What to do if you love photo editing plugins

Are you one of those heartbroken photographers that consider themselves treated unfairly after having the Nik collection installed for free? Think again. Before Google made the Nik collection available to all for free (the certain sign of death), it cost $100+. And when it first appeared in the pre-Google ownership days it cost a lot more. So who is really unlucky? Irrespective of the outlay, the biggest disruption is to those that heavily really on Nik for their editing. There are diehard fans that fully embraced Nik in their workflow and made it a part of their money making strategy. Many would surely be prepared to pay extra $ to keep Nik functional in the future.

As photographers we live in interesting times. Photo editing software development is becoming ever more advanced and we see increasing activity in the plugin sector. One way I explain this is that smaller software houses see the demand but are also aware of how well established players like Adobe, Capture One and DxO are. Therefore, they try the side route. They do not ask us to abandon our “old” workflow but instead try to capture our attention with plugins that make life easier and possibly more creative.

I do not claim to have tried all plugins and openly admit to relying on Lightroom for more than 95% of my editing time. But I also have a vice for painterly effects and presets that can be heavily adjusted. So yes I use plugins, with Nik and Topaz being my favorites. But I use them with great caution. The reason is called Google Reader. For those that remember it from the previous decade, it is a RSS reader that gathered streams of articles from different blog/news sites so that they were easy to go through and read. It used to be the de facto tool for blog writers and tech news junkies (I am still a bit of both). One day Google decided that not enough people were using this tool so they did not hesitate to pull the plug, much like they have done with Nik. Complaints and petitions brought no results. Eventually I found an alternative RSS reader (Feedly is really worth your attention) but at the same time swore to be more careful with what I choose to rely on. Given that I edit photos day in day out, with time I came to devise some guidelines on how to treat plugins for Lightroom and Photoshop. They work fine for me. Even if you do not agree, I am sure that they are food for thought in relation to your editing workflow:

Guideline 1: Trust the photo and creative software people, not the generalists.

There are companies like Canon that make photo editing software (it is called Digital Photo Professional and comes for free with your EOS camera) and keep upgrading it even if Canon users stick to Photoshop. There is small software companies created by photography diehards. Although making money is a fully understood aim, creative companies love what they do and try to do more for the community. Companies in the creative sector will also not abandon you very easily as this is their turf. On the other hand, firms like Google or Facebook are multi-faceted and will do anything to gain the next billion of users. Today it might be mobile, tomorrow it might be VR or something else. They count success by the tens of football pitch size server farms that they will try to keep busy and profitable one way or another. If you stick to Gmail, Youtube or MS Office you are pretty safe. But small corners of the market (like Nik!) have no place in their portfolio, so be prepared for anything. It is fully understandable that they are businesses with their own measures of strategy and success. At the photographer’s level however, if you see such a company buying a small software house be sure that they want some code to integrate in their apps (Nik code was used for the Snapseed app) and the rest can be pretty much thrown away…

Guideline 2: Ask if you really need a particular plugin, try for free.

Following the noise in photography blogs about how great PerfectlyClear is, I decided to buy it. It is a good solid piece of software that I eventually decided I do not need at all! I can get similar or much better personalized results by just moving sliders and doing some adjustments in Lightroom. For me it is obvious that it was made for people that are not interested in photo editing but want to do quick improvements to large numbers of images. The release of the 3rd version of the software has left me unresponsive, in retrospect I wish I had spent the money in something that better suits my needs. So if in doubt, check the free trials available for almost all plugins (they usually last 30 days). A few days of fairly intensive use will prove if you like them, if you need them, if you like and need them at the same time, or if you can simply move on…

Guideline 3: How about Lightroom presets and Photoshop actions?

Be sure that what is achieved via plugins is also fully viable with Lightroom and especially Photoshop. It might involve more work but at the same time will allow full creative freedom. And let’s not forget presets and actions! You can either create them yourself, follow online tutorials or buy from online vendors. It is true that Photoshop actions might also expire if they are not maintained to run in newer software versions. Investing however in fully integrated features of core software might be the best investment you have ever made. It will certainly last long and helps in understanding how people edit their photos so that you can make adjustments much like those of plugins. At the same time, with presets and actions you do not need to jump out and back into Lightroom/Photoshop, therefore shortening processing time.

Guideline 4: Learn core software first.

If you ignore core editing software to go straight to plugins you are missing the essence of the activity. Before doing the jump, ask yourself what you want to do and if it is done more easily in Lightroom/Photoshop or in the external plugin. You will find that in many cases you do not need to do the transition, especially if you are familiar with presets and actions. This will help decide which photos really need the external plugin and which ones do not, opening the way for a cleaner workflow.

Guideline 5: Simplify your workflow.

I like to keep things simple and solid. Be sure to have a central management application like Lightroom, where you keep everything organized and under control. Resist using more than one RAW editor (that now some plugins have) as this will fragment your work and make things more complicated. Remember that plugins use a round trip that will eventually bring you back to your core application for archival, printing, finishing touches and future work! In addition, as a principle, I resist having a separate workflow for mobile photography. I always archive everything in Lightroom as mobile apps get born and disappear at an incredible rate, much faster than their full desktop/laptop counterparts. Keeping a central hub also makes the all critical backup management easier to swallow.

So there you are. If you love plugins as much as I do, I hope that you are now better prepared to go out in the wilderness to choose what best suits your editing needs.