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Nik Color Efex Pro 3.0 Review

by Harold Davis, May 2010 (updated March 2011)


Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro 3.0 is a bundle of filters designed for use with digital photography software. If you are thinking about buying Color Efex Pro 3.0, you are probably asking yourself three questions: I’ve already laid out a bundle for Lightroom or Photoshop—how can I justify going out and buying an expensive add-on? Why do I need this software when Photoshop already comes with filters? There are literally squint-million add-ons for Photoshop and Lightroom—how do I decide which one to buy?

I’ll get to these questions in a moment. But first let me cover the commercial details.

Color Efex Pro 3.0 is available as either a download or boxed software. The various edition options, number of filters, and software compatibly are shown in Table 1. Each of the Color Efex Pro 3.0 editions will run on either Windows or Mac OS X operating systems, but you need to specify your operating system before you purchase or download the software.

This review refers to Color Efex Pro 3.0 Complete edition when used with Photoshop running on Mac OS X 10.6.

Where to Buy

Photo.net’s partners have Nik Color Efex Pro 3.0 available. Their prices are fair and you help to support photo.net.




Editions Number of Filters Price Compatibility
Standard 15 $99.95 Photoshop, Aperture, Nikon Capture NX2
Select 35 $159.95 Photoshop, Aperture, Nikon Capture NX2
Complete 52 $299.95 Photoshop, Aperture, Nikon Capture NX2, Lightroom

Table 1: Color Efex Pro 3.0 comes in three different editions; only the Complete edition works with Lightroom as well as Photoshop.

By the way, don’t worry about the “Pro” tacked on to the end of the name of this product. Probably someone in marketing thought the whole thing would sound better with one more word in the software name—but this is software for serious amateur photographers and professionals alike.

Should You Buy Color Efex Pro 3.0 Complete?

I won’t keep you in suspense until the end of this review. My answer to this question is a resounding, “Yes, if you are a serious digital photographer using Aperture, Lightroom, or Photoshop—Color Efex Pro 3.0 Complete is worth its cost.”

I use Color Efex Pro 3.0 Complete every day that I use Photoshop, and on almost every photo that I process. I find its value unbeatable in terms of both image enhancement and the creative effects it provides that can be applied to images. There’s nothing in the filters that come with Photoshop that compare in usefulness to many of the Color Efex Pro filters.

I’ve evaluated a number of other Photoshop filter add-ons While many of them are unique and have considerable value no other third-party filter collection provides the extensive variety and consistently high quality of Color Efex Pro 3.0.

Let me run through how Color Efex 3.0 works, and you’ll begin to see what I mean.

Running Color Efex Pro 3.0 Complete

After you’ve installed Color Efex Pro 3.0 Complete, you’ll find a Nik Software item towards the bottom of your Photoshop Filter menu. Color Efex Pro 3.0 Complete is on a fly-out menu that appears when your mouse hovers over the Nik Software item. To open the Color Efex Pro filter set, click on the Color Efex menu item as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: To open Color Efex Pro, choose its menu item, found under Nik Software on the Photoshop filter menu.

This is a good time to strongly suggest that you take a couple of preliminary steps before you open Color Efex Pro. First, it is always a good practice to make sure you save your work before taking this step. Depending upon your software and hardware configuration, Color Efex Pro does occasionally cause Photoshop to crash.

Second, I suggest you duplicate the layer you would like to work on, and apply your choice of Color Efex Pro filter to the duplicate layer. This will give you the opportunity to use the Color Efex Pro filter effects at reduced opacity by cutting down the opacity of the duplicate layer to which the filter was applied. You can also use a layer mask to selectively display the duplicate layer with the effects.

Color Efex Pro does provide a mechanism for painting in selective application of its effects, but I find the interface for this clunky. Since you can use Photoshop’s layer masking features, why do this in yet another interface—and one that in my opnion is not intuitively obvious?

If you’ve taken my advice, and duplicated your layer before opening Color Efex Pro, be sure to set Color Efex Pro so that it doesn’t add yet another layer. My experience has been that letting Color Efex Pro do layer duplication has led to some issues with software stability.

To do this, once Color Efex Pro has opened, click Settings in the lower left of the Color Efex Pro window, and in the Settings dialog choose apply the filtered effect to the current layer as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: I suggest duplicating the layer yourself in Photoshop, then having Color Efex Pro work directly on the duplicate layer using the Color Efex Pro settings dialog.

I’m putting the cart a little bit ahead of the horse here, because I’ve shown the Settings window before the primary Color Efex window, which is shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: The main Color Efex Pro window.

Color Efex Pro loads with the first filter in its list, B&W Conversion loaded. This is a decent monochromatic conversion filter, but not as powerful as Nik’s Silver Efex Pro (which is, in fairness, an entire product devoted to black and white conversion) or as flexible as the Black & White adjustment layer feature available in Photoshop itself.

All 52 filters are shown along the left-hand side of the window, as you can see in Figure 4.

Figure 4: The Color Efex Pro Complete filter list.

Obviously, figuring out what each filter does takes a bit of time. The name of each filter as shown in Figure 4 and Table 2 helps somewhat, but in some cases these names don’t mean that much. What exactly is a Monday Morning filter? If you think of struggling to work with a grainy and grim cup of nearly monochromatic coffee, feeling hung over and blurry you are about right in my opinion. This is one filter I don’t use much—but it may be right for you. One of the strengths of Color Efex Pro is that there is surely something for every photographer.

To truly play with all these filters could take many Photoshop-person years before you internalized what they are all for, and what they could do. Many of the filters themselves—for example, Cross Processing—come with extensive sub-options. Essentially, Cross Processing is an entire world of filters within a single filter. But more on that in a moment.

Nik makes organizing and keeping track of the filter collection a little easier by dividing them onto separate tabs. Color Efex Pro opens with all the filters showing, but you can click the Traditional, Stylizing, Landscape, or Portrait tabs to see a smaller cross-section of filters. Of course, not all effects are so easily categorized—or confined to one category. For example, Glamour Glow is considered a portrait effect, but I often use it on images that are not portraits.

Divided into categories, Table 2 shows the 52 Color Efex Pro 3.0 filters (some filters appear in more than one category. The sheer numerical quantity of the filters gives you some idea of what a workhorse this filter pack is—and almost all the filters are both robust, and come with many sub options that can be chosen.




Traditional

B&W Conversion
Bi-Color Filters
Bi-Color User Defined
BrillianceWarmth
Classical Soft Focus
Contrast Color Range
Contrast Only
Cross Balance
Cross Processing
Darken/Lighten Center
Dynamic Skin Softener
Film Effects
Film Grain
Fog
Graduated Filters
Graduated Fog
Graduated Neutral Density
Graduated User Defined
High Key
Infrared Film
Low Key
Paper Toner
Polarization
Pro Contrast
Reflector Effects
Remove Color Cast
Skylight Filter
Sunshine
Vignette
Vignette Blur
White Neutralizer

Stylizing

Bleach Bypass
Burnt Sienna
Color Stylizer
Colorizer
Detail Stylizer
Duplex
Flux
Foliage
Glamour Glow
Indian Summer
Infrared Thermal Camera
Ink
Midnight
Monday Morning
Old Photo
Pastel
Photo Stylizer
Polaroid Transfer
Saturation Stylizer
Solarization
Tonal Contrast

Landscape

B&W Conversion
Bi-Color Filters
BrillianceWarmth
Film Effects
Fog
Foliage
Graduated Filters
Graduated Fog
Graduated Neutral Density
Indian Summer
Infrared Film
Paper Toner
Polarization
Pro Contrast
Skylight Filter
Sunshine

Portrait

B&W Conversion
Bleach Bypass
Classical Soft Focus
Cross Processing
Darken/Lighten Center
Dynamic Skin Softener
Glamour Glow
High Key
Midnight
Paper Toner
Photo Stylizer
Polaroid Transfer
Reflector Effects
Skylight Filter
Tonal Contrast
Vignette

Table 2: Color Efex Pro 3.0 filters organized by category.

There’s a special tab reserved for the filters you’ve marked as favorite—and this may be the most helpful way to organize filters once you’ve discovered which ones you use most frequently.

Of course, sometimes I just like to browse almost at random. It’s a great way to spend my time, and each time I try a new filter from the Color Efex pack I discover a new way to do something. Playing with the Nik filters is almost always time well spent.

The main Color Efex Pro window has a number of features (though I won’t run through them all). As a general matter, the toolbar along the top lets you change your viewing preferences (for example, to before-and-after as shown in Figure 5), and panel along the right-side is for tweaking the settings used by individual filters (see some examples below).

Figure 5: You can change the display so that it shows before and after filter effects.

Some of My Favorites

I admit it—when it comes to Color Efex Pro, I am capricious and fickle. At times, my true loves in this filter back have ranged from Bi-Color User Defined (great for adding graduated saturation to a sunset) to Color Stylizer (can be used to make a photo look like a botanical illustration) to Fog (besides the obvious, also lightens overall).

These days, I am mostly besotted with Cross Processing, Glamour Glow, and Tonal Contrast. Let me show you a little of how I use each.

Cross Processing

In the days of film, cross processing meant processing film in chemicals meant for another type of film—hopefully with weird, wacky and maybe psychedelic effects. In digital, cross-processing means simulating the effect that film cross-processing might have had.

Color Efex Pro provides an extensive drop-down list of cross-processing simulations to choose from, loosely grouped by simulated film and chemistry type, as you can see in Figure 6.

Figure 6: You can choose from a wide range of simulated cross-processing methods.

Figure 7 shows a preview of applying the B04 C41 to E6 cross-process method—which is likely not something you’d want to do to this particular image.

Figure 7: The B04 C41 to E6 cross processing method is previewed.

It’s usually wouldn’t want to convert an entire image using the Cross Processing filter. However, by trying out the possibilities made available on the Processing drop-down list, I’ve got a huge palette of possible color shift choices—which I can easily apply selectively to portions of my photo using layers and layer masks.

Glamour Glow and Tonal Contrast

The Glamour Glow filter adds warmth, tonal range from white to black, and softness. The Tonal Contrast filter increases the tonal contrast, slightly decreases the tonal range, and adds sharpness. I like to use the two together in combination. Here’s how.

First, in Photoshop before opening Color Efex Pro 3.0, I make a copy of the image I want to work on. Next, I go back to the original image and duplicate the background layer of the original image.

With the duplicate layer active, I open Color Efex Pro 3.0, and apply the Glamour Glow filter with the default settings. I click OK to apply this filter to the duplicate layer. I name the layer Color Efex — Glamour Glow and usually reduce its opacity to about 30%. Figure 8 shows the Photoshop Layers palette after these actions.

Figure 8: The Glamour Glow layer has opacity reduced to 30%.

Next, I make the duplicate copy of the original image active, and open Color Efex Pro while it is active. I choose the Tonal Contrast Filter, and in the filter preferences for Tonal Contrast check Conventional High Pass Contrast (Figure 9). As you can see in the preview window shown in Figure 10, contrast has indeed been greatly heightened, although it is not terribly attractive by itself.

Figure 9: In the Tonal Contrast filter options, Conventional High Pass Contrast has been checked.

Figure 10: Preview shows the extent that tonal contrast is heightened—which is often more than is attractive.

Next, I click OK to accept the Color Efex Tonal Contrast filter on the duplicate image. In Photoshop, I hold down the Shift key and then drag the Tonal Contrast version on top of the Glamour Glow version.

I add a Hide All layer mask to the Tonal Contrast layer. Then I selectively paint in those areas in the image that I think could use tonal enhancement and sharpening around their edges using the Brush Tool set at about 30% opacity. The Layers palette shown in Figure 11 shows how the two layers that have been treated with Color Efex filters interact.

Figure 11: Tonal Contrast is selectively applied over Glamour Glow.

The final image, shown in Figure 12, benefits from the application of the Glamour Glow and Tonal Contrast Color Efex filters—although I do have to be careful not to overly apply either effect. With careful application, the photo shows both an overall glow and a selective increase in tonal contrast on the water drops, small spider, and blade of grass.

Figure 12: After Glamour Glow at 30% and selective Tonal Contrast the image has more punch and also more subtlety.

Conclusion

Color Efex Pro 3.0 is an important tool for every serious digital photographer. If there is one Photoshop add-on you buy for creative purposes and to enhance your imagery, this should probably be it.

Pros: Most extensive filter third-party library available, well thought out professional-quality filters, intended specifically for serious digital photographers, huge variety, a great many options for each filter, truly endless creative possibilities.

Cons: Expensive, such a big collection that it can take time to find the really useful filters, includes filters that can easily be over applied, somewhat quirky user interface can sometimes require work-arounds.

Disclaimer: Nik Software provided me with a free evaluation copy of Color Efex Pro 3.0.

Where to Buy

Photo.net’s partners have Nik Color Efex Pro 3.0 available. Their prices are fair and you help to support photo.net.

More

About the Author

Harold Davis is a photographer and author. His photographs have been widely published, exhibited, and collected. Many of his fine art photography posters are well known. Harold’s images have won a Silver Award in the International Aperture Awards 2008 competition, and inclusion in the 2009 North American Nature Photography Association Expressions Showcase.

Harold is the author of The Photoshop Darkroom: Creative Digital Post-Processing (Focal), Creative Composition: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Night: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Close-Ups: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Practical Artistry: Light & Exposure for Digital Photographers (O’Reilly Digital Media) and other books. Harold gives frequent digital photography workshops, many under the auspices of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association. More »


Text and photos ©2010 Harold Davis.

Article revised March 2011.

Readers' Comments


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Michael Scott , May 21, 2010; 06:13 P.M.

I really enjoyed the review of the latest version of the Nik software, but am a bit disappointed that it was never mentioned how effective Color efex Pro is when used in conjunction with Capture NX2.  Capture is, in my estimation, an excellent program and is often overlooked in this arena. 

Thanks for letting me speak my peace.  Enjoy the monthly newsletters and the website tremendously.

Michael

Ted Marcus , May 21, 2010; 07:03 P.M.

Color Efex has an option to automatically create a layer and apply the desired filter to it. If I remember right, this is the default option; or at least it somehow ended up set that way when I installed it.

robert yu , May 21, 2010; 11:43 P.M.

I am eager to know how it works for Capture NX2 users. Thanks.

Steen Heilesen , May 22, 2010; 02:07 A.M.

The Nik Color Efex Pro 3.0 works great in Nikon NX2.
It's great to have all those filters, but you must learn what they can do.
You can use several filters together.
I also have my favorite filters in Color Efex - The full package is recommended.
www.flickr.com/steenheilesen 

Jonne Ollakka , May 22, 2010; 06:34 A.M.

Did they fix the bug where Photoshop crashes if you apply an effect to a selection, instead of the whole layer? This happens if Color Efex tries to create a new layer with the effect.

Roni Chastain , May 22, 2010; 07:15 A.M.

i have been using color efex pro for a while now. i had never changed the settings, as suggested in your review. will do this and start duplicating the layer first.

thanks for the info!

Ed Nadel , May 22, 2010; 05:32 P.M.

I really like the personal quality to this review.  From my perspective the real issue is price of the pro vs the select edition.  I would like to see some critical comment on whether the additional pro filters are worth the extra $$$

ed

 

Harold Davis , May 22, 2010; 10:53 P.M.

@Ed - This page shows the comparative composition of each of the editions: http://www.niksoftware.com/colorefexpro/usa/entry.php?view=intro/cep3_filters.shtml 

Bottom line: for my money, most of the filters I use regularly are in the Complete Edition, and not the Select Edition, so the Complete Edition is worth the extra money in my opinion.

 

Jeremy Henderson , May 24, 2010; 04:27 P.M.

Unfortunately these Nik filters are not compatible with Aperture 3 in 64-bit mode right now. Maybe one day they will be ... who knows?

Linda Abbott , June 01, 2010; 12:38 A.M.

I have used Color Efex Pro Complete almost since it came out.  I know that if I had to apply the filters I use regularly by hand in Photoshop, if I could, it would take forever.  The time saved by this program is well worth the cost of it. In a very short time, it will have paid for itself.  I often take a photo I'm working on and just run it through the list of filters just to see what some possibilities are.  The program has contributed greatly to the uniqueness of my photography. I use it both in NX2 and in Photoshop.  I have never had Photoshop crash when working with only a portion of a photograph, by the way.  If you're still deciding whether or not to get the program...use the trial version first.  Warning...very, very addicting!

Nancy G , June 03, 2010; 09:22 A.M.

I have this collection and I don't regret buying it.Love love this program,I also  have the other Nik Software and all wonderful filters as well.

Nik can also be used with Paintshop Pro X2 that's what I'm using it with.They had a demo with PSP and that's how I got hooked :)

Gianandrea Traina , June 17, 2010; 11:21 A.M.

Hi, I dowloaded the trial just to check if it is worth to buy it or not, I'm running CS5 on a MacBookPro, when I installed Nik Color Efex 3 the installer couldn't find the right path to install the files so i manually selected it (HD/applications/adobe photoshop cs5/plug-in)
everything looks working fine but when I open PS cs5 the nik subfolder is not there, does anybody know about this? 

Robert Festerling , June 24, 2010; 02:28 P.M.

The Capture NX2 version of PRO 3.0 is priced at $179.99.

Gianandrea Traina , June 25, 2010; 11:27 A.M.

If it is of any help for the owners of CS5 I found out what was the problem,these plug-ins are not compatible with the 64bit structure of PS CS5 yet, therefore you need to run photoshop at 32 bit and not 64 bit(which is the default setting). 


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