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Photoshop Plugin Roundup

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In: Reviews > Product Reviews

By Jesse Nieminen

Published on July 30, 2002

Third party developers have further expanded the power of Photoshop as a creative and production tool. for several years. Here are a few recent arrivals that you may want to consider for your arsenal.

Sapphire

I recently acquired PluginMagic, a staggering 1250 of the company's filters on a CD with an issue of the Computer Arts magazine from the UK. The filter interfaces are strictly bare bones and don't make too much sense, and the previews are hardly ever accurate. Even so, there are numerous exciting effects to be found that are practical for professional use, though there is also a good amount of wacky or grotesque garbage.

Sapphire plugin

There are a couple of other drawbacks. First, the filters are all numbered, rather than named, so I have had to catalog in a text file what each one does (which can take forever), and it's impossible to regroup or rename them without good knowledge of hex editing, which I don't have. Second, Photoshop has limits on the number of plugins that can be loaded at the same time, so you have to manually move your folders around to be able to use them. I won't complain too much, as it's nice to have some unique and useful filters for free. You can get this set ($28.49) and other Sapphire products at their website.

Andromeda

Andromeda offers some unique filters aimed at designers, artists and professional photographers. I have long been enamored of the Screens ($109) and Cutline ($74) filters, which transform photographs with graphic etching-like effects. If you haven't had a chance to use them, I highly recommend it. They are an essential part of my design toolkit.

Andromeda plugin

Andromeda has also just released a new filter called Scatterlight ($98), which mimics diffuse-glow lens filter effects. Some of the results are reminiscent of the dream-like light effects often seen in fine art photography like that of Joyce Tenneson, but the variance between settings is broad. This is not simply a one-trick pony. The interface is clunky, large, and seemingly unattractive, but easy to use and understand. The filter offers a greater amount of control in expert mode, and offers the ability to save presets to reuse. Performance is somewhat slow, but this is not unusual for filters doing complex calculations. If you are looking to add some depth, atmosphere and interest to your images, then Scatterlight is worth a look.

Nik Multimedia

For those looking to add a professional photography toolset to their filters, Nik Multimedia has a good assortment. Those designers who are unfamiliar with traditional photographic techniques may not see the value in some of these plugins, but a little experimentation should prove their worth... which is not meant to say that these plugins are strictly geared toward just those working in digital photography. The origins of Nik's plugins are based in real-world needs, so it's likely that many people will find them useful.

All of the interfaces for the plugins covered here are basically the same, and fairly basic. Unfortunately the preview area cannot be resized, nor can it magnify past 100%. Designers working at high screen resolutions will find this a disadvantage. Also, they should reconsider the simple text buttons, as they are too close together and don't read as buttons at first glance. But it is not unusual for a great plugin to be in an unsophisticated package. I'll give Nik credit for trying, but they should give it another shot.

Nik Sharpener Pro is somewhat expensive in the Complete version ($329), but is geared toward professional printing uses. Thankfully, the company has split the product into three other cheaper packages for lower-end use. The home version ($79) is appropriate for digital designers looking to sharpen up images for screen and home printer use. This plugin has a very simple interface, with three basic presets that represent sharpness levels. These presets have been given personality traits and names to associate them with so a user can quickly identify the type of sharpening: Anna for the softest level, John for Medium, and Zap for the sharpest. Other sliders are available in the print-specific components of the plugin to further tweak to your desired level. This plugin really does wonders--much better than what the sharpen filters in Photoshop can do, and with fewer weird artifacts. Even when enhancing images for screen use, I've found it useful to try out the print-specific sharpeners and have achieved great results. If you have been ripping hair out over blurry images, give it a try.

Nik Sharpener Pro

Nik Multimedia has grouped their 54 Color Efex plugins into sets geared toward different uses: Classic, Design, Artistic and Abstract. All of these plugins play with colors and light to often produce both dramatic and subtle effects that will please professionals. The Classic set offers various traditional photographic effects, such as the ability to introduce brilliance and warmth or natural light into a picture. The Design set introduces some more impressive effects, such as polarization, diffuse light and a black and white conversion filter that blows Photoshop's Desaturate command out of consideration. The Artistic set brings with it some stylistic effects that designers often try to achieve with less-satisfying results, such as Old Photo, and Midnight--a great effect that can turn a daylight picture into a night scene. The Abstract set is the most radical, and probably the least useful, with effects like Pop Art and Weird Dreams. These sets also include several color gradient overlays for different effects, but I wasn't as impressed by these as the others.

There is some overlap between these sets, but you still might want to consider buying the complete collection ($299.95). If you do a lot of work with digital photography, this is a great set of plugins.

Extensis

Extensis has updated all of its Photoshop-related products to be compatible with version 7. If you have followed this company's product line over the past few years, you've noticed that many of its product features have been incorporated into the Photoshop standard feature set.

Take Mask Pro ($199.95), for example. This high-end image extraction tool is great for working with complex subjects that have difficult backgrounds. Extraction is done through a laborious but thorough method of color and area selection. This tool is miore difficult to use, but more precise, than the built-in Extract option found in Photoshop. I have not tested the other competing masking tools out there (like Knockout), but Mask Pro does a good job in the unenviable task of untangling a subject from a mess.

Intellihance Pro ($199.95) is an excellent tool for those struggling with the quality of their source images and not satisfied with the auto-correction tools offered in Photoshop. Intellihance Pro offers a wide variety of different enhancement schemes, and is somewhat like Photoshop's Variations on steroids--but even more than that with its focus on things like sharpness, contrast and other image quality aspects. If you often find yourself burdened with correcting bad images that take time away from more important work, then this is a time-saver to consider. In my experience, Intellihance Pro usually offers several good enhancements to choose from very quickly, effectively removing the time I used to spend trying to get an image looking good. It even resurrected a few images I had previously deemed useless. The interface is fairly simple and intuitive, and offers numerous layout configurations. It quickly pays for itself in the time it saves.

Extensis Intellihance Pro

Phototools ($149.95) is a suite of tools that vary in usefulness depending on your definition of what is tasteful. Tools like PhotoBevel, PhotoGlow, PhotoGroove and PhotoEmboss all duplicate tasks now handled by Photoshop's Layer Styles. Furthermore, the Extensis effects are less flexible--they can only be applied to raster images, while Layer Styles can affect shape layers and leave them editable. PhotoButton is somewhat useful, as it allows one to quickly create several bevelled buttons on an image at once.

PhotoCastShadow is the main reason you should consider this plugin. It is more powerful than the Drop Shadow layer style, offering the ability to simultaneously apply multiple shadows to your object. Shadows are altered with a free-transform-style bounding box, making for more realistic shadows. Unfortunately, though, the resulting shadow is part of the layer it is applied to. Perhaps Extensis can figure out a way to make their effects non-destructive in the future.

Another component to the Phototools set is PhotoTexture, which in my opinion is what Adobe should have aimed for with the abysmal Pattern Maker. Although as a seamless tile maker it is inherently somewhat cheesy, Phototexture offers impressive control over the results and a useful toolset to aid in creation. If you need to create tiled patterns in Photoshop, this is probably the quickest and best way.

Also in the package is PhotoAnimator, a standalone GIF animation program. Although the somewhat complex interface takes some time to figure out, the results are decent. This is not an application you can figure out without the manual. The preset templates are a nice idea for those unfamiliar with standard web banner sizes. The biggest drawback is that since PhotoAnimator is not integrated with Photoshop, it takes some time moving your image components from Photoshop to PhotoAnimator if you are trying to build an animation from scratch. This makes the process somewhat less intuitive than doing it in ImageReady or FireWorks. Another disappointment is the inability to assign different rates to individual frames. While PhotoAnimator is much more sophisticated than something like GIFbuilder, I don't see it catching on as improvements are made to the animation capabilities of the major web image editors.

Overall, I found Phototools to be unnecessary for my working needs and behind the curve in terms of current design standards. In most cases, Photoshop's built-in bevel capabilities will serve your needs just fine. Still, PhotoCastShadow is an excellent tool for creating the illusion of perspective and realistic lighting in your images. And if you spend a lot of time generating seamless tiles, then you'll certainly appreciate Phototexture. Extensis might do better to ditch the bevel stuff and sell the more useful components either by themselves or as a cheaper combo pack.

The Best Advice

The usefulness of a Photoshop plugin depends upon the situation and the user's personal preferences. My best advice is to never buy a plugin that's not based on a specific need or idea you have on how to use it. Also, don't let plugin results drive your design.

There are literally thousands of plugins out there, so take some time to research the tools that best fit your needs. The best part about this process is that most filter publishers provide demo versions that you can try for free.

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