An Introduction to Color Efex Pro 4
What is it? Why use it?
Aperture's controls have essentially remained stagnant for the past few years. One way to work around this shortcoming is by using plugins to fill in the gaps. In this article, I will provide an introduction to one of my favorites, Color Efex Pro 4.
Color Efex Pro 4 (CEP) is a plugin for Aperture, Lightroom, and Photoshop. It is also available as a stand-alone image editor. Originally developed by NIK Software, as of this writing, CEP is available as part of the NIK Collection by Google for $149.
CEP contains 55 filters that are designed to adjust an image's contrast, color, style, or a combination of all three. However, the real power of CEP comes from stacking multiple individual filters together to create more compelling images than what Aperture's basic controls offer on their own. CEP is not difficult to use, but there is a learning curve associated with simply becoming familiar with what all of the filters do.
For this article, I will provide a basic overview of CEP's capabilities, along with a brief discussion highlighting the benefits of launching it directly from Aperture versus Photoshop (via Aperture). In an upcoming piece, I will share some of specific tricks to help provide a head start for using CEP on your own images.
How it works—a basic workflow via an example
Once installed, CEP can be launched directly from Aperture or in Photoshop via Aperture. (I will talk about the benefits to each approach at the end of this overview.) Regardless of the launching application, the CEP window will look nearly identical. The plugin's interface is divided into three columns: the left column lists all of the filters; the right lists all of the active filters currently being applied to the image, and the edited image appears in the middle.
At the very top of the left column, there are a series of subcategories (landscape, color, stylizing, portrait, detail, etc) that serve as one-click toggles to select a smaller subset of filters. For example, in the screenshot above, I've toggled the 'Favorites' button, which shows just my favorite filters. (These are the filters where I have selected the gold star to the left of each filter's name.)
The best way to demonstrate the basic functionality of CEP is by applying a few filters to an example image (shown above). For this image, I want to draw the viewer's eye up along the building's perspective lines. To do this, I'm going to build a CEP filter stack that helps encourage this progression by modifying the image's color and contrast.
I will start by making the sky more blue, since it got blown out on the initial capture. To begin, I'll select (left click on) Graduated Filter from the list on the left side, and the filter will show up in the right panel.
Every filter comes with a unique set of controls that are tailored to the specific filter's effect. In this case, Graduated Filter adds a color gradient to the image. The gradient can be adjusted in different ways, and all of the sliders in this filter allow for those adjustments. Specifically, the user can set the color (Color Set drop down), opacity, blend (determines how quickly the gradient fades), vertical shift (the offset from the edge of the image), and the rotation angle (180 degrees puts the gradient at the top of the image, 0 degrees at the bottom).
My goal in using this filter is to bring back some of the sky's blue that I lost on the initial capture. To do this, I will set the Color Set to Blue 3, opacity to 50%, blend to 25%, vertical shift to 40%, and the rotation to 172 degrees. Once these adjustments are made, I can use the P key to toggle between a before and after view. Using this filter has achieved the goal of returning some color to the sky.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the most powerful feature of CEP is the fact that filters can be stacked on top of one another. The first filter was used to make the sky more blue. Now I'll add a second to improve contrast in the building and draw the viewer's eye up towards the sky that I just enhanced.
To do this, I will hover over Tonal Contrast in the left column and shift click it. (Simply clicking on a new filter from the list on the left replaces the current filter in the right panel with the new one. Holding down the shift button adds the chosen filter to the stack on the right. This trick is a huge timesaver!)
As you might imagine, Tonal Contrast allows you to independently change the contrast of the highlights, midtones, and shadows. This is an incredibly powerful feature, but I'll stick with a simple implementation for this image. The default values for the Tonal Contrast filter are very heavy-handed, so when I'm using this filter I always start by setting the values of Highlights, Midtones, and Shadows to 0% and Saturation to 10%. Doing this allows us to see the starting point before any Tonal Contrast is applied. I'll set the Highlights to 15%, the Midtones to 10%, and the Shadows to 0%.
The Saturation slider is included in this filter because the image will lose saturation as the contrast increases. My normal workflow for this filter is to set Highlights, Midtones, and Shadows, and then set Saturation as the final step.
Once I've completed this step, I can toggle the P key to see a before and after, but note that this preview is showing the before and after of the entire filter stack (Graduated Filters + Tonal Contrast). If you just want to see the effect of Tonal Contrast, you'll have to toggle the check box that is immediately to the left of the filter's name in the right panel.
To finish this image, I will shift-click Darken / Lighten Center from the filter list on the left side panel. The defaults on this filter also tend to be heavy-handed, so I will choose a Center Luminosity of 15% and a Border Luminosity of -20%.
By default, the Darken / Lighten Center filter is centered on the middle of the image, but this filter allows the user to change the center point. To do this, click once on the Place Center pip and then click anywhere in the image. For this particular example, I am looking to direct the viewer's attention toward the top of the building, so I clicked on the building about two thirds of the way up. (If you don't get it right the first time, it's easy enough to click the pip and try again.)
Now that I have a filter stack that's achieved my goal of boosting color and contrast to direct the viewer's attention, I can click OK in the lower right corner to save the image and return to the launching application (either Aperture or Photoshop). However, before doing this, I could save this stack in case I want to use it again in the future. To do this, click on the Save Recipe button, give the recipe a name, and click OK (see below). This stack will now be saved as a preset under the Recipes tab in the left panel.
For the sake of completeness, I am including a before and after comparison below that shows what the image looks like after applying the filter stack that I described above. The result isn't anything over the top or fake-looking; instead, CEP helped me achieve the composition goals that I described earlier.
Launching from Aperture vs Photoshop
There are two options for launching CEP: launching directly from within Aperture and launching from Aperture into Photoshop and then into CEP. (Of course, this assumes that you have Photoshop.) There are advantages to each method.
The advantage of launching the plugin directly from Aperture is that this is the most straightforward way to get into CEP: You don't have to wait for Photoshop to open. It's also the only option that's available if you don't own Photoshop. To launch the plugin from Aperture, control-click on an image in Aperture (or a selection of images), and choose Edit with Plug-In and then Color Efex Pro 4 from the pop-up menu.
While launching directly from Aperture is the easiest thing to do, it also comes with a big disadvantage: Once you close CEP and return to Aperture, there is no way to go back to CEP and adjust the image by tweaking the filter settings. You'll have to start from scratch. For this reason, I prefer to open CEP from within Photoshop because Photoshop allows me to go back and adjust the filter stack in CEP, even after I close the plug-in and return to Aperture.
To launch CEP from within Photoshop, right click on an image in Aperture, and choose Edit with Adobe Photoshop from the pop-up menu. When the image opens in Photoshop, go to the Filter drop down (in Photoshop) and choose Convert for Smart Filters. (I use Photoshop CS6; I am assuming this feature is located in the same place in Photoshop CC. If in doubt, you can always use the Spotlight option under Photoshop's help drop down menu to search for this feature.)
To demonstrate the utility of opening CEP via Photoshop, let's go back to the image that I used to demonstrate CEP's workflow at the top of this article. Let's say that I've completed all of the edits that I described in the steps above, and I saved the image and returned to Aperture. After studying the image some more, I decide that I wish I had applied a red gradient filter rather than a blue one. If I had launched CEP directly from Aperture, I'd be stuck: I can't go back in and pick up where I left off. However, since I launched CEP on a Smart Object within Photoshop I can go back it and quickly make the change that I desire.
To do this, I will select the image in my Aperture library and launch it into Photoshop by pressing Command-Shift-O. Once in Photoshop, I'll go to the Layers palette and double-click on the words Color Efex Pro 4 (see below).
After CEP4 opens, I see the same filter stack that I developed earlier, and I'm able to quickly make the change. In this case, I'll go to the Graduated Filter and choose a different Color Set. At this point I can click OK, head back into Photoshop, and then back into Aperture to complete the edit.
In addition to being able to make changes after the fact, there is another advantage to opening CEP from within Photoshop: Opening CEP from within Photoshop allows the user to take advantage of Photoshop actions to replicate a CEP filter stack across multiple images. If you're interested in seeing an article on how to do this, leave a request in the comments section.
The power of CEP comes from being able to stack multiple filters on top of one another to create dramatic effects. (The palm tree image at the top of this article uses 10 filters stacked on top of one another.) These filter stacks can be saved for future use to cut down on the time it takes to run images through this workflow. In my case, I've created several generic stacks that I apply to portraits or landscapes as a starting point, and this, combined with Photoshop Actions, means that I can process multiple images pretty quickly.
If you're interested in learning more about CEP, tell me what would be most helpful in the comments below. More example images? An overview of my most commonly-used filters?