02/85-examples-of-beautiful-hd r-photography).
Plug-ins that can help you to create your own beautiful HDR photographs include HDRSoft's Photomatix (http://www.hdrsoft.com), FDR Tools (http://www.fdrtools.com), and DynamicPhoto HDR (http://www.mediachance.com/hdri/index.html). Some of these tools are available both in standalone versions and as plug-ins, so you can choose which format you like.
Creating HDR photographs is something of an art, even with these handy tools that do most of the work for you. If you'd like to learn tips and tricks from digital photographers that regularly create HDR, join an online forum devoted to HDR photography. Some good ones are PhotoCamel's HDR Photography (http://photocamel.com/forum/hdr- photography) and Flickr's HDR Group (http://www.flickr.com/groups/hdr).
--- Ditch the noise
Digital noise is the Achilles heel of digital photography. In essence, noise shows up in digital photographs as random dots of different colours, and it's most noticeable in photographs shot in =low light, or those in which the ISO level on the camera has been set very high to allow for low-light shooting. Noise causes detail in your photographs to be lost. To see examples of digital noise, head over to Neat Image's Filtration Examples page (http://www.neatimage.com/examples.html).
Many higher-end digital photography editing applications contain some type of rudimentary noise reduction filter, and you can start with these to see how removing noise can improve the look of your photographs.
When you're ready to get serious about noise removal, though, some advanced noise removal plug-ins can help salvage what might otherwise be unusable images. NeatImage (http://www.neatimage.com), Noise Ninja (http://www.picturecode.com), and Imagenomic's Noiseware Pro (http://www.imagenomic.com) are all well respected and effective.
The downside of some of these noise removal plug-in is that they can be run on only one image at a time. But for salvaging an otherwise excellent photograph, they can be just the ticket.
--- Freeware alternatives
Many of the tools mentioned here are considered best-of-class, but most of them do cost money. Some freeware alternatives exist. For skin smoothing and colouring, try ClearSkinFX (http://www.mediachance.com/digicam/cleanskin.htm) or PhotoFiltre (http://photofiltre.free.fr/download_en.htm), and for HDR work, look at Picturenaut (http://www.hdrlabs.com/picturenaut). For noise removal, check out DeNoise (http://www.softwhile.com/product_dn.html).