The good folks at Helicon Soft Ltd were generous enough a few months back to send us some of their feature software products for review.  Last month Craig Lamson reviewed a product of great interest to professionals and advanced amateurs Helicon Focus and its yet to be released companion product Helicon Remote.  Those of us here at Bangkok Images were so impressed with this one of a kind product we decided to take a closer look at one of the other products they sent us.  Helicon Filter .  I'm glad we did.

The name "Filter" is a bit deceiving.  With image software this normally refers to a single purpose filter such as a black and white filter, a contrast filter, or some type of special effect filter.  Helicon Filter is much more.  Helicon Filter is a complete imaging solution from your base file to it's final intended use.  It features a full array of advanced level features in a user interface (UI) my grandmother could easily use and my grandmother has never used a computer in her life!  This product is designed to allow you to easily manipulate professional features with a bare minimum level of computer or photography skills.  Have I caught your attention?

Digital photography is huge.  Who hasn't noticed that virtually everyone, from school age children to active seniors, has one of the many digital cameras which has defined an era?  Ten years ago a digital point and shoot compact was an expensive specialty item.  Today there are hundreds on the market at any one time and you can find them in any store at very reasonable prices.  As digital compacts became affordable and their image quality increased, one important aspect of digital photography remained elusive.  A comprehensive software application that even a novice computer operator can use with relative ease.  Now this void has been filled.  Helicon Filter steps up and if they didn't hit a home run, they've certainly hit a solid triple.

Helicon Filter walks you step by step through the process of connecting your camera to the computer, downloading your images, and processing those images for their intended use.  You can email, send via your mobile phone, print, save, or save the image to any storage device.   The processing step is where Helicon Filter stands at the front of the pack.  They make common and advanced features very easy to use.  You can adjust for underexposure, remove redeye, fix a blemish, add a fancy 3D frame, resize, sharpen, or just about anything most professionals do.  And it helps you do these things by walking your through the process step by step in a series of guided frames (filters) with a brilliant 'help' function active and accessible.

Enough talking, lets process an image together and I'll take you through each processing filter in detail and you can see for yourself.


Enter the Darkroom




Helicon Filter, Review Bangkok Images


In the example above you can see the Helicon Filter UI (user interface).  It has the standard menu items along the very top, easy to use icons on the next line, and below that you can see the filter topics.   At the bottom there is a active help system which will automatically explain each function as you're using that function.

You start in the 'Source' filter.  This is where you'll import your images or select an image already stored on your computer.  Over on the right you can click on a folder tree icon to open/close the folder tree.  You can see the folder tree of my workstation open, the folder I selected, and to the immediate left thumbnail images from inside that folder.  Click on the image you want to process.




Helicon Filter, brightness


In the 'Brightness' filter you can adjust the brightness level, contrast, highlights and shadows, and different levels.  All the available choices are in the menu to the right.  See the last box you can check labeled "Exposure Highlights?"  If you check this box any area(s) which turns red are overexposed, and any areas which turn blue are possibly underexposed.  With this image you can see the young woman's hair has some areas of underexposure highlighted in blue.  Uncheck the box and the blue/red warnings go away.

Below the image is the help area.  As you click on a function, say contrast or in this case Exposure Warnings, the associated help topic will appear in an easy to read and understand format.  Examples are provided as appropriate.  See the triple place line immediately underneath the image?  You can grab this line with your cursor and move the cursor up/down to increase/decrease the image area while decreasing/increasing the help area.  This function is smooth and quick.




Helcion Filter, colors


The next frame (filter) is where you adjust or change your colors.  This is where you can easily adjust your white balance to make the skin tones accurate, equalize colors that might be out of whack, or in this case select one of the style filters that simulate a corresponding type of black and white film.  See the menu open in the bottom right?  Here you can see where I selected the Tri-Max Kodak film filter.  Tri-max is a very nice black and white film from Kodak.  It lends itself nicely to the look I'm envisioning for this wedding portrait.




Helicon FIlter, noise reduction


In the next frame (filter) we have a selection of tools to help us easily rid the image of the common noise which is best likened to film grain.  When our digital cameras choose a higher ISO to match the lighting conditions light to heavy 'noise' is often the result.  Our goal in noise removal is to remove as much noise as possible while leaving as much detail as possible.  Most other products make finding this balancing point very hard to find.  Helicon Filter makes it easy.

By clicking the cursor on a part of the image you want to compare noise/detail, a 200% loupe appears  to help you see the finer points.  Make your adjustments in the menu on the right while observing the loupe.  The process couldn't be easier.  If you're not sure which adjustment slider to start with or what it does, just place your cursor over the slider and the active help function will explain it to you in the help pane below the image.

Have you noticed the tool wizard popping up in the right top part of the image review area?  For more help or explanation click on the wizard.




Helicon Filter, sharpening


All consumer digital cameras incorporate a anti-aliasing filter in front of the digital sensor.  This filter slightly softens the image, sometimes if the filter is exceptionally strong the images will be significantly soft.  To negate the softness induced by the anti-aliasing filter we use sharpening tools.  Helicon Filter includes a strong suite of sharpening tools.

Your goal is to sharpen the image as much as possible while inducing as few artifacts (small image defects) and halos as possible.  Once again the 200% is very handy for taking a close look at certain parts of the image while adjusting the sharpening sliders on the right.  And again, active help is automatic and available in the reading pane below the image.




Helicon Filter, CA reduction


All lenses induce some level of aberrations and sometimes these can be quite noticeable.  Eliminating these aberrations can be difficult and tricky and many imaging software products don't include these capabilities.  Helicon Filter makes the removal of aberrations quick and easy.

Use the 200% loupe to take a close look at shiny jewelry or light colored objects with a strong backlight.  Aberrations will become visible in these areas as a sort of 'purple fringe', and the color can vary depending on other factors.  The sliders on the menu to the right makes removal quick and easy while the active help in the reading pane explains any questions you may have.




Helicon Filter, distortion correction


Every image will have some amount of distortion.  Like aberrations distortion is primarily a function of lens quality and to a lesser extent sensor design.  Inexpensive lenses commonly found on digital compacts will often contain an objectionable amount of barrel or pincushion distortion.  In addition perspective distortion and vignetting can also be problematic.

Once again Helicon Filter makes correction of these issues quick and easy.  Make your adjustments using the sliders on the menu to the right, and if you have any questions observe the reading pane where the active help will be following along with the information you need.




Helicon Filter, resizing


How many times has someone sent you a full size image, or better yet 8-9 full size images, without realizing how large they were?  So often we can watch our email downloading for what seems like ages as these large files fill our mailboxes.  Resizing images can be easy, or it can be difficult.  Helicon Filter makes it easy.  And lets not forget that we resize for a number of reasons.  Sometimes we want a small image suitable for posting on the web, to fit on a certain print size, and even to send via our mobile phone

This is also where you'll crop your image to taste.  Helicon Filter allows you to crop while maintaining the aspect ratio, or not.  It also allows you to set your desired print size and then maintains the appropriate aspect ratio to produce border free prints.  Make your adjustments using the sliders on the menu to the right and if you have any questions you'll find the answers in the reading pane below the image.




Helicon Filter, frames


Everybody likes an attractive frame!  And software that allows for attractive and easy framing runs the gamut from inexpensive to very pricey.  And you usually get what you pay for.  Until now.   Helicon Filter allows you to add attractive frames and place text captions with ease.  You really get a lot of choice with this package and the ability to import border textures and adjust each component of the frame to your taste.  I found myself having fun playing with the different possibilities.  Do you like the frame I designed for this image?  Using the active help section in the reading pane I walked myself through it in about 2 minutes.




Helicon Filter, retouching


There are 1001 reasons we'd want to retouch an image.  Flash induced red-eye, facial blemishes, sensor dust, or maybe we just didn't like the sky.  Maybe we want to clone out an offending power wire.  The fact is retouching is often needed and many find the necessary skills elusive.

Helicon Filter allows us to easily accomplish the most common retouching chores, and even some of the advanced.  Removing that pimple, cloning out the food stain, or even blotting out personal information like a license plate number becomes easier than ever before.  And all while being guided by the active help system in the reading pane.




Helicon Filter, save


Ultimately we'll want to do something with our images.  We'll want to save them for another time, send them to friends via email, zap one to your spouse on your mobile phone, or possibly make a print.  Whatever you'll be wanting to do, Helicon Filter makes it possible.




Helicon Filter, printing


The print function is simple.  And yes, it's guided by the active help feature in the reading pane (thought you'd never ask..;o).  Selecting the paper size, how you want it to fill the paper, image position, it's all simple and fast.


Send to Phone


Helicon Filter, send by phone


Sending to your mobile phone couldn't be easier.  You can even attach text and/or make the image accessible to a public network like Flickr or most other image sites.




Bangkok Images Wedding Art


The popular adage "Use the right tool for the right job" stands out here.  I have no illusions professional photographers and amateurs who have already invested a considerable amount of time will be tempted by Helicon Filter.  And of course Photoshop has many more functions necessary for the professional and many amateurs. 

However, there are scores of individuals every day who have just purchased their first digital camera, or perhaps their 5-6th digital camera, and have just never been interested in spending the time or money required for more complicated/involved software.   If I had a nickel for every time I've had someone tell me how inadequate the software is that came with their camera, or who paid big money for a popular professional product and found it was too much for them.. then I'd be rich.

Helicon Filter isn't perfect, and any single function isn't performed any better than most other programs and worse than some.  But these differences are small.  What Helicon Filter does do, is it takes you through the processing steps in a logical and easy manner, and it does this in a way anyone can understand.  And it does it while always explaining each slider/function in the reading pane.  You don't have to remember if you're doing things it the proper order because Helicon Filter is walking you through the steps one by one and you can see where you are, and where you should be, in the graphic representation above the image.

And it does all of this for $60.  $75 for the Helicon Filter Pro version which includes support for multiple processors and includes a plug-in for Adobe Photoshop, Corel Paint Shop Pro, and other programs.

Who is this product perfect for?  As a professional I require more capability.  However, while I was working on this sample image in Helicon Filter and making my screen captures I noticed my wife was watching.  She loves her point and shoot digital compact and I get stuck doing most of her processing.  She can get the images from her camera to her computer, but beyond that her capabilities are limited and she's not interested investing a great amount of time or money into learning the sort of software I use.  She couldn't take her eyes off the screen.  When I finished the image she said "so easy to use! Can you put it on my computer?"  In the time it took me to write this short review she's already emailed and SMSd me a dozen images she's processed and I fear I'll soon have to block her email address.. ;o)

LATE UPDATE:  I discovered there is a color management issue with Helicon Filter 4.93.  This would never be noticeable (or significant) for users who don't have color profiled monitors.  It will be noticeable for users who do have color profiled monitors.  I've discussed this with Helicon Soft ltd and they assure me the issue has been addressed in their soon to be released Version 5.0 which I will review and update immediately upon its release.