Product Review: Nik Color Efex Pro 4

November 28, 2011

By Dan Havlik

Nik Software is one of those imaging industry success stories you like to hear about these days. With a portfolio of successful editing and enhancement software—including many programs reviewed positively in these pages—Nik hasn’t rested on its laurels. Along with continuing to expand its lineup—just a few months ago I reviewed the company’s first iPad photo app, Snapseed—the company is literally expanding. From what I’ve heard Nik is even, gasp, hiring.

That’s good to hear and well deserved. While I’ve had a few quibbles here and there with some of Nik’s programs, I have generally been impressed with what the company has produced, beginning with Color Efex Pro 3 three years ago.

Nik recently released the long awaited follow-up to that program, Color Efex Pro 4, and while it’s more evolutionary than revolutionary, there are enough helpful tweaks to this digital filter and photo enhancement plug-in, to make me think it has another winner on its hands.

Color It In
The biggest improvement I noticed off the bat in Color Efex Pro 4 is how much faster it feels from the previous version. Part of that has to do with the new GPU Processing and Multi-Core Optimization in the software, which is designed to take advantage of the latest processing engines to provide faster performance. The software’s interface is also better organized with tabs that group filter effects under a variety of categories including Nature, Portrait, Wedding and others. (You can also create your own categories.)

I flew through the lengthy filter list in Color Efex Pro 4—now 54 in all with numerous subsets—including eight brand-new filters and ten filters that have been revamped from the previous versions. Just click on a filter from the list on the left and you can see the effect on your photo either as a single image, a side by side comparison or a very cool “split preview,” which lets you click and drag a red line across your image to see the before-and-after effect.

My old filter favorites are here including Bleach Bypass, which simulates the old-school process of bleaching out the silver during film processing to produce a low-saturated, high-contrast effect. New filters in Color Efex Pro 4 include Dark Contrast, which amplifies details and adds crunchy texture to images to create a dramatic look. Works great with cloudy skies, architecture or for portraits where you want to make a person look more sinister.

Also new is Detail Extractor, which is designed to balance exposure and tone in an image while accentuating contrast, an effect I liked less than Dark Contrast because it looked too much like overdone HDR imaging. New to Color Efex Pro 4 is a set of visual presets within each filter. To access them, click on the pictures icon on the right of the filter and it will open up several variations of that same filter. For instance, film buffs might like that the new “Film Efex: Modern” filter has presets for Fujichrome Provia, Velvia, Kodachrome 64, and Kodak Portra 160VC.

Other new filters include Faded Film, Vintage Film, Nostalgic Film (who says film is dead?) and a cool set of border effects, similar to those that first appeared in Silver Efex Pro 2, Nik’s black-and-white converter program.

Of course if you like further granular control with these filters and presets, the right side of the Color Efex Pro 4 interface will let you incrementally tweak brightness, contrast, color and a million other choices. Nik does a good job of giving both those who want a quick fix and those who want a deeper dive, plenty of options.
Combo Platter
Speaking of diving deep, you can also stack as many filters together as you’d like just by clicking and dragging them to create a range of combined effects. (The stacking feature is similar to layers in Photoshop.) The only trouble with stacking, which  I first noticed in Nik’s Snapseed iPad app, is you’ll either create a grungy, bleached out, modern/old-school, film-like masterpiece or a complete mess. But hey, it’s your world.

If you’re one of those photographers who, like some of the great chefs, enjoys improvising in the kitchen but you sometimes forget what you did, you’ll dig Color Efex Pro 4’s new recipes feature. Recipes, which save a variety of custom tweaks, stacks, enhancements and edits into one package, are importable and exportable (if you like to trade with other photographers) and there are several already included with the program. But be forewarned, if you’re not careful these can turn into an unappetizing mess as well.

If you feel you’ve pushed your improvisation skills too far and want to go back, the History Browser, which first appeared in Silver Efex Pro 2, is your virtual time machine to help you restore order in your editing universe.

The Bottom Line
While Nik Color Efex Pro 4 may not be as great a leap forward as its predecessor, this photo enhancement plug-in for Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom, Elements and Apple Aperture contains enough useful new tweaks, filters, interface changes and faster overall speed to warrant a hearty recommendation from us. The question remains, though: What will Nik think of next?

Pros: Faster overall performance; many fun new filter effects and presets; stacking and recipes features let you create endless combinations.

Not as revolutionary a program as its predecessor; easy to make a complete mess of an image by combining too many enhancements.