Color Efex Pro is arguably the most popular plugin in the Nik Collection by DxO. It’s been a favorite amongst photographers for well over a decade now. That’s not without a reason.
But just how good is it? Is it really a must-have for photographers? Can it still compete in what’s becoming a saturated market of photo editors?
That and more is what we will take a closer look at in this Nik Color Efex Pro review. Keep reading and find out whether or not it’s a good match for you.
What is Color Efex Pro 5?
This might be the first time you hear of Color Efex Pro so, before we dive into the ins and out, let’s take a step back and learn what exactly this tool is.
Color Efex Pro is one of eight plugins found in the popular Nik Collection 5 by DxO (read our Nik Collection review here). The main use is to easily apply creative touches to your photographs.
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to purchase only the Color Efex Pro plugin. It can only be purchased as part of the collection (make sure to check out the 30-day free trial if you’re on the fence about getting it) Each of the plugins serves different purposes but, quite honestly, there are only 3 or 4 that most photographers will incorporate into their workflow.
Color Efex Pro 5 is one of them.
All eight tools can be used as standalone photo editors or as plugins for Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Elements, Affinity, or DxO PhotoLabs (which is included when purchasing the Nik Collection).
Color Efex Pro 5 is often viewed as a jack of all trades. Its amount of filters can be overwhelming at first but don’t let that scare you away. It’s not without a reason that photographers have considered it an essential plugin for more than a decade.
Color Efex Pro 5 Interface and User Experience
The Color Efex Pro interface got a big overhaul in version 5 and is now up to date with Silver Efex Pro 3 and Viveza 3. This was a welcome update that previous users will find easier (and faster) to work with.
The layout is built up of six sections:
- The Menu Bar
- The Upper Toolbar
- The Image Display Area
- The Left Panel
- The Right Panel
- The Lower Toolbar
I won’t go into the details and contents of each tab here (take a look at the user manual if you want that) but there are some things that are good to know.
The left panel is where you find a list of all the filters. These filters consist of adjustment sliders, drop-down menus, or other options that are revealed in the right-side panel when they are selected (click on a filter to activate it).
When the filter is activated, you can use the sliders and other adjustment options in the right-side panel to apply the creative touches to your photograph. The adjustments are live, which means the image in the display area is updated immediately.
An adjustment isn’t “fixed” though. You can go back and change the values at any point during the workflow.
The Best Color Efex Pro Filters
As of writing this, Color Efex Pro has a total of 55 filters. To be honest, it’s unlikely that you’ll use more than a handful of them. Exactly which ones depend on what you want to achieve in post-processing.
I find that some filters are more… experimental… than others. Let’s just say that there are filters for everyone.
For landscape photography, I find that there are particularly six filters that stand out. These mainly focus on tones and contrast but will make a significant difference to the photo when used correctly.
#1 Pro Contrast
The Pro Contrast filter is used, as the name indicates, to adjust the contrast in an image (though there’s also a slider for correcting color cast)
While the Correct Color Cast slider does a good job, it’s the Dynamic Contrast slider that’s most important.
Dynamic Contrast is an advanced slider that adjusts the contrast of each area according to the tone distribution. That means that it adjusts different parts of the photo with varying degrees.
As with any tool, this should be used with care. Generally speaking, you want to avoid using a percentage more than 40 or 50.
It might seem a little over the top to include two filters that target contrast but both are exceptionally good. Used together, they can create wonderful results (which is one reason to hold back a little on the sliders).
The Tonal Contrast filter is, in my opinion, the very best contrast filter in Color Efex Pro 5. I’d argue that it has since version one of the Nik Collection.
A common mistake amongst aspiring photographers is that contrast is only adjusted on a global level. This is rarely a good idea. In fact, most images benefit from local contrast adjustments too. That’s exactly what the Tonal Contrast filter is used for. Here you can separately adjust the contrast in the Highlights, Midtones, and Shadows.
Aim to use a strength of 5 to 15 percent for each of the three contrast sliders. This can give a quite nice ‘pop’ to the photo.
#3 Detail Extractor
The Detail Extractor is a filter you should be very careful with using. Not because it’s a bad filter but because it’s very sensitive. Pull the slider a little too far and it will make the image look… horrible.
That being said, applied at a lower percentage, it’s a great tool for extracting detail and balancing light.
Pulling the slider to the right will extract details, brighten shadows and darken highlights. A range between 5 and 20 tends to be the best.
#4 Darken/Lighten Center
I’m generally not a fan of basic vignette tools such as the one found in Lightroom. The reason is that they lack customization possibilities, making it difficult to create a vignette that suits the specific needs of a photo.
The Darken/Lighten Center is a much better method of applying a vignette. This filter gives you great control as you’re able to place the center, adjust the center and border luminosity, as well as the center size. Combine this with Control Points (more on that soon), and you have everything you need to create the perfect vignette.
I find this to be a great filter to use towards the end of a workflow.
#5 Skylight Filter
Who doesn’t love a nice colorful sunrise or sunset? I think that’s part of what drags many of us outside with our cameras in hand.
The Skylight filter is perfect for these types of photos as it applies a similar effect as a warming filter does. The further to the right you pull the slider, the more warmth is applied.
This doesn’t work for every photo and it should be applied with some caution but for the right image, it does a lot to enhance the atmosphere.
Using Presets in Color Efex Pro 5
It’s no secret that most of us have our habits. This is true when processing our images too. Even though every image is unique and should be treated individually, most of us tend to follow the same steps and use the same tools during the editing workflow.
This is why many photographers opt to use presets in Lightroom, Actions in Photoshop, or Looks in Luminar. It’s a great way to quickly apply a set of adjustments to your images (rather than spending time manually applying each one)
Color Efex Pro (and the Nik Collection in general) also have a preset function. Just as in other software, these are used to apply a series of adjustments in just one click. It’s possible to both create your own and import others’ presets.
Adjustments in a preset aren’t locked. That’s important to remember. After applying it, you have full access to all the filters it uses and can adjust the settings as needed. It’s also possible to turn off filters that might not work for that particular photo.
All that the preset does is add filters to the right panel with the settings you saved it with.
How to Create Presets in Color Efex Pro 5
Creating a preset in Color Efex Pro is quite straightforward. All you have to do is follow these simple steps:
- Apply the filters and settings you want to include in the preset (for example Pro Contrast, Detail Extractor, and Darken/Lighten Center)
- Click the “Save Preset” button at the bottom of the right panel
- Enter the desired name in the dialogue box. Make sure to give it a name that describes the look it gives or the effects it has.
- Check “Save with Control Points” if you want the control points to be included in the preset.
- Click “Save”
Your new preset can now be found in the Custom section in the left panel. The name can be changed by clicking on the text and writing in the new one. You can also click the star icon to save it as a favorite (which can be handy when you have many filters)
How to Import Presets in Color Efex Pro
Purchasing presets for Lightroom is quite common and there is an abundance of providers (both photographers and companies) out there. This isn’t quite the case for Color Efex Pro. A quick google search shows that there’s not much on the market.
That being said, importing presets is still an option. It’s just as easy as creating them:
- Locate the “Imported” section in the left panel
- Click on the double arrow icon and select “Import Preset” in the pop-up menu
- Navigate to the preset file in the new window that opens, select it and click “Open”
The imported preset(s) will now be visible in the Imported section. Again, you can change the name and save a preset as a favorite.
Create Masks by Using Control Points in Color Efex Pro 5
The Nik Collection plugins don’t use Layers and Masks like we are used to from Photoshop and other advanced post-processing tools. Instead, they use something called Control Points.
Control Points are similar to masks and are used to apply or remove adjustments (filters) from specific areas in the image.
To find the Control Points you need to first open a filter. Now, within the filter tab in the right panel, you can find two circular icons; one with a “+” sign attached and one with a “–“. The first is a regular Control Point while the other is a Protective Control Point.
Regular Control Points are used to apply adjustments only to the selected areas while a Protective Control Point is used to remove adjustments from those areas.
How Control Points Work
I’m not going to lie. I found Control Points quite confusing in the beginning. I still prefer the way masks work in for example Photoshop or Luminar 4 but after a lot of trial and error, I’ve realized that they are more flexible (and intelligent) than what they first appear to be.
New in Nik Color Efex Pro 5 is that you can create selections based on Luminance and Chrominance. This is definitely a step in the right direction, making Control Points more powerful than they’ve ever been before.
But, how exactly do they work? How can you use them to create local adjustments? Let’s start with the basics:
- Click on the + icon to create a Control Point (the adjustment will be applied only to the selected area) Notice that the cursor changes its shape to a little circle when hovering over the image.
- Click on the area of the image where you want the mask to be applied. A circle should now appear on the image. Only areas covered by the Control Point will be affected when making an adjustment. However, the Control Point analyzes the tones, texture and color and will adjust its selection within the circle accordingly.
- Use the slider within the circle to adjust its size and the affected range
You can always move the Control Point after it’s been created. Simply click on its icon on the image and drag it to where you want. It’s also possible to create multiple Control Points (and duplicate the ones you already have)
In fact, the best results often come from using several of them. It’s not uncommon to use a dozen or more to create the perfect selection of one area.
I strongly recommend clicking the “Show/Hide selection for all Control Points” when working on your mask. This turns the image into a black and white preview where you can see exactly what areas are targeted (white areas are adjusted while black is left untouched)
Refining Control Points Using Color Selectivity
As I already mentioned, the Control Point looks at the tones, texture, and color of the exact spot you clicked at (the center of the Control Point) when making the selection. By turning on the selection preview you can see how not all parts within the circle are affected equally.
Let’s say that you want to increase the saturation of a blue sky. You can make a Control Point that covers the entire sky but then it also covers areas in the landscape that you don’t want to affect. That’s nothing to worry about. As long as the center of the Control Point is in the blue sky, the rest of the image should be unaffected.
In addition to this built-in feature, you have two more ways of refining the selection: the Luminance and Chrominance sliders found in the Color Selectivity section.
Luminance determines the range of brightness of the color. Increasing the amount refines the selection to target only areas of similar luminance to the selected color while lowering it broadens the range to include a wider range of brightness.
Chrominance determines the range of hues for a color. Increasing the amount refines the selection to target only areas with the exact same hue of the selected color while lowering it broadens the range to include a wider range of hues.
Combining these three tools, you can create extremely precise masks. It takes some practice (and often more than one control point) but it’s an important technique to learn if you want to create local adjustments.
Who is Nik Color Efex Pro 5 for?
This is the million-dollar question. Or, in this case, the 149-dollar question. Let’s get straight to the point instead of beating around the bush:
If you use Lightroom, Photoshop, Luminar, Affinity, or any other photo editor to process your images, the Nik Collection plugins will be a great addition to your toolbox. I.e. yes it’s the right choice for you.
If you don’t use any photo editors to process your images and just use the files as are straight out of the camera, you will not find the Nik collection to be of any use. I.e. no, it’s not the right choice for you.
Color Efex Pro 5 is the most popular plugin in the Nik Collection. That’s been the case for over a decade and nothing indicates that will change anytime soon.
I’m not going to sit here and say “Color Efex Pro 5 will instantly transform your average photos into world-class award winners”. That would be a lie. What it will do is provide you with several customizable filters that will speed up your workflow and allow you to easily apply advanced adjustments.
There’s little doubt in my mind that most photographers who process their images will find this a useful plugin. Perhaps more as a part of your Lightroom, Photoshop, or Affinity workflow than alone (though standalone users can develop good workflows by combining the other Nik Collection plugins)
Personally, I’ve used Color Efex Pro for almost a decade and consider it an essential tool for post-processing. I’m convinced that you will too.
On the fence about whether or not Color Efex Pro is for you? Take advantage of the Nik Collection’s free 30-day trial that gives full access to all the plugins.