If you’re looking for maximum creative control over your photos including adding, removing or changing any part of the image, Photoshop is the industry standard for designers and photographers alike. Its built-in features can keep you busy and creative for the rest of your life, or at least till the next version is released… :) But for those things it doesn’t do, or actions and effects that can seem overly complex, there’s a whole world of plugins available. Some address key practical features like sharpening or erasing objects. Others focus on creative effects, allowing you to quickly change the look and feel of your photos and/or develop a unique style. Whatever fix or effect you’re looking for, using plugins – especially premium plugins – can revolutionize your workflow. Here are some of our favorites.
Retouching is something every serious portrait photographer ends up doing a fair amount of, and using Photoshop alone can be a bit long and arduous, even with a good set of custom actions. That’s where the following plugins can help.
Portraiture focuses on getting perfect skin texture without losing any detail. No need for complex masking or even the healing brush. Portraiture’s presets automatically smooth the skin, while removing blemishes and maintaining both texture and detail. In fact, the default settings and presets are so good that you may not find much else to change. (Just stay away from the “Smoothing: High” setting, unless you’re looking for a mall-brand, doll-like image.) The user interface is pretty sleek and approachable, yet hides a lot of power under the surface. The price is a bit high, but if you shoot a lot of portraits and need professional results, it’s well worth the investment.
Looking for more than just skin softening? PortraitPro does everything you can imagine, from applying realistic digital makeup to face-sculpting. PortraitPro is especially amazing If you’re one of those retouchers who likes to sculpt the face, as it immediately outlines facial elements upon import, then allows you to drag the lines of the eyebrows, lips, nose, and eyes anywhere you like. It also knows just how to lighten and smooth eye bags, smooth out crow’s feet, detect pores, and its sliders isolate just about every detail on the face, so you have ultimate control. It’s won a number of awards over the years and is far cheaper than Portraiture. It also comes with a free trial.Price: $39.95 at time of writing (normal price is $79.90)
Removing Unwanted Objects/Backgrounds
While Photoshop’s healing brush and clone stamp do an amazing job of deleting unwanted objects and backgrounds, there are a few plugins out there that can make the job much easier.
3. Fluid Mask 3
Fluid Mask is an amazing little plugin that makes backgrounds disappear like magic. Fog, strands of hair, or other fragile or fading elements? Never fear. Fluid Mask’s ability to handle near-transparent objects is nothing short of amazing. You know the time it takes to create an in-depth selection? Fluid Mask can literally cut it out in a matter of minutes! If you’re a photo-compositor, graphic designer, or love to make memes, this little plugin will literally save you hours of time.Price: $99
Snapheal, by Skylum software, focuses on the quick removal of elements like traffic signs, powerlines, bystanders, road damage—whatever you might want to make disappear. It doesn’t have the finesse of Fluid Mask, and you’ll still have to manually cut out elements that lie on a tricky background, but for simple things, Snapheal is does a great job. It’s also fairly inexpensive. (Mac only)Price: $49.99
Working with Color and Contrast
Color and contrast are two of the main elements that will make or break the quality of your photos, and learning how to adjust them perfectly in Photoshop can take years to learn. Using the following plugins, however, takes far less time and often produces stunning results.
Color Efex Pro, part of the Nik Tools Suite, has long been the professional photographer’s mainstay for color effects. The filters run the gamut from portrait and landscape to creative, and are not only stackable, but allow you to apply different ones to different areas of the photo all at once. If you’re a landscape photographer, their tonal contrast filter is worth the package alone. (I’ve not seen any filter come close to what Color Efex’s Tonal Contrast can do.) Their detail extractor is also the best I’ve seen on the market today. But these are just two of many, and you can have them all out for free ever since Google bought Nik Filters. And now that DxO has bought them from Google, there’s an update scheduled for 2018. Woot!Price: Free!
6. Topaz Adjust
Topaz Adjust is another industry-standard plugin that’s been around for years. The filters, though similar to Color Efex Pro, yield fairly different results. Most photographers will prefer one over the other, but those who love Topaz say that it pretty much “reads your mind” about what you’re looking for. And if you like quick, nice-sized previews, Topaz doesn’t waste your time churning away. You get to see what your image will look like almost immediately. The user interface is considerably different than Color Efex Pro, so you’ll need to play around with it and see what you think. But if you’re like many photographers, you’ll probably find filters you can’t live without.Price: $39.99
Intensify is a newer Photoshop plugin and definitely packs a punch. It comes with far more presets than Color Efex Pro or Topaz Adjust and offers layer options and masking as well. The user interface is simple and intuitive, and there’s next to no learning curve. You can either work from a single-slider global adjustment in “filter” mode or make more detailed adjustments (i.e. exposure, structure, sharpness, etc.) in their adjustment panel. So, if you’re a presets lover and/or want something that’s super easy to learn—this little plugin will make your day. (Mac only)Price: $69.99
Unless you’re always shooting in bright conditions, a time will come when you end up with some noise in your photos. While you can remove noise in Photoshop, there are a number of plugins that do the job much more quickly and efficiently and, in most cases, with far better results.
Another plugin from the Nik Collection, Dfine is much easier to use than Photoshop, especially when you want to adjust the contrast and reduce color noise separately. Noise reduction is applied only to noise elements in the image, and you can use Nik’s trademark control points to selectively control what the filter affects without using masks. And, like all the Nik filters, it’s free.Price: Free!
Skylum designs all its software to be incredibly easy to use and Noiseless is no exception. The plugin uses a smart algorithm to identify noise and automatically removes it. Then, it runs a second algorithm to add back the detail back in. You can either sit back and let the presets do the work or refine and fine-tune with their adjustments panel. The settings range from “Lightest” to “Extreme,” but if you’re going for a more realistic look, stick to the lower settings. They’re much subtler, and in my opinion, much more effective. And as Noiseless doesn’t have any masking options, make sure you open a duplicate layer in Photoshop before applying. (Mac only)Price: $70
If you’re someone who likes to add effects to your images, you’ll definitely want to take these two light plugins for a spin. They both create some amazing results.
10. Glow In Studio
Another plugin from the Topaz suite, Glow in Studio offers everything from eye-popping brilliance to subtle, ethereal light.While the “Glow” adjustment is unique in itself, the HSL Color Tuning gives you almost superhuman control over your image’s hues, saturation, and luminance. A great option for intense, creative design—especially if you like to push the limits of what your images can do.Price: $69.97
If you like playing with light and shadow but can’t always get the lighting you want in-camera, Dtf’s Light plugin might be for you. Light allows you to add shadow patterns into any image using the gobos of Gamproducts and Rosco. (A gobo is a stencil or template placed in front of a light source to control the shape of the projected light.) You can project everything from window frames to leaf patterns, or make your own template. The final lighting effects look as if they were shot in-session. Other effects include fog, diffusion, fill light, and glow effects. It comes with a layering system so you can use multiple effects selectively.Price: $50
Color effects not enough for you? Never fear—the plugins below offer many, many more options.
12. Filter Forge 7
Filter Forge comes with access to over 12,000 ready-made textures and effects. It works with both still images and motion pictures, and their advanced versions let you create your own filters, without any knowledge of programming or coding. While this might not seem so spectacular if you’re not designing your own content, artists creating new images—especially those working in 3D—will find Filter Forge absolutely essential.Price: The basic edition starts at $149
13. ON1 Effects
Though On1’s Effects 10 has fewer filters than Filter Forge, it will probably be more than enough for folks who don’t need to create their own. In fact, for many the number of filters can be somewhat overwhelming. Luckily the basic presets are of high enough quality that they’ll probably keep you satisfied until you feel like branching out to the others. The software comes complete with local adjustments, blending modes, and masking. You can even apply a filter to just highlights and shadows. Honestly, this plugin offers so many options, it’s best to start slow. (If you’re a landscape photographer, try the Magic Ocean preset!)Price: Effects 10.5 is currently free. Their 2018 version is $119.99
14. FX Photo Studio
If you’re a Mac user looking for creative effects, you’ll definitely want to give Skylum’s FX Photo Studio a spin. It has a beautiful and intuitive interface, plenty of filters to choose from, and a smart brush that allows you to apply the effect selectively, without using masks. While it only has basic image editing options, this won’t affect plugin users much. Simply apply the effect to a duplicate image layer in Photoshop and edit away. (Mac only.)Price: $39.99
While Photoshop’s HDR option will combine your images for you, most HDR photographers find it seriously lacking in usability. And while many turn to stand-alone programs, that can really create more hassle if much of your workflow is already in Photoshop. The solution? Plugins.
15. Aurora HDR
Truly one of the best HDR options out there (both as a standalone program and as a plugin). Aurora allows for advanced (yet easy) HDR editing that can be anywhere from truly natural-looking to the wild and extreme. Most HDR editing programs don’t allow you to easily end up with a natural-looking photo, but Aurora really shines here. Comes with layering, multiple blend modes, amazing presets, and even lens correction. If you’re a serious HDR photographer, do yourself a favor and give Aurora a try.Price: $99
16. HDR Efex Pro
If Aurora’s not your thing (or you’re looking for something free), Nik’s HDR Efex Pro does a decent job of processing HDR photos. Most of the presets look clearly “HDR-ed,” so if you’re looking for a realistic-looking image, stick to the default or the Balanced preset. If you like the HDR look, then the presets will work fine for you. Either way, the default settings still look far better than what Photoshop and Lightroom offer for HDR (check out our post on Lightroom vs Photoshop here). The plugin also works in Lightroom, so an easy workflow is to do your lens corrections in Lightroom, then export to HDR Efex Pro.Price: Free!
Sometimes we just don’t have the camera gear to get the depth of field (or other lens effects) we’re looking for. The plugins below can save a lot of hand-numbing work.
Tuned to many of the more popular lenses out there, Topaz Lens Effects makes incredible bokeh, tilt-shift effects, motion blur, vignettes, polarization, and just about any other effect you can get out of a lens. As far as the effects are concerned, they vary from the subtle to the extreme. The most helpful ones will be for photographers who need filters that are simply too expensive to buy. Or, if you’re working with a slower lens/cheaper camera and need selective focusing, being able to choose the bokeh effect can allow you to precisely mimic a faster lens.Price: $79.99
If you’re looking for creative lens effects and like experimenting, try Skylum’s Focus plugin. It comes with both radial and linear motion blur controls, a “twirl” control, lens blur, and selective focus effects. (Mac only.)Price: $59.99
Enlarging photos without losing sharpness is definitely an art. These two plugins make it easy.
19. Blow Up 2
This easy-to-use plugin far outpaces Photoshop’s native options, especially where large art-quality prints are being made. Comes with a large library of standard paper sizes and Lightroom and CMYK support. For printing out images that just don’t have the resolution, this plugin will definitely make your life a lot easier.Price: $99 on its own, or $199 as part of the Exposure X3 Bundle
Resize is different from Blow Up 2 in that it uses a fractal-based algorithm to resize your images. Some people notice a distinct difference and others don’t. One feature that sets it apart, though is its tiling feature that allows you to divide your photos into diptychs, triptychs, or mosaics—something super useful if you’re into creative art installations. It also has a “gallery wrap feature” that creates extended margins so you don’t lose any part of your photo when printing to canvas. (This seriously takes the guesswork out of sizing canvas prints!)Price: $59.99 at the time of this postTChoosing between Resize and Blow Up can be challenging—they both do pretty much the same thing. It’ll probably come down to what user interface works best for you, whether you’re already using other software from these two companies, and in the end, price.