nik software

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?

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 14.12.57.png

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.

More from the Lake District by Neil Alexander

View up The Struggle towards the Kirkstone Pass Inn, Lake District

 I had intended this post to be a follow on from last Tuesday's "4 Photography gadgets I couldn't be without", and was going to focus on "4 iPhone photography apps that I couldn't do without". But I've just gone over to the darkside and got myself an Android, and I'm still finding my feet with it.

So just a quicky today. Another photograph from my trip up to the Lakes recently - a view up "The Struggle" towards the Kirkstone Pass Inn near Ambleside.

Finally, before I forget, I've just had an interview I did with Peter West Carey go up on his site He's also posting a Photo a day from me too this week. Check out the interview here.

Ambleside, the Lake District by Neil Alexander

View up The Struggle in the Lake District on an Autumn morning (Click to view larger)

Last week I made it up to the Lake District again, and although this time I was up there for less than 24 hours, it proved quite a productive trip. The light on the evening I arrived was good. Not great, but workable. I'd clambered half way up a hillside overlooking Derwent Water getting a few decent images on the way, but my primary goal was to capture a dramatic sky over the peaks on the other side of the lake as the sun went down, but alas it was not to be. I waited and waited until it was nearly dark, having left my coat and torch in the car and then had to blindly stumble down the hill in a very cold wind and near darkness without breaking my neck or suffering from exposure. The next morning didn't look like I was going to fare much better. Out of my B'n'B before dawn I could barely see my hand in front of my face it was that misty. Worse once I was up "The Struggle" on the way to the Kirkstone Pass. Here and there the mist lifted a little, so I shot a little, capturing some nice eery misty scenes but eventually I gave up and headed back for a good ol' Cumbrian breakfast. As I was finishing my coffee whilst reading the paper on my iPad I realised that I was having to shield it from the sunlight - the mist was lifting and the sun was making an effort to break through the clouds. That was my cue. I grabbed my gear, thanked my hosts and headed back up into the hills again. By this time, there was quite a bit of drama beginning to unfold in the clouds after the previous day's blue sky. Here and there the sun was poking through and then disappearing again. Almost perfect! I really couldn't have asked for much more. Well maybe it didn't have to be quite so windy and cold. I would find a scene, set up and wait for the sun to come into the frame and light a part of the landscape, shoot and move on. This I did quite successfully three or four times running, with the sunlight arriving in my photograph almost as if I had summoned it. And almost as soon as I'd captured the scene as I wanted it, the sun would disappear behind the clouds again. This is exactly how it happened for the scene above.

And to the processing. After listening to Martin Bailey's podcast on Nik's Colour Efex pro 4, I felt obliged to download it and give it a whirl and see if it really was much of an improvement on version 3 for myself. I was pleasantly surprised and used it to great success on this image. I made this photograph with a 3 frame HDR, though I was being lazy and hand holding, so the +1 stop exposure is soft and I had to discard it. So it's really just two frames merged in Photomatix Pro. But it was sufficient, fortunately. I then opened up the tonemapped image in Colour (sorry, color) Efex Pro and added a couple of different styles, and little selective toning. I love the result. Below is one of the original exposures straight out of the camera, dust spots and all (I really must get my sensors cleaned), so that you can see how much difference a bit of an effort in post processing can make. More posts to come from this shoot methinks, and I'll put some of them up on my Lake District gallery in due course.

Unprocessed - View up The Struggle in the Lake District on an Autumn morning