I don't much like being wrong, but it happens and by degrees. Some years ago, I would scoff and tut at adverts and posts purporting to have found a brilliant new plugin for Photoshop, writing them off instantly as a waste of money. But are they?
Well, some of them, yes. Perhaps even the majority of plugins and panels for Photoshop aren't worth the investment, but that isn't to say they are all disappointing. But what exactly am I referring to when I say plugins and panels (which I'll just refer to as plugins from herein.)
Plugins vary in complexity and application. The broadest description of them is they are an added extra you can install for your Photoshop client that has some functionality intended to make your life easier or better. Some are merely a collection of actions that save you time, and others are, for all intents and purposes, software in their own right. With that in mind, I'll get straight into my three favorites and the ones I use the most. Two of these are almost a luxury that I occasionally lean on or invoke, but one of them is an undisputed staple of my workflow.
1. Luminar 4
I was late to the Luminar party, but now that I'm here, I'm enjoying it. I originally saw their software as suggestions or rather heavy-handed, wholesale changes, but not only was I mostly wrong, they've come so far I'm now completely wrong. The arsenal of tools available in this plugin is staggering, and as they work more and more AI into their software, the power of this plugin grows. You can make numerous creative changes to your images, from subtle color grading or noise reduction through to photo manipulation at an impressive level. While it can certainly improve your images, it can also take an average image and turn it into something impressive and singular.
Pratik Naik, a commercial and editorial retoucher of the highest standard, moves in many of the same circles as I do, and we cross paths regularly. When I saw he and a small team had developed a plugin for Photoshop that aids in creative color grading, I was interested. Then, if I'm being brutally honest, I saw the random nature at the heart of how the plugin functions, and I was uninterested. However, I eventually saw an example of the panel being used, and I was impressed. I knew it didn't have the sort of image-defining capacity for me that it might be pitched at, as if I'm going for creative colors, I know exactly which, and I shoot for them. However, there are many times when I'm unsure which direction to take singular images or shoots that aren't for clients, and it could fill that niche very nicely indeed. So, I bought it.
I quickly changed my mind on where the ceiling for this sort of plugin was to much higher. Yes, the bulk of how it works is utilizing the random, but you can set parameters and use it intelligently. Some of the results I've had have been far from what I would have done, or even thought to have done, and then I've taken that idea and run with it. Now, I will often throw an image through a few randomizations of color themes to see what happens, and even if I don't end up using one, I might take the approach into a different project.
This panel is mostly merely actions and scripts, that for the most part, you could create yourself if you were so inclined. However, for $69, I most certainly wouldn't bother.
I originally bought this panel to use on a series of portraits I was going to take in which I'd be doing a fair amount of beauty retouching. At the end of that first job, I couldn't have been more sold on the idea of the Beauty Retouch panel. Much of what it offers is in the form of foundational techniques, like dodging and burning, luminosity masking, or editorial image checks like over-saturation. However, its value reaches further than that for me. Even when I am not retouching beauty images, I will reach for this panel to do multiple checks, some of my sharpening workflow, and just about anything with people in will see me using it too. I don't think I have minimized this panel since I first installed it three or four years ago, and I can't see it happening any time soon either. That's before pointing out that since the first iteration I bought, I have received numerous free upgrades which include more and more complex actions and scripts. The resizing of images is a particular highlight for me.
I recently installed the newest version of Photoshop and didn't open it again until the next day, when I had a mountain of editing on a tight deadline. The panel had vanished in the update, and I refused to do another thing until it had been reinstated.
Due to my historically tepid response to panels and plugins, I haven't used that many. However, I have used more than three, and while some were tested upon request from the company who created it, and many I didn't ever use again, I do have some that aren't quite a staple for me, but I enjoy and use them nonetheless.
The first honorable mention goes to Topaz Labs. I originally used their B&W Effects plugin and was thoroughly impressed at how masterfully it allowed me to convert color images into black and white. At first, I used it just to see what images might look like in black and white, but eventually, I would use it for creating my black and white images rather than Lightroom.
My second honorable mention is the famous Nik Collection, which is somewhat of an all-encompassing tool. It has everything from color alterations, filters, automated HDR, sharpening, and more. It has earned its reputation for being both high utility and high quality, and right now, it's 50% off for Black Friday.
My final honorable mention is not at all well known, it isn't flashy, and it is just a collection of actions. Furthermore, it has one of the oldest-looking websites I have seen since I was in an IT lab trying to stop a four-pixel helicopter from crashing while ignoring my teacher: Astronomy Tools. On the rare occasion I get to do astrophotography, this action set is called upon to aid in getting the image just right.
What Do You Use?
Do you have any panels or plugins for Photoshop 2020 that you swear by? Do you know of a panel that few do? Do you have a secret weapon you plugin to every version of Photoshop? Share your suggestions in the comment section below.