Photoshop tools to give your pictures that professional look

By Roy Furchgott
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 20, 2010; 12:32 PM

Very few photographs are perfect right out of the camera, even the ones the professionals take. What separates the pros from the hacks is the ability to fix photo flaws in the darkroom. This explains the popularity of Photoshop, the digital photo retouching program whose plethora of tools puts a sophisticated digital darkroom in any shutterbug's computer.

But there is a problem with Photoshop. It has so many tools and techniques that it can take years to master them all. Fine for the pros, but the casual snap-shooter may not want to take on so much work. Now, thanks to some enterprising software developers, you don't have to.

A number of companies make software programs called plug-ins, which work with Photoshop to, among other things, automate complex corrections of the sort that pros use to give their models porcelain skin, intensify the blue of the sky or lend landscapes a painterly quality. You can get the same the effects with just a few basic Photoshop skills and a couple of mouse clicks.

Here's a look at some of the top Photoshop plug-ins, what you need to know to use them, and what they can do for your photographs. We tested the full-featured versions of the products, but in some cases there is a less expensive version with ample but fewer tools. Although some of them aren't for beginners, every product here has an online video tutorial that can make anyone basically competent in less than an hour and good with touch-ups in a few hours.

OnOne PhotoTune3

$160, Mac and Windows

Even the rankest beginners can improve the colors and the clarity of their shots with PhotoTune3. In automatic mode, it shows you two versions of your photo. You click the one you like better, then go on to the next comparison. It adjusts color, brightness and sharpness. Even in the automatic mode, there's a sliding control that lets you add more or less of an effect at each step. Or you can go into "pro" mode and adjust from sliders without suggestions from the program. The pro mode may be a nice addition to Windows computers, but it is very close to a control already in Mac's iPhoto, which can be found by clicking on "edit," then "adjust."

If you want to do more than correct color, you'll need to learn some basic Photoshop skills, such as adding color changes to just part of a picture. The following tools offer instructional videos to help.

Nik Viveza 2

$200, for Mac and Windows

Viveza 2 looks similar to PhotoTune3, offering sliders to adjust contrast, brightness and saturation, among other things. But Viveza's trick is that it lets you apply the changes selectively, using a simple tool called a control point. When a sky didn't come out as azure as I remembered, I put a control point on the blue and then adjusted the color without affecting the rest of the picture. You can also choose "brush," which takes you back into the Photoshop program so that you can apply the chosen adjustment even more selectively with a virtual paintbrush.

OnOne Phototools2.5 Pro

$260 for Mac and Windows

Phototools offers some of the features of Viveza, but with prebuilt filter effects composed of the multiple steps professional photographers take to improve particular kinds of photos, such as landscapes, portraits and wedding shots. You apply them in a single click. For instance, a skin-smoothing filter applies a light airbrush effect to people in your photos without your having to use a variety of Photoshop tools selectively on each face. You can add one effect on top of another to make eye-popping graphics or subtly use a virtual brush to add or remove them just in specific places.

If your ambitions run to achieving close to professional quality, or to making outright changes, not just improvements, to your photos, there are filters for that, too, although in some cases you'll need more than just basic Photoshop skills. Again, the products all have online video tutorials, but be prepared to spend some time learning before using.

Nik Dfine

$100, for Mac and Windows

Dfine is a filter that removes "noise" from your pictures. Noise looks like what is called grain in photographs, little specks that give a rough texture to a picture and make it look a tad fuzzy. Dfine reduces noise. Use it before other filters to clean and prep your shots. It is particularly good for improving the quality of pictures you've taken in low light or with a mobile phone, or older shots from an early digital camera.

Alien Skin Bokeh

$200, for Mac and Windows

Bokeh is photo jargon for the blurry background in portraits. It's also the name of a filter that creates that effect after the fact, making the people in portraits pop and obscuring distracting backgrounds. This powerful tool requires at least intermediate Photoshop skills. You need to know how to use the selection tools, although a tutorial on the Alien Skin Web site explains it well. Bokeh lets you choose the degree of blur based on specific camera lenses, so it helps to know what different lenses do, although it's easy to just experiment.

Digital Film Tools EZ Mask

$195, for Mac and Windows

Sometimes only part of a photo is salvageable. Say you capture your daughter with a beatific expression, but your son has made rabbit ears behind her. You may want to clip the best element from one picture and put it on another background. It can be a painstaking process - especially trying to clip around wisps of hair. EZ Mask makes it simpler. You draw a rough outline of the object you want to save and a series of lines on the background you want to remove. Then EZ Mask does the work. It isn't very intuitive to use, but it's far easier than trying the same thing in Photoshop, and with the online tutorial, anyone should be able to master it in a few tries.

There are dozens more filters, many offering demonstration downloads, which allow you to use them temporarily for free.

With a little experimentation, even your vacation photo flubs may become works of art.

Furchgott writes about travel, food, business and technology. He takes photos on a trip when he should be relaxing.

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