Plug ins and external editors do jobs that your main software can’t. Very often you’ll find that one single program can’t do everything that you want to do with your pictures. How most photographers end up is having a single ‘core’ program that they use for most of their work and a series of others which they use for special effects or treatments that their main software can’t do.
These extra tools an act alongside your main software in one of two ways: as ‘plug ins’ or ‘external editors’.
Both achieve the same result; they let you send an image to another application from your host software, make the necessary changes and save them. A new, edited version of your image is then returned automatically to your host program where you can now carry on working. This process is known as ’round tripping’ – you’ve carried out a round trip to another software application and then been returned to the one you were working in.
What are plug ins?
Plug-ins are mini-applications that are not designed to be used on their own but are launched from a ‘host’ program. Plug-ins used to be much more common than they are now, but there are still some key examples. Perhaps the best known is the DxO Nik Collection.
Plug-ins were originally designed to be used from within Photoshop (or Photoshop Elements), but plug-in publishers typically make Lightroom compatible plug-ins too.
But there are plenty of other programs that don’t support Photoshop plug-ins, such as Capture One. However, they can use external editors.
What are external editors?
External editors are standalone programs that can be used on their own. They do not have to be specially designed or have any specific compatibility with your host software.
The key factor is your host software, and whether it supports external editors. If it does, you can ‘round trip’ images to most other programs and you’re not restricted to plug-ins.
Capture One has take this the furthest. You can set up any number of other programs as external editors, use an ‘Edit With’ command in Capture One, make your changes in the other software and be returned to Capture One with the new image added to your catalog.
You can do a similar thing in other programs, though Photoshop and Lightroom are mostly tied to the plug-in model.
Lightroom, of course, comes in two versions. Lightroom Classic supports plug-ins and two external editors (one of which is Photoshop). Lightroom (the web version) is much more restricted. It does not support plug-ins and the only external editor you can have is Photoshop – you can then launch plug-ins from Photoshop, but that’s a very long-winded workflow using three applications not two and a whole lot more RAM.
Why do you need plug ins and external editors?
Most photo editing software will only do about two-thirds of the things you need! ON1 Photo RAW probably comes closest to doing everything, but the compromise is that there will be other programs that do many of these things better.
So if you use Lightroom Classic or Capture One, for example, you’ll need a program like Photoshop or Affinity Photo for making layered images, or the Nik Collection for special effects or analog film looks.
Even if you’re using Photoshop, reckoned to be the most powerful photo editor ever, there are times when plug ins will be faster to use, give you more appealing or realistic results, or offer inspiration and ideas that you’re not going to get from staring blankly at your Photoshop workspace.
Plug ins vs external editors: which is best?
Plug-ins are the most obvious go-to solution for Photoshop and Lightroom Classic users, but external editors offer a much wider choice of programs – though increasingly, photo editing software publishers are offering their programs in both standalone and plug-in versions.
The DxO Nik Collection is best known as a plug in suite, but actually all eight ‘plug ins’ can also be launched as standalone programs. This means they can be used from within Capture One, which only supports external editors. Exposure X7 is a standalone program that also ships with a Photoshop plug in.
Most standalone photo editing programs can be used as external editors, though some will only launch as a catalog, where you then need to locate an image to edit, while others will default to their own proprietary file format and Save location – ON1 Photo RAW doesn’t work well as an external editor and while Affinity Photo does you will have to flatten any image layers to save the image in the format you originally supplied, e.g. JPEG or TIFF.
What does your host software support?
This is what makes the difference. Adobe software is very much geared around plug ins, while other programs tend to have a more open approach to external editors. The end result is very much the same, as most creative photo editing software caters to both users.
There is a huge variety of software out there, far more than in Photoshop’s heyday as the go-to photo editor for everyone. What’s becoming important now is how these different tools can work together, because the chances are that none of them will meet all your editing needs on their own.
What are the best plug-ins and external editors?
This is a purely personal list, but I would say: