My top 5 pieces of photography software by Neil Alexander

This week I thought I’d pen a few words on software. Back in the day, before the advent of the digital camera sensor, when men were men,  the term PC was used to refer to an officer of the law and  there was no such thing as a corrupt FIFA official, the only way a photographer could “manipulate” a photograph after it had been captured was in the darkroom. To this end, he or she would have an arsenal of chemicals and techniques honed over years of practice in complete darkness available to them to use to tweak their image. In addition to the plethora of film and paper types, developers, fixers, clearing agents, wetting agents and stop baths available, there were lithographic processes, selenium toning, chromium intensifying, E6 & C41 cross-processing, nitrates, carbonates, chlorides and citrates, monohydrate, and acids, even coffee has been used to develop film. And I’ve not even mentioned camera obscure or glass plates. 

Darkroom today by Tom Hart, on Flickr

Darkroom today by Tom Hart, on Flickr

Most photographers would print the same negative over and over again employing careful dodging and burning techniques in an attempt to try and perfect the final print, often making hundreds of test prints in the process.

 

Anyway, the point is that whether they wanted to portray an accurate representation of what was in front of them at the time or whether they wanted to create some art, or a combination of both, there was some serious manipulation possible. Digital photography is exactly the same. Fortunately though there are no smelly chemicals required. It’s cleaner, safer and significantly cheaper and quicker to experiment.

And so now the user of the “digital darkroom” has a veritable plethora of different software plugins and applications that can help them perform similar tasks to the analog darkroom user and a whole heap more.

Sandbach Services by Neil Alexander © 2008

I often see photographers on the internet who pride themselves on producing digital work “straight from the camera”  and I can’t help but laugh. Do these people really think that the masters of photography over the years didn’t tinker and tweak their images in the darkroom until they were overcome with chemical fumes? It’s a documented fact that Ansel Adams, one of the pioneers of landscape photography spent days, weeks and sometimes months trying to perfect a print of a single image. 

 

Without any editing whatsoever, digital negative files (or RAW files) will usually come off the camera looking a little flat and in need of a little boost to the contrast and saturation. For a lot of photographers that’s often enough, but I consider myself to be an artist also. For me accurately capturing the image is only half the story. My end goal is not to produce an accurate representation of the scene in front of me but to create a piece of art.


So what do I use then?

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Well, for me, everything starts in and revolves around Adobe Lightroom. I’ve talked about this program many times over the years. (In fact running a search on my blog turned up more than 70 posts!)

There is nothing more that can be said other than if you want a single program to organise, develop and print your photographs there is no better one out there.

You can get Lightroom (Desktop & Mobile) and the latest version Photoshop as part of Adobe’s new creative suite for photographers for only £8.78/month. Not bad when they used to be over £800 combined. More here.

Adobe Lightroom screen shot

Adobe Lightroom screen shot

Photoshop - unfortunately there’s only so much one can do in Lightroom. I probably manage to do about 80% of my work there but there are occasions when only Photoshop’s extra grunt will do; merging exposures, stitching panos, layering or serious retouching are a few that immediately spring to mind.

 

A particular plugin for both Lightroom and Photoshop that I am really rather partial to is Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro 2. It offers a far greater range of options for a black and white conversion than the basic ones offered in most image editing applications; there are film types one can simulate, adding of coloured filters and total control over “film grain” in addition to the creation of “control points” whereby one can tweak  specific areas further for brightness, contrast, structure etc.  

Pat by Neil Alexander, processed in SIlver Efex Pro 2

Now owned by Google, you can get the software here for £95

My friend Ken Kaminesky has a great review and a coupon to get you 75% off here

 

 

The lake house at the Gilpin Hotel, Lake District by Neil Alexander, processed in Lightroom Enfuse

LR Enfuse

I’ve also written about this little gem a few times. One of the flaws of all cameras is that the human eye is able to see a far greater range of lights and darks than the film or camera sensor can. They can also adjust incredibly quickly. They really are a wonderful creation if you really start to think about it but the single photograph is nothing in comparison. In a high lights and darks (or dynamic range) situation the only way to get anything that remotely resembles what the human eye can take in is to merge exposures. The minimum you need is one exposure for the darkest shadows and one for the brightest highlights. Using software you would then merge these two together. For extreme control I often use Tony Kuyper’s Luminosity Masking plugin and techniques here but if I’ve a bulk edit to do or just a solitary image that I want to do a quick edit on, then LR enfuse (which is a plugin for Lightroom) provides by far the most accurate and realistic results.

The product is donation-ware and can be found here and there’s a really good review here.

Tree at dawn on golf course, Hale Golf Course, Altrincham, Cheshire, England by Neil Alexander processed in Topaz Simplify

Tree at dawn on golf course, Hale Golf Course, Altrincham, Cheshire, England by Neil Alexander processed in Topaz Simplify

Topaz Simplify 

This one I was turned on to by my Guild of Photographers mentor, Lesley Chalmers and I have since run many images through it and really like the results. Essentially it’s a way of using a photograph as a base from which to create a digital artwork resembling a water colour or a sketched drawing for example. As with all these applications you really can take your work to extremes - there are sliders aplenty but a little effort and experimentation can reap significant dividends. In fact I like it that much, that I’ve now a dedicated gallery in my print store titled “Artistic” (It’s a bit lame I know but I really couldn’t think of anything else at the time!) 

It’s priced at $40 and you can get a free trial here.

Keith Cooper has written quite an in-depth review over at Northlight

 

And so there you go, the 5 pieces of software I use most often for my photography, when I’m not sending emails, working on marketing, invoicing, accounts, chasing late payments, looking for copyright infringements, cooking, doing kids' homework, and all the other nuggets that go with working from home.

What are yours? I'd love to know.