DigitalPro Shooter Volume 2, Issue 27, September 10th, 2004

Welcome to DPS 2-27: Photoshop Power Tools. In honor of Photoshop World, held last week in Florida, we've got a special issue of DigitalPro Shooter for you dedicated to some great ways to get more out of Photoshop. Plus we have some exciting new product announcements for you.

Attentive mother Grizzly

If you've already read and learned from great books like Photoshop CS Artistry and Real World Photoshop CS and are looking to take Photoshop to the next level, or perhaps if you are hoping to save yourself some time and buy add-in tools to skip having to learn some of the details you're in luck. There are some very powerful new add-ins that enhance the power of Photoshop while saving you time. I've used several dozen of these over the years but two in particular, Photokit and Photokit Sharpener have become essential tools in my workflow and are worth sharing with you. Another tool, Noise Ninja, is not yet a plug-in, but its "pre-processing" step of noise removal can be a lifesaver for some images and a nice touch even for excellent images when you're producing exhibition prints.

Fighting Noise: Noise Ninja

Horned Puffin takes flight
The very first step in working with any digital image is getting a clean, low-noise, starting point.

For many images you'll have that with the initial capture, but if you've had to shoot in the shadows, bump your ISO, or dramatically change your exposure on the computer you're probably dealing with noise that needs to be reduced as much as possible--without harming your image data--before you start to work on the image.

If you're looking to reduce the JPEG artifacts in an otherwise accurate digital capture, nik Dfine does an excellent job and I don't hesitate to use it for that. But if you have images with large amounts of high ISO or long exposure noise, I've found Noise Ninja 2 to be much more versatile and effective. Noise Ninja also has the advantage of a $29 entry level price for those not needing 16-bit per pixel or batch processing, while dFine is a somewhat pricey $99. If you need 16-bit and batch processing you can buy the Pro version of Noise Ninja.

Noise Ninja is highly customizable and allows you to profile a specific image or use a camera profile (ISO dependent) to decide how it should work. The interface isn't as simple as I'd like, and it doesn't work as a Photoshop plug-in (although a plug-in version is rumored to be in the works), but it is not hard to use and is very effective. You can even "paint" with a noise removal brush if you want to select specific areas for noise reduction. However to selectively reduce noise I prefer putting the original and noise reduced image on separate layers in Photoshop and then using a layer mask to control the application of the effect.

Adjusting Contrast: Tone Correction with Photokit

Puffins swap 
fishing stories
Most of us are familiar with adjusting the tone (contrast curve) of our images using either Levels or Curves in Photoshop. More recently a couple clever alternatives have emerged--the Shadow/Highlight adjustment in PS CS and DEE in Nikon Capture. Photokit provides another interesting set of tone correction tools which allow you to do everything from subtly boost contrast to change the exposure of your image.

Tweaking Image Tone: Burning and Dodging with Photokit

Once you have a clean image, a key piece of drawing the viewer's attention to the subject of  your image is making the subject pop from the background. For portraits in particular lightening the subject or darkening the background will accentuate this effect. You can do this with the tools in Photoshop (see Scott Kelby's book, The Photoshop Book for Digital Photographer) but the bright folks at PixelGenius have provided a nice set of automated tools which will provide this effect in a couple keystrokes. The big breakthrough in the PixelGenius tools is that they operate in a non-destructive way--by adding a layer to your Photoshop file with the effect on it. You can turn the effect on and off by making the layer visible or invisible--or often reduce or increase its effect by changing its opacity--and in many cases you can continue to edit the underlying image without having to re-do the effect. This is a huge benefit compared to many Photoshop add-ins which destructively modify your top image layer. This approach does dramatically enlarge the size of your image files as you go, so you'll probably want to decide which of the effects to combine together into layers so that you don't wind up with images larger than your system can comfortably handle.

Some of my favorite effects are to Burn (Darken) the four corners, to Dodge (Lighten) the center oval of the image, or to Dodge or Burn just a section of the image.

Critical Color

Juvenile Forster's Tern
begging for food
Photokit doesn't have a large selection of filters specifically for changing or correcting colors. It does offer basic warming, cooling and color filters like those you'd expect to have as a film photographer.

If you're looking for dozens of different color correction or color enhancement filters you should take a look at the much pricier ColorEfx product from nik Multimedia. Personally I find the nik Sunlight filter and some of their other basic filters useful, but overall wind up using the Photokit filters more frequently.

Creating Black and White

When I switched to digital I lost much of my enthusiasm for black and white because it was so difficult to get most printers to produce neutral images. With the current crop of high-end inkjets like my Epson 4000 I can once again create good looking black and white prints. That leaves the issue of how to convert color images to black and white. Since D-SLRs almost all have a fixed RGB lens array they can only record the initial capture in "color". Any black and white mode on the camera just converts the image back to monochrome, normally using a fixed conversion similar to the mode conversion command in Photoshop. But with digital, like with film, many more options are available. The difference is that with film we'd use a colored filter to change how the camera decided what was black and what was white. With digital we can do that after the fact in Photoshop. You can do this for yourself with channel blending--there is an excellent description of how in Dan Margulis' book Professional Photoshop: The Classic Guide to Color Correction--but Photokit will also do it for you. You'll still want to understand how and why it works so you know how to apply the tools, but having the pre-built filters makes it much faster. Photokit provides a range of effects for each color. You can combine several effects to simulate how blending the different channels would work. The only trick I found to doing this was that after you applied each conversion you needed to make it invisible before doing the next one. When you had the whole set complete you can use the opacity of each layer to control the mixture of different color contrasts you want to use. You can also use layer masks to control which portion of the image is affected by which effect.

The Art of Sharpening: Photokit Sharpener

Okay, so I've known about and used sharpening tools and the oddly named unsharp masking filter for many, many years. I even understand why I want to have some sharpening applied to my captures (or scans) to remove the effect of the blurring (aka anti-aliasing) filter or scanner and later apply additional sharpening to make my image pop and then finally at the last second apply additional sharpening depending on the output device. I'd finally even bought into the need for fancy sharpening tools and have been using nik Sharpener for my prints and DigitalPro's Adaptive Sharpening for my editorial submissions and web galleries. But Photokit Sharpener takes this "Sharpening Workflow" to a whole new level. By not only clearly documenting the need for the three different types of sharpening--Capture, Creative and Output--to use their parlance, but providing specific and easy to use tools within Photoshop to facilitate each of these stages PixelGenius has created a winning product in Photokit Sharpener. Rather than forcing the user to figure out how to use a "one size fits all" sharpening tool like USM three different ways, Photokit Sharpener has a Capture sharpener which has options for the resolution and noise level of your incoming image (when using it make sure and turn sharpening off in your Raw conversion software), a Creative sharpener which is a configurable adaptive sharpener for both sharpening and smoothing your image, and an Output sharpener which has a large variety of options for different printers, resolutions and paper types. As with all of the Photokit tools there is excellent online documentation on how and when to use each of the tools and their options.

Note that there are also some sharpening tools in the Photokit filter set itself, but the Sharpener product is the one which features full support for a sharpening workflow.

Finishing Touches: Photokit Photo Effects

One complaint I still hear is that digital images don't look like film. We'll that's true. For one thing, they don't have grain. If you miss that grainy look, then Photokit provides a set of filters which will simulate film grain for you. For your black and white images Photokit also provides simulated Selenium and Platinum toning. Since Selenium is now no longer used in film darkrooms this might be your best chance to recreate the classic look of Selenium toned prints.

Young male Grizzly
There are many add-ins for Photoshop that will help dress up the presentation of your images. A simple example are the Edge vignette tools in Photokit. Other add-ins will allow to make complete digital frames or fancy drop shadows, although I prefer to keep things pretty simple.

Room for Improvement

It's hard to argue with the quality of the filters in Photokit and PK Sharpener, but there is some room for improvement in usability. First, using them requires wading through a couple menus and drop-downs. The Help file (a PDF) provides precise instructions on how to create actions to make this easier, but I'd love to see those actions pre-built and pre-loaded by the install. Ultimately the tools would benefit from having a palette that could be opened and have individual effects applied with a simple click. I assume that the Adobe plug-in architecture is much of the reason for the limitation, but it would be great to see progress on that front over time.

The Price is Right

I really like the $49 price for Photokit. It is low enough that even though many of the effects can be duplicated with enough work in Photoshop it is a no brainer for anyone who values their time. PK Sharpener, at $99, is a little more pricey, but using it well will almost certainly increase the value of your prints which should help the software pay for itself quickly. As with any software I encourage you to try the functional evaluation versions of these products to decide if they are right for you before purchasing. You can download trial versions of Noise Ninja, Photokit and Photokit Sharpener online.

New Products

Alaska Exhibition Print set: I'm so excited by the combination of archival printing on my Epson 4000 along with the quality I can get with custom profiles generated by Gretag Profilemaker and the stunning clarity provided by state of the art imaging tools like Photokit that I'm announcing my first set of exhibition prints for sale. Each set of 4 signed prints are all custom printed as 9" x 14" images on 10" x 16" paper with a narrow black border. They are suitable for matting, mounting or framing. All 4 prints are uncropped originals from a Nikon D2H. Since a major reason I'd like to offer these prints is to show what is possible with "only" 4 Mega-pixels in a much more visual way than I can on the web, I'll be offering them at the very competitive price of $300 for the set of 4. That's not much more than you might pay for one of these prints at a gallery. The first 10 purchasers will also receive their choice of a 5th signed print to keep or give as a gift. The prints are available from our secure online store and will begin shipping September 15th.

The set of four prints includes two of Alaska Brown ("Grizzly") bears and two of Horned Puffins. All four are previewed above in web resolution.

SportShield SS-300: Now that I'm using my 200-400VR more often I got the correctly sized SportShield SS-300 for it from Aquatech. A big improvement from folding back my SS-400 (that I have for my 600f/4) to try and get it to fit. As always with SportShield it is incredibly well made and effective.

I've written about Transcend CompactFlash cards before, but recently they have started getting even more aggressive with their direct to consumer pricing for large capacity high-speed cards. For example their 2GB 45x card is only $239 in their online store. Their quality has been excellent and they offer direct replacement for defective cards.

DigitalPro3 Released!

DigitalPro3, featuring fully integrated image cataloging has been officially released and is available for purchase. There are lots of other great features in DigitalPro3, including InfoIcons for quick image information, better color rendering and Auto Whit Balance, as well as support for batch processing of Raw images using your existing copy of Adobe Photoshop. See why it has already won the 2004 American Photo Editors' Choice Award!

Find out more with our Free 30-day Trial, or upgrade today through WRP's Trading Post.

DigitalPro3 Tip

You can quickly assign categories and keywords to images in DigitalPro3 by selecting the image(s) on the light table and then checking the box(es) in the keyword and category trees. If you choose the option "Sync IPTC" all of the keywords and IPTC Categories will be written to the file as IPTC information. Of course you can still use the more traditional IPTC editor and IPTC Batch editor as well.

See why American Photo named DigitalPro their Editor's choice for image management. Try out our free 30-day evaluation version today.

Event Updates

We've finalized dates for our Alaska Grizzly Bear & Puffin photo safari for 2005. It'll be from July 17th-24th. We've already got two slots filled out of our maximum of five, so it's not to early to sign up.

There are still 2 spaces left for our Monterey Bay Photo Safari for October 24th-28th, 2004. (The photo safari will also include some classroom and hands-on Photoshop instruction--including how to use advanced tools like those mentioned in this newletter--and image critique in the hotel's state of the art meeting facilities. We're also making some special arrangements for non-shooting companions to participate in some of the activities--and the hotel is literally right on the beach so it might make a great vacation!)

I'll be the guest speaker at the Bay Area Bird Photographers on November 3rd in Palo Alto, with lots of slides of the Cook Inlet area in Alaska, featuring Grizzlies, Moose, Eagle, Puffins and more.

In Print:

Want to make the most of your vacations as photographic opportunities? Read Vacation Photography, by David Cardinal, in the July issue of Outdoor Photographer

Considering shooting Raw?, Read Photos in the Raw in the August 17th issue of PC Magazine, by David Cardinal