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Photoshop plug-ins

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At a Glance
  • nik multimedia Color Efex Pro 2.0

  • Alien Skin Software Eye Candy 5: Nature

  • Akvis Enhancer 2.0

In the world of image editing, Adobe Photoshop has become a platform unto itself—it’s certainly much more than a single application. A thriving cottage industry of plug-ins, filters, and actions has emerged around Photoshop’s architecture, and today there are supplemental plug-ins or actions for nearly every need, interest, and user level.

In this review, I look at a variety of Photoshop plug-ins: Akvis’s Enhancer 2.0, which reclaims detail in shadows and highlights; Alien Skin Software’s Eye Candy 5: Nature, a plug-in that lets you add naturalistic special effects to objects; and nik multimedia’s Color Efex Pro 2.0, a set of tools that mimic—and in some cases surpass—traditional photographic lens filters.

These products are designed to work within Photoshop, but they also work with a variety of other imaging programs that adhere to Photoshop’s plug-in standard, such as Adobe Photoshop Elements 3.0 and Macromedia Fireworks MX 2004.

Enhancer 2.0

You can’t always be in the perfect position to shoot a photo, and sometimes you also don’t have enough time to choose the proper camera settings for the available light. Too often, the disappointing result is that either the important part of your photo is in a shadow or the whole picture looks hazy. Akvis’s Enhancer 2.0 fixes these problems by revealing detail in both shadow and highlight areas without blowing out highlights or plugging up shadows. Amazingly, it works.

Akvis says that Enhancer intensifies color transitions, thus strengthening the difference between adjacent pixels in color gradations. That means you can dramatically improve most photos, especially those in which strong light falls behind your subject, casting a shadow.

Besides enhancing shadow and highlight detail, Enhancer can also improve details in a photo’s midtone areas, making it an effective tool for sharpening an otherwise well-exposed photo. In my tests, it provided an added punch that was especially beneficial for photos of industrial objects such as buildings, bridges, and vehicles.

Because of the algorithms Enhancer uses, it’s also extremely effective at removing the haze that sometimes shows up in a photo (haze is usually the result of nonoptimal camera settings).

Enhancer’s preview window provides just three slider bars in an easy-to-use interface; you can quickly improve a photo through simple trial and error. Unfortunately, since you can’t type values directly into the dialog box, and you can’t save settings for future use, you’ll wind up doing extra work if you cancel out of the dialog box or if you want to use the same settings on multiple pictures.

While the program’s Before and After buttons are handy for quickly viewing the effect of your changes, the preview window is not resizable, nor can you zoom in. Sometimes this forces you into a few rounds of applying and reapplying Enhancer’s effects.

In my tests, Enhancer seemed to produce shadow and highlight adjustments similar to what an experienced user could achieve with the Shadow/Highlight command in Photoshop CS, CS2, and Elements 3 (see “First Look: Adobe Creative Suite 2,” page 58, for more on Photoshop CS2). Enhancer’s ability to also sharpen midtones is unique, making it useful for sharpening details in well-lit photos. For users of earlier versions of Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Macromedia Fireworks, or any other application that doesn’t have Photoshop CS’s Shadow/Highlight feature, Enhancer is a valuable tool. For Photoshop CS or Elements 3 users, its greatest value is in sharpening midtones.

Be sure to check out Enhancer’s manual; it’s helpful for understanding which settings to use for common problems. I had some trouble installing the upgrade from version 1.3 to 2.0; however, Akvis is working on the problem and it will likely be solved by the time you read this. Tech support was somewhat slow to respond and not too helpful.

Color Efex Pro 2.0

Fully equipped professional photographers carry a carefully chosen array of lens filters and light reflectors to make the most of the lighting conditions in any situation and to add artistic flair to images. This is a viable approach in digital photography, though software can often produce similar effects.

The plug-ins in nik multimedia’s Color Efex Pro 2.0 provide up to 75 professional-quality filters that let you reproduce or go way beyond traditional lens effects. For example, the red filter enhances skin tones, the blue filter improves blue colors and brightens skies, and the green filter makes foliage much greener—all without affecting the rest of the photograph.

Color Efex Pro divides the filters into two categories: Traditional and Stylizing. The Traditional filters include effects such as B/W Conversion, Classical Soft Focus, Vignette, Darken/Lighten Center, Fog, Remove Color Cast, Graduated Blue (and other colors), Polarize, Silver and Gold Reflectors, and White Neutralizer. The Stylizing filters include artistic effects such as Indian Summer, Midnight, Monday Morning, Old Photo (both color and black and white), Pastel, and Solarization.

Sunshine is one of the most amazing filters in this set—it transforms the dull colors in a picture taken on a cloudy day into the colors you’d see on a bright summer day. In effect, it frees you to take photos under cloudy conditions, because you can adjust the lighting later if you want to.

All the filters can be applied to 8- or 16-bit images, in RGB, CMYK, Lab, or Grayscale color modes. If you have a Wacom graphics tablet, you can even paint the filters onto your image using various pressure-sensitivity settings.

The filters are available in several different collections. The $80 Rick Sammon Edition includes 12 filters chosen by photographer Rick Sammon, as well as four interactive lessons showing how he uses them. The $100 Standard Edition includes 19 filters; the $160 Select Edition adds 26 more filters for a total of 45; and the $230 Complete Edition includes all 75 filters. nik multimedia could do a better job of indicating who would benefit most from each collection, rather than just listing the included filters.

Color Efex has been evolving for more than five years, with constant input from professional photographers. In the Pro 2.0 version, the brilliance of its programmers, and their attention to the needs of pro photographers, is obvious. I recommend it highly.

Eye Candy 5: Nature

Sometimes the subject matter of an image screams for a special effect, such as smoke, rust, water ripples, paint drips, or icicles. When you want to reinforce a marketing message in an image, these tricks can be very effective but also very difficult to produce.

Eye Candy 5: Nature is a set of ten filters that add natural effects to objects or text. My favorites are Drip, which either melts things Salvador Dali-style or adds paint drips to text and other objects; Icicles, which makes any object look as though it had been hit by an ice storm; Rust, which can add realistic corrosion or moss, mold, or mildew; Smoke, which creates smoky effects ranging from volcanic eruptions to steaming coffee; and Ripples, which makes your object appear to be underwater, with many options for surface ripples. Other effects include Fire, Corona, Squint, Water Drops, and Snow Drift.

Nature is the second of three upgrades to Eye Candy 4000—Textures was released in 2004 (   ; March 2005 ), and Impact will ship sometime this year.

Nature’s filters work on any nonwhite or nontransparent area of a layer, such as an object you’ve copied, a drawing you’ve pasted from Adobe Illustrator, or some big text.

Each filter’s interface is slightly different, but they all have one pane for Settings (presets) and one or more panes for controlling the filter’s variables. Each filter includes dozens of presets you can use for instant effects; this is necessary because these filters have more controls than most people could master. Fortunately, when you discover a combination of settings that creates an effect you like, you can save it as your own preset and even share it with other users. Two features in the interface help you understand the controls: pressing your keyboard’s help key launches filter-specific help, and mousing over an item in the dialog box brings up a brief description of that item in the lower left corner of the box.

All of the filters support 8-bit and 16-bit images in RGB, CMYK, and Grayscale modes. The 16-bit support is valuable because effects rendered in 16 bits per red, green, and blue channel can have finer gradations, and therefore greater realism, than effects rendered in 8 bits per channel. (You won’t see the difference on your display, but the printed result will be superior.) Some of the filters can also create a new layer and save their effects to it, resulting in a separate layer containing just the effect of the filter without the original selection. And if you want to be really efficient, you can use Photoshop actions to automate the process of applying Nature effects to a batch of images.

Most of the effects that Nature produces are photo-realistic, though some seem to be more inspired by nature than truly natural. For example, Snow Drift looks like a painted illustration, and the drops in Water Drops are a bit too uniform.

Macworld’s Buying Advice

For photographers, nik Color Efex Pro 2.0 is a professional lens-filter factory, with dozens of filters that are useful right out of the box. The biggest challenge is deciding which version of this product you want to buy. If your work involves commercial art or marketing, Eye Candy 5: Nature’s creative possibilities and ease of use make it a bargain. Enhancer 2.0’s ability to sharpen midtones is good, but because the Shadow/Highlight feature in Photoshop CS and CS2 and Photoshop Elements 3 can do much of what Enhancer does, that plug-in is most valuable for users of other image-editing applications. You might consider buying Photoshop Elements 3, which costs just a bit more, instead.

At a Glance
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