Testing Showdown: Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro Dynamic Skin Softener vs. Imagenomic’s Portraiture


Color Efex Pro Version

Portraiture Version

On suggestion from Kevin from Nik Software, I agreed to try out the Dynamic Skin Softener filter in Color Efex Pro against Imagenomic’s Portraiture, which has been my standby for skin softening for a while now.  I was very excited about doing such a test, and decided that to make it fair, the only differences would be in the skin softening layer.  I actually adjusted exposure and hue in Lightroom before porting the photo into Photoshop.  I purposefully didn’t do any cloning cleanup, to see if there was any difference in how each program reacted to the problems (in this case, some dry skin flakes near the child’s mouth).  I hope that these versions are clear enough for you to see the differences which happened between each program, and so that you can pick for yourself which one you would use more.  Warning- as both programs save your prior actions and restart with those settings, I was unable to use just the default settings for either.  But, that means that you are seeing each setting as I would actually use it in real life.

I picked a photo that was fairly recent and a bit unusual for a portrait test, maybe… having a fairly short depth of field and such.  I wanted to see how each program handled specific issues like out of focus areas, though. As you can see, on the original photo, the girl’s face has some visible skin pores, blood vessels, etc around her cheek and skin hairs around the eyelid.  Eyelashes and nostrils are in focus, eyes and lips are almost in focus, as well as some hair around the face.  Not bad but could be improved upon, which is the whole reason for this test, right?  EVERYONE AND EVERY PICTURE can use some post-processing magic.  Done correctly, it can only improve photos.  Every time. (ok, getting off my soapbox).

Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro Dynamic Skin Softener filter:

So, to start with, this is a great, great filter that Nik has included.  Portraiture is listed at $199, JUST for a single product to do what this filter does.  Color Efex Pro has 52 filters in the complete package for $299.  So just on that fact, not knowing how well the filter works, you might want to run out and buy the Nik package.  You can always adjust the filter, right?  Well, lets see how much it actually needs it, by doing this test.  First off, when you go into the Nik plug-in, you have to maneuver down to the Dynamic Skin Softener filter.  When that was clicked, it automatically applies it to your photo in preview mode.  It has several sliders which you can use to adjust the filter.  As Kevin had suggested in his earlier comment to try this product, I first picked a skin color with the eyedropper, then adjusted “color reach”.  I quickly realized that I would need to readjust it after all the other sliders, so that the program knew where to apply the adjustments. The other sliders- for small, medium and large details- weren’t self explanatory but had to be  played with to see what they would effect.  I played until I found a setting for each which seemed to fit the photo the best- softening skin while still keeping detail in detail areas like the eyebrows and eyelashes.  This is where color reach came in handy… too high and everything got affected.  There was some bleed-over (hair, eyebrows a touch) and some uneven coverage in the cheeks and in the eyelid skin hairs… I think with some minor masking in Photoshop, though, plus some judicial use of the blur tool, this could do what you want, which is basically give you a shortcut way to get good portrait skin softening.

Imagenomic’s Portraiture:

This is also a plug-in from the Photoshop filter list, and one that I use often on portraits.  I’m just not that great at skin softening on my own, I always end up oversharpening the details and then the photo looks ok on screen but lousy on paper 😦  So I count my blessings that companies have put out products like the two I’m testing today!

There are a few choices in looks from Portraiture, but 99% of the time I just use the default setting.  I don’t like overdone skin softening, and most of the other settings are stronger.  I even have turned down the default sliders, I think, reducing the feathering, opacity and fuzziness.  When you open the plug-in, it gives you a preview of your image with the effects applied.  I also like the mask version that you see in a thumbnail on the plug-in, although the effect is often too minor to really see the mask laid over the photo.  Anyways, when applied, this program does a good job at fuzzing out the skin irregularities and skin tones, and still keeps some details… but you loose some of the detail in almost everything, so masking is not optional, it is necessary with this software.  Anything that is slightly out of focus- here lips and eyes- got feathered.  Hair also lost detail.  Even the eye lashes lost a small amount of their sharpness.  I would need to mask detail back into 90% of the photo, or just reduce the opacity of this layer a bit until some skin detail came back.  Even then I might mask around the hair, eyebrows, and eyes a bit.  This sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it?  It isn’t, really.  But it’s art.  I don’t really want it to be as easy as in the photo studios in department stores.  I’m guessing they don’t take the time to mask back in some detail 🙂


I would say that my testing proves that neither program does a 100% perfect job of only softening skin and to the right degree with a touch of a button… that might be science fiction, to believe that any program would work perfectly like that!  So I try to look at it as an artist… what will make it easier to do my work while still getting the effects I want, which might mean masking later, or using other filter to get the effect I want… I just want a product that is worth the cost for the effort it saves me.  SO… Overall Portraiture is simpler than the Dynamic Skin Softener in Color Efex Pro, and does a very similar job.  Color Efex Pro does a better job at maintaining definition in areas where you want it, while Portraiture does a better job at evening out skin irregularities and skin tones.  I think there is more masking to be done with Portraiture, to bring back details that were lost, while in Color Efex Pro you may need to incorporate some masking along with some blurring in areas.  For me, I think Portraiture has a slight edge over the filter from Color Efex Pro, because I like that the filter does everything I want and then some… it’s relatively easy to mask back towards the original photo, and perhaps quicker than using the Nik filter.  BUT, I don’t see a clear winner, and I think which you pick depends on what you will use it for… do you want a one shot, quick skin smoother only, or are you looking for skin smoothing as a useful filter along with 51 other amazing filters?  As I stated before, the price might be the reason to pick Color Efex Pro over Portraiture. If I hadn’t owned Portraiture before, and owned Color Efex Pro, I know I wouldn’t be willing to pay $199 for Portraiture.  And that may be the real answer to my test.

See my work at www.kelleybard.com.  Thanks for visiting my blog and I hope that I helped answer some questions about these products!


About Kelley B.

I am a Durango, CO photographer who specializes in portraiture and wedding photography. My business is Kelley Bard Photography. You can find me around town, gardening, or on my website at www.kelleybard.com. View all posts by Kelley B.

10 responses to “Testing Showdown: Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro Dynamic Skin Softener vs. Imagenomic’s Portraiture

  • Kelley Bard Photography

    I just thought that I could always overdo Nik’s settings and then just have more masking to do in the end… that might even out the playing field even more and make color efex even more attractive!

  • Eric Neilsen

    Kelly, Is the public supposed to make a judgment about these two programs based on this one image? and your limited testing? Skin softening? When retouching a portrait I might try to soften the skin, but certainly not always or even a major part of the time. Skin retouching is not about softening an image to me, it is about replacing objectionable areas of the skin with less objectionable areas; pimples, zits, reddish or ruddy. The image which you choose to work with was already a smooth face child with shallow depth of field. How soft does one need the skin here?

    I am also curious to know if you think that Portraiture only works on skin tones? that does seem to be a part of the report here, one plug in for X number of dollars vs another for X number of dollars.

    You also state that “most of the other settings are stronger”. With all the possible setting with sliders and choices, I find it hard to believe that a software company would give me only stronger options from the default and in fact see that there are many setting which are much less than default. I also recall being able to make my own presets that become my own default.

  • Kelley Bard Photography

    Thanks for your comments, Eric. They are valid. I had a suggestion to try this particular filter from Nik against the product that I already use, Portraiture. I decided to show results in the best scientific way I could, by changing the least amount of variables in the photos. I agree with your comments on skin retouching… but I wasn’t testing cloning or even how to fuzz the skin out enough to erase zits or such, I was testing this particular look.
    I’ve not used Portraiture for anything else but skin tones, although I’ve noticed that it does a fair job with noise reduction. I’m not sure if that was your point in the second paragraph or not… I would love to know what else you have found it useful for.
    In Portraiture, in the default settings, you have 4 settings, each of which state that they are slightly more aggressive than the one before it. I almost always use the least aggressive setting, then tone it down some with the sliders. And then I mask from there… I try to stay away from the really overdone look, I guess. Besides those settings, you can also find a default setting for glamour, tones, high key and low key.
    I don’t know what the public will do with this effort of mine, but I’m glad that I took the time to do the testing and then share the results. I learned quite a bit. Hopefully it helps someone out as well.

  • Eric Neilsen

    Kelley, I assume that you were not testing cloning since Portraiture nor Nik Skin softening are cloning tools. Within Portraiture there is a “Detail Smoothing” area with three sliders. Is that the area that you are referring to with 4 settings? As each of those is a slider. I see nothing that states more aggressive, but rather fine, medium, and large with a threshold adjustment. The first three have to do with pore structure size and the last I use to set how much it sees of all. The least amount would be all the sliders set to zero. There is also another tab in that area which has to do with image size or output intent. I didn’t see anywhere in your science where you identify the file size that you were working on. I find that a default of any program has a presumed starting point or image size. It would be very helpful to your readers to know how to compare your results with tests that they might run as well as compare the defaults to a file that is for them, real world. With all the cameras and image work flows, were these 16 bit ProPhoto TIF files or processed JPEGs ? makes a big difference to the look of the file.

    As to using Portraiture for things other than skin tone, there is the SKIN TONES MASK area with an on / off switch. In the off position, it will output a file with all the tonal, sharpening, color changes that are available to apply to a skin layer or selection.

    I have well over 50 presets broken out in to 7 categories of my own presets. These are used depending on size of file, intent of output, creative after the studio lighting, etc as desired. Use of Portraiture to alter images goes way beyond simple skin retouching, or blemish removal but rather I use it to sharpen image areas, change color, mood.

    You might try multiple uses or runs of the plug in to make additional changes that most steps inside of Photoshop require like localized contrast controls.

  • Kelley Bard Photography

    Eric has some great suggestions on how to use Portraiture in a much more detailed way than I have used it. I hope others out there are learning from his ideas! I love the idea of using portraiture for other aspects in my photos.
    Eric, your first paragraph asked about the settings- it might be helpful for people to know that I have been working off of Portraiture 2, using raw files. When I talked about the 4 settings available, I meant the generic presets. They offer the default preset, then 3 smoothing presets which state they are each more aggressive than the last, then 4 enhancing presets for glamour, tone, high key and low key. I hope that clarifies for you and anyone else. So far, I’ve only ever felt the need to use the default and glamour presets, and from there I adjust sliders down generally.

  • Eric Neilen

    Kelley, Portraiture does not work on RAW files even from within Lightroom if you have that version of the plug in. So it is still quite important to judge an action, plug in , feature by looking at file size. A 100 MB TIF will have a different set of slider setting than a 3 MB JPEG. I rarely look at the descriptions under the presets any more so I had forgotten the use of the word aggressive there. I also think it is important to look at the word generic when looking at the presets. If your user base lives in a camera based JPEG world than different generics will work better. I highly recommend the use of the “save” button in the control panel and make your own. They can be group by skin type, age of people, etc. or even intent. A file that is a quick jpeg, for fast processing and client review with very little correction might get one setting but the master file ready for printing a different setting based on size of the file. The two setting can give the same look but on two different file sizes. This is true of ANY plug in or workflow in LR, PS and other editing software. http://www.ericneilsenphotography.com/rt_ba.html has a few samples of before and after using portraiture to create lighting effects. I hope you find this useful.

    • Kelley Bard Photography

      Thanks for all the ideas, I hope others are using it. I will correct you, though, because Portraiture 2 does work on raw files, that is how I use it, so it must work. I usually put my photos into Lightroom first then port them over to Photoshop, where I apply the Portraiture filter. They are still called by their raw file name (in this case, Canon’s raw file is .cr2). I’m not clear on how different size and type files are effected by Portraiture but I’m glad that you have looked into it. I don’t understand what you mean by looking at the word “generic”… perhaps different generics work better with different file types, I don’t know, but I use the word because that is what the preset is called in my version of Portraiture. That’s all. I will check out the link you gave, it would be great to have different ideas on how to use Portraiture. Thanks again.

  • Eric Neilsen

    Kelley, When a file leave Lightroom, as an edit in or export, it is NO LONGER a RAW file. It may appear in your program as a NEF or CR file by NAME ONLY but the file is a TIF or JPEG in the color space you specify within your LR preferences. I strongly suggest that you call Adobe or other sources if you think I am pulling your leg. When I say, look at, I mean think about, ponder, question, consider. Why would they, Imagenomic use the term generic. I would suggest to you that the plugin works on many file sizes, from 200KB to 200 MB or more, so the amount of change will not be the same across the board. Generic will cover many file sizes, but specific file sizes will require specific setting for best use.

    The PT plug in for LR does require a TIF or JPEG. The plug in will not work on a RAW file. You can test the idea that a RAW file is what you have by just hitting save in Photoshop BEFORE you run anything and the file name will change to the file type to told LR to make and in the color space to said at the dpi specified.

  • George

    I’m the senior product consultant for Imagenomic and after perusing your comparison and reading the comments, I’ll offer some feedback on Portraiture ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’ so to speak. As I’m the ipso facto expert on Portraiture use and I convey Imagenomic’s actual marketing paradigm for this product, all items I quote are accurate as to Portraiture’s intended use.
    First, I did a bit compare of the samples above and saw that the differences were so miniscule as to actually not be even a factor in a usage comparison. That, coupled with the fact that the subject image is such that no retouching is really needed in the skin smoothening areas doesn’t lend anything to the visual or actual application usage. This would apply equally for Portraiture or the Nik plugin.
    As to the actual generic presets that are available within Portraiture, generic is used in the contextual meaning of “having no particularly distinctive quality or application”. Thus, a generic preset is simply a starting point and is not meant as a one shot solution for all images. The very nature of skin retouching is a distinct and personal process and to simply use one preset as a basis for end results is to overlook the true nature of the process as well as the intended usage of the software. The sliders are there for a reason, but sadly in todays fast world, everyone wants a ‘one clickee solution’.
    Also, Portraiture does NOT work with RAW files, so your reply to Eric was not correct. A RAW file must be processed out to a TIFF or JPEG that is then passed on to Portraiture. This is the same deal that all LR plugins must go thru as LR has no true plugin architecture such as Photoshop has. It doesn’t matter whether you’re using Edit In or Export, a RAW file cannot be edited, it has to be converted first. For that matter, you don’t even edit RAW files in LR.
    File size as well as intended output are important aspects of any retouching workflow as it directly affects the type and level of retouch. There is no true ‘one size fits all’ at least from a professional level of retouching where output criteria is indicative of workflow methodology.
    Portraiture has a tremendous amount of power to work with skin retouching as well as creative painting and 3D lighting simulation, if one takes the time to learn it.
    As I also personally own and use all of the Nik plugins, I know exactly how the Dynamic Skin Softener works as part of my job is to make very specific, detailed analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Portraiture and its competitors. The samples and methodology used for this comparison doesn’t do justice for either Portraiture or Nik. I don’t favor one toolset over another for being the best as they all have their strengths and weaknesses. Too many people do a This VS That and forget that they’re simply comparing tools as any true craftsmen will use all the tools they can to do the best job. I always tell everyone at the shows to buy ALL the plugins from Imagenomic, Nik and onOne so they’ll have the best possible choices of processing.
    My comments are meant as informative and constructive and in no way detrimental.

    • Kelley Bard Photography

      Thanks for the comments, George. I used a photo that was a good sample of the type of photo that I usually use skin smoothing for. I’m currently using Portraiture for a school’s worth of school photos and I like how it works, which is why I purchased it. I’m interested in exploring the lighting simulation ideas, I’ll look into that. For these photos I wanted to use as close to the generic options as possible, to test the photo with each software as most people would use it.
      I was wrong on the raw files, although your reply is a bit confusing to me- perhaps I just need to learn more about what happens when I send a raw file from lightroom to photoshop. I don’t know much about the different aspects of how file types are affected by different retouching, it’s another thing for me to learn.

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