Here’s a short tutorial on using the Tonal Contrast filter in Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro plug-in to add some zing to cloudy skies. The image I’m using as an example here is a black and white (converted using Nik’s Silver Efex Pro 2, of course) but this technique works equally well on color images. Kind of ironic that a plug-in named “Color Efex Pro” works so well on a monochrome image, huh? Anyway, I use the Tonal Contrast filter on nearly every image I process and always when I’ve got a to-die-for sky like the one in this photo. Used sparingly it can add great detail and texture to the puffy white clouds we photographers just loooooove to include in our photos. And, it only takes about 20 seconds from start to finish. Yeah, it’s that good.
The image you see above is straight out of Silver Efex Pro 2. If I hadn’t discovered this Color Efex Pro technique I’d probably be pretty darn happy with the photo as-is. But why settle? The Tonal Contrast filter allows you to easily and independently adjust contrast of the highlights, midtones and shadows within an image using nothing more than simple sliders. You can also protect highlights and shadows with another set of sliders, preventing the highlights from blowing out (pure white/no detail) or the shadows from blocking up (pure black/no detail).
The image directly above has been processed with Color Efex Pro’s Tonal Contrast filter. The effect is borderline subtle, but if you click on each image to view them at 800 pixels wide, you’ll easily see that the “after” photo displays much more detail in the clouds. The transition from light to dark tones is enhanced, giving the clouds more definition and dimension. Here are the settings I used to achieve this look:
Highlight Contrast = 20
Midtone Contrast = 15
Shadow Contrast = 10
Shadows = 0 (this slider doesn’t operate numerically but I made no adjustments, hence the “0″)
Highlights = 0 (again, no numeric setting but I made no adjustments)
There are a couple things to be aware of when using the Tonal Contrast filter. First, the base settings are 30, 30, 30 for highlight, midtone and shadow contrast with slight adjustments to the shadows and highlights sliders. I find that these settings are usually far too aggressive for my tastes, resulting in a look reminiscent of HDR. Some may like this, and that’s okay, but it’s not for me. The best way for you to learn where you should start with each setting is to open an image in Color Efex Pro and start experimenting. Second, unless you use control points in the sky the adjustments you make will affect the entire image. I rarely use control points in the Tonal Contrast filter because I like what it does to the landscape as well as to the sky. Again, I use a more subtle approach and the differences likely won’t jump out and slap you across the face but they do enhance the image.
There you have it. A completely painless path to better skies using Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro plug-in. If you don’t already own the Nik Complete Collection, which includes Color Efex Pro, Silver Efex Pro 2 and several other plug-ins I can’t live without, you can download fully functioning free trials at the Nik Store. You’ll be instantly hooked and when your trial expires, use code “BEDGE” to receive a 15% discount on the purchase of your new plug-ins at the Nik Store.
Was this tutorial helpful? As always, I’d love to hear from you!