Review : Creative Kit 2016 by Macphun

Apps and plugins promise to transform your photo workflow

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Product Manufacturer: Macphun

Price: $150

The Good

  • Easy
  • Fast
  • Single installer and serial number
  • Work as standalone or as PS-compatible plugins
  • Supports RAW files
  • Inexpensive

The Bad

  • Lacks Photos integration (presently)
  • Some apps do not support masking
The short version: photography semi-pros and pros alike should grab this set of apps that double as plug-ins for Photoshop, Lightroom, and Aperture. The reason we'e cutting to the chase here is that today is the last day you can pre-order the set at a hefty discount: updated Pro versions of the company's five key image-editing apps, plus two other programs, plus some training materials for $90 rather than the $300 buying each app individually would usually cost (or the normal value of the full bundle with its bonus content, $455). Should you get it? If you've read this far, the answer is "probably, yes, and hurry." We'll meet you back here to explain exactly why.

We have reviewed some of Macphun's products before, and we've loved them each time -- the consumer versions are powerful but easy to learn (and now work as Extensions to Apple's Photos program), and the Pro versions throw in a few extra tweaks and double up as plug-ins for pro apps like Photoshop, Aperture, and Lightroom (but you can still use them as standalone apps if you prefer). Our previous reviews of Tonality Pro (a full featured B&W workshop) and Focus 2 Pro, two of the programs included in Creative Kit, are full of praise not just for what these programs can do for your photos, but how easy they are to get into.

This is the real secret of Macphun's apps: getting to a high-quality result, even within a pro app you know well, just takes so much less time. This is not because the company thoughtfully provides a wide range of templates, although they do; it's because those templates are mere starting points for tinkering, for layering, for masking, for tweaking and finally, saving and re-using. You'll spend too much time delightfully playing around with them at first, but much less time getting stuff done thereafter.

The templates serve as shortcuts to your own special blend, and they are as far away from the toyish filters of typical iOS photo apps as Photoshop itself is. We think even Photoshop pros who know how to recreate many of these effects and looks by hand will instead use the plug-in versions because they are simply faster and, well, more fun (or should that be "phun?"). The kit includes the pro versions of Tonality, Intensify, Snapheal, Focus (formerly Focus 2), and Noiseless. In addition, buyers get the more casual consumer app FX Photo Studio, which is one of those "filters" apps, but with a bit more taste (and features rarely seen in other "FX" type apps, like masking).

The updated 2016 version of the Creative Kit unifies, for the first time, the installation and serializing of all the apps under a single umbrella, rather than continuing to treat them as entirely separate applications. It also adds a "CK" moniker after the app's name in place of "Pro," and makes handing an image off from one Macphun program to another much more seamless, whether you are using it in "plug-in" mode inside something like Photoshop or as a set of standalone apps.

We should mention that all of the photos you will see below were taken by me, and manipulated by me -- I'm not a pro photographer (as will become obvious), but I'm good enough that my work has occasionally been featured on photo sites or in exhibitions. No publicity or example photos were used, though we have put higher-rez versions into the Gallery below so you can see them more clearly, and also a couple of promotional shots at the end so you can see what more talented pros can accomplish.

Tonality CK

We've reviewed this before, and we refer you to that article for more detail, but if you've never explored the full range of options available in the world of Black & White photography, this app is an outstanding introduction. It goes so far beyond simply removing the color from a picture that we think Ansel Adams would die of shock if he wasn't already long dead. From color filters to tri-tones to simulated film stocks, this program has a wealth of variety under its monochrome moniker.

It's mesmerizing to discover how grayscale, properly applied, can make skies or people or other things "pop" along with gaining, in many cases, a certain timeless quality. We'll include one quick example below, but the program really offers a whole tonal world most people barely know exists.

Eddie Izzard shows off a variety of B&W styles
Eddie Izzard shows off a variety of B&W styles

Intensify CK

This one is, to our surprise, the one we use most often. Usually through a combination of effects layered on top of each other at differing strengths, we can go from finding the "true" color and tone of what we saw when we took the picture to artistic (or absurdist) distortions of the image in the lens. While it can do HDR effects or make colors stronger, it also offers balancing options, styled B&W looks, expert sharpening (it was no surprise to learn the company contains a number of Nik Software refugees), contrast and color controls, and many more options.

For those who love to fiddle, experiment, go back, and plow deep into the weeds, you can do that all here: all the styles can be adjusted very finely, for example applying in individual degrees to the shadows, the highlights, or the midtones, and you can type in values if sliding sliders isn't your thing. You can spend all afternoon trying out combinations, or quickly tweak a preset. That work isn't wasted, either: the combination you hit upon can be saved for re-use on other images. Of all of the programs on offer in Creative Kit, this one is the utility kit.

Snapheal CK

Having just mentioned the versatility of Intensify, let's talk about the oldest and most one-trick apps in the kit: Snapheal Pro, now sporting an all-new icon and a speed boost. Like several other competitor apps such as InPaint, Snapheal can remove items from an image through intelligent but automated retouching. In the new CK version it is faster and smarter, though as you should expect there are limits to how much, and how well, it can do this. Surprisingly, careful masking of the area to be removed is generally not required; as you can see in the example below, we used fairly broad strokes (but remembered to mask out the shadows of the object being removed as well this time!).

Simply put, this is great for taking out power lines, extra people, or other elements that distract from the intended focus of the image. As with other such programs, the more of a contrast there is between the thing you want to remove and the background, the better. The program is pretty smart, and the fact that it puts up interesting trivia you barely have time to read anymore while it processes the image is a testament to how fast it has gotten over the years.

The pro version, besides operating as a plug-in, uses more sophisticated algorithms and offers different levels of precision and style of figuring out what about the surround background to use in creating its "smart fill," as Photoshop would say. Again, this can all be done directly in Photoshop, but is rather more time-consuming and fiddly. Not being great with precision masking, we relish a program that doesn't seem to require it (though there are other, and better, ways to separate for example a model's hair from the background without losing the finer details).

Snapheal: just open a photo ...
Snapheal: just open a photo ...

... paint over unwanted items...
... paint over unwanted items...

... and enjoy the results
... and enjoy the results

Focus CK

No, not Louis CK -- Focus! This is actually the stealth weapon in the arsenal. This program does not fix blurry pictures, but what it does do is direct your eye to where the photographer wants it to go. Portrait shot with the camera accidentally set to auto (infinite) focus? Oh that's just the start. Subject need some emphasis or vignetting to pop out of the scene? Can do. Beautiful architecture shot of a building but don't want to Snapheal out the distracting surroundings? This thing is made for it. Focus lets you set the area that should have clear focus, and adjust the transition to soft focus as you like.

From post-processed macro shots to the popular tilt-shift effect for distant photos, Focus lets you blur unimportant backgrounds to draw the eye to the part that is still in focus, and with the other controls set a mood that wasn't originally in the shot. This program doesn't have templates, but it has a few modifiable presets -- for nature, for architecture, for portraits, and so on ... and basic controls to change the saturation, contrast, brightness and some other things either in the area that is, or the area that is not, blurrier.

Focus: popping the dragon in Diagon Alley
Focus: popping the dragon in Diagon Alley

Music poster, before (L) and after (R) Focus
Music poster, before (L) and after (R) Focus

Noiseless CK

Noiseless is Macphun's most recent addition to its pro lineup and really one of the most astonishing in terms of fixing a common issue: photos taken at the wrong ISO, or with a little too little lighting, producing a lot of "noise." This effect is generally easy to get rid of in other programs as well, but tends to "soften" the photo too much without careful hand-tuning. Noiseless offers several settings from "lightest" to "strong" (and a couple of alternative options) and each setting's strength is again customizable, ensuring you hit just the right balance of noise reduction and softness.

The thing is, though, is that you really have to crank up the strength to begin to wander into unacceptably soft territory. The program is simply ingenious at removing the noise patterns across the photo without overworking the bits of the image where the lighting was better. The one flaw I can pick on is that Noiseless doesn't yet have masking capabilities to take out noise from only one portion of a photo, but this may be added later and, thus far, I've had no occasions where I actively found myself wishing for it.

We'll be doing a more in-depth "Hands On" of Noiseless by itself in the near future, but I'll leave you with one example to show the power of the program.

Please see larger Gallery image, below
Please see larger Gallery image, below

Even at full price, the package of apps in Creative Kit 2016 is a pittance to pay (compared to some competing Photoshop plug-ins) for what you get, and the single serial and automatic installation of plug-ins to programs that can use them makes the entire process simple, leaving you to get on with experimenting with the apps and fixing photos immediately. When you're not patting yourself on the back for having the programs, you're wondering why Adobe itself can't quite make these common photo corrections and enhancements as easy to use as Macphun has managed (though Adobe has managed to put quite a few similar tricks into Photoshop Elements' bag).

At the present discounted price (and many of the company's consumer-level versions can be found on sale from time to time), it's a positive steal that turns nearly anyone into at least a beginning Photoshop wizard -- even if Photoshop is nowhere to be seen. Using the programs either on their own or in combination with your preferred workflow image processing app of the three supported ones, Creative Kit will indeed make you more creative, faster, and get you from "not great but worth saving" to "I should frame this" with less stress than nearly anything else we've come across.

-- Charles Martin (@Editor_MacNN)