Sleeklens, a company that makes Lightroom and Photoshop workflows for photographers, approached me a few days ago about reviewing their new Landscape Adventure Photoshop Actions set. I usually do not use presets in my image processing, but after looking at what Sleeklens had to offer, some of the unique features in their Landscape Adventure package, and impressive reviews from other photographers, I agreed to give it a try.
There are lots of detail to follow, but the bottom line is that I am thoroughly impressed with Sleeklens’ product. While it cannot replace good old attention to detail, it does get many images 80% of the way there in minutes versus hours with manual adjustments. This is a huge benefit for both professional photographers with large volumes of shots to process, not every one of which needs the diminishing returns that go into the last 20% for a print image, and amateurs looking to improve the final look of their landscape photos without spending hours or becoming a Photoshop guru. The only potential issue, which I will talk about more below, is that it can be difficult to step backwards in the editing process because of the need to flatten images between applying multiple actions.
The Landscape Adventure Photoshop Actions set from Sleeklens can be found here. Sleeklens also offers a similar product as a Lightroom workflow, as well as Photoshop action sets geared towards many other photographic niches. Finally, it is worth mentioning that Sleeklens offers a professional editing service that can be a great springboard for picking up editing tools and tricks.
Sleeklens got quite a few things right with their actions set, but what set it apart for me was the ease of use. Installation took seconds - open a photo in Photoshop (I am using the CC version), and double-click on the *.atn actions file that I downloaded from the site. To use it, simply click on an action and hit the play button. If there were special instructions, a dialogue box conveniently opened up to tell me what I needed to do. While there was no specific instruction manual describing what each action does, the descriptive names and organization into categories (“Basic,” “Tone”, or “Enhance”, for example) made it easy to figure out as I went. Best of all, I could test out several different actions and see their effects almost instantaneously simply by toggling the adjustment layer visibility. It only took a few minutes with the software in my hands before I felt confident using it.
I will start out using my image of a rainbow over Eagle Creek in the Wallowa Mountains of Oregon as a detailed example of just how effective these actions are. This image took me several days, plus more than one test print, to get right working in Lightroom and Photoshop. To test Sleeklens, I started from the original Raw file and went straight to Photoshop. Obviously, the image at this stage could use a lot of work to reach print quality.
The original, unprocessed RAW file.
I started off playing with the “Basic” actions, running each and then simply hiding the applied layers to quickly assess which I liked best. After simply applying the “Dramatic Contrast” and “Clarity” actions (which took seconds), the image was already closer to how I envisioned the final product than it had after an hour in Lightroom spent fidgeting with the tone curve.
The "Dramatic Contrast" action alone did wonders for this image, and took seconds to apply.
I was initially less enamored with the “Tone” actions, since they come on extremely strong and make the entire image look blue or orange - effectively the opposite of using White Balance sliders. I found, though, that if I turned down the opacity to around 25% before judging an action, I was much happier with the results. From there, it was easy enough to use the included layer mask to fine-tune the effect - in this case isolating the “Dark and Stormy” tone action to the background trees blending into the mist.
At this point the fore- and mid-ground were close to what I wanted, but the mist still was not defined enough for my taste. Of course, Sleeklens was prepared for that with the “Enhance” actions. In fact, “Sky Enhancer” is basically dark photoshop magic for the natural-looking dehazing it seamlessly performed around the edges of the mist. I finished it off with “Dark Dreams,” which in addition to adding some shadow back into the image provided a nice Orton effect for the background - something I had not included in the original edit of this image.
Here are the manual and Sleeklens-edited versions side-by-side:
Manual version, which took several hours. Sleeklens version, which took about 20 minutes.
There are two critical differences in these images as far as Sleeklens is concerned. First, the one on the left took days to edit, while the one on the right took about 15 minutes from start to finish. There are still some manual edits to be made - the rainbow requires manual brushing, for example, and it could use some local contrast adjustments - but it has come a long way in a short time. Second, the one on the right has blown-out highlights in the upper right sky. I did not notice the blown highlights until several actions into the edit. At that point, the image had been flattened with the action adjustment layers several times over, so to undo - or simply mask over - whichever action had caused the blow highlights would have meant starting the editing process from scratch.
This was a recurring issue in the other images I edited with Sleeklens actions, since the interaction of several actions can have unintended effects on the image. And, the image must be flattened between actions since many actions have specific adjustments that will only work on individual layers, not layer groups (for example, adjustments that use Camera Raw). In the scene below the saturation in the sky and snow was somewhat overdone, but by the time I decided that the color was too much for me it was difficult to undo even with a Saturation mask.
Manual version (HDR in Photomatix, Lightroom, and Photoshop), which took around 3 hours before lens flare cleanup.
Sleeklens version, which took 15 minutes.
There is a solution to this, although it is somewhat messy and makes staying organized within Photoshop much more tedious. Before flattening each layer with the action adjustments, group them and make a copy of the group. Then you can hide that group and come back to it later in case you need to make any changes (to opacity, masking, etc.). However, this is still an imperfect solution since Sleeklens actions are being applied based on the image it "sees" when you apply the action. So, if you drastically change the mask on one action in your backup layers, the actions that were applied on top of that layer may not function as you would expect unless you re-run them on the updated image.
With that one caveat in mind though, I will get back to being blown away by how capable the Sleeklens actions are. The image above was originally edited using a 4-image HDR stack via Photomatix before being pulled into Photoshop for detailed adjustments - all of which took 2-3 hours without removing the lens flare spots. With Sleeklens, I used a RAW single image (the +1 EV of the HDR stack) and reached this level of polishing within 15 minutes.
Finally, I wanted to try a more adventure-oriented photo rather than a landscape. Adding human elements in, especially in this case a glowing tent and stove, present very different elements than the usual landscape image. Sleeklens performed above my expectations again, with the “Enhance Dynamic Range” action giving the night landscape a huge boost. Even better was the “Details Enhancer,” which I could mask to only affect the tent and my friend Michelle - making them appear crisp and slightly illuminated as the clear focal point of the image. Minus a few manual edits around the Whisperlite, the two images are extremely similar.
Manual version, edited mostly in Lightroom.
Sleeklens version. Indistinguishable in many areas in half the time.
As I have said throughout this review, I am extremely impressed with Sleeklens’ Landscape Adventure Photoshop Actions set. Will it replace my whole editing process? Probably not, but it will certainly supplement it - and it may be my go-to tool when I have a large number of images to edit in a short period of time. Is it worth it? That depends on your personal style and goals, but after giving these actions a try I would definitely say they are a valuable tool to add to your image processing workflow. Still not sure? Sleeklens offers a free “Starter Kit” workflow for Lightroom - give it a try, and if you are as enamored as I am the Photoshop actions set may be the next step for you!
P.S. Here are two more images from recent trips that I decided to go ahead with editing using the Sleeklens actions. I may have had a little too much fun with the actions, but since these aren't going to print or for clients I wanted to see how far I could push the photos. Again, each took only about 5-10 minutes starting with the RAW file.