Favorite Photoshop Plug-ins

PT contributors share their short-list of go-to plug-ins

Back to


Dan Burkholder

Some of us collect plug-ins like they’re stamps; some us sip them like f ine wine, choosing only the best vintage from the racks. I’m in that second camp, letting plug-ins cohabitate with Photoshop only if they can prove their value regularly and repeatedly. And f inally, I have taken a vow to only praise f ilters that are fully smartable—meaning the filter works with Smart Objects. Smart filters can be modified with a double-click, making image processing even more f lexible.

HDRsoft Tone Mapping

CS4 is loaded with neat new features and workflow improvements but, let’s face it, the high dynamic range photo capability is pretty much as lame as it was in CS2 and CS3. Happily HDRsoft has a plug-in that takes over where Photoshop leaves off. Though not as full-featured as their standalone Photomatix Pro application, HDRsoft’s Tone Mapping Plug-in (www.HDRsoft.com) pays its rent with superb processing of the 32-bit images you create from your bracketed series of captures. Like Goldilock’s beds that were too big, too small, and just right, the Tone Mapping plug-in feels just right with a swell array of options that give us great control over tone mapping without overwhelming us in complexity. If you’re going to shoot and process HDR images, this is the software to use.

Nik Sharpener Pro 3

Considering that 100% of your images need sharpening before output to inkjet, Web, or press, deciding which sharpening method fits into your Photoshop arsenal is both important and intimidating. After all, Photoshop now includes two sharpening schemes and there are a plethora of jury-rigged methods utilizing high pass filtration, Overlay mode, etc. Now in its third version, Nik Sharpener Pro (www.niksoftware.com) answers the “why should I spend money on a sharpening plug-in” with a resounding “because it’s better!” With improved multi-core support (Nik’s Define and Silver Efex Pro have also been tweaked for enhanced core recognition), sharpening is both better and faster. And Nik’s patented U Point technology lets you control where and how much sharpening is applied, with nary a mask to make. To get the maximum benef it, Sharpener Pro 3 takes a bit more study than older versions, but the payoff is stunning output-tuned sharpening and artifact-free detail.

Lloyd Chambers

Working with huge files from scanned 4×5-inch negatives, layering 21-plus- megapixel digital SLR files, assembling high-resolution panoramas—activities like this can really make Adobe Photoshop CS4 bog down. Even if you have the latest dual-CPU Mac Pro Nehalem, as I do.

What’s a “legacy” plug-in? One that’s critical to performance. Crazy, but true: two of Photoshop CS4’s plug-ins are designated as “legacy,” yet can have more effect on certain areas of performance than just about anything else you can do.

Bigger Tiles

The Bigger Tiles plug-in is critical to performance for large files that use the scratch disk. But oddly enough, that is also true when using the Smart Sharpen filter, even when the scratch volume is not used. The graph says it all: it’s 3× as fast on the 2009 Mac Pro Nehalem. These results are for Photoshop CS4 11.0.1 on a 2.93GHz 2009 Mac Pro Nehalem (MP09). The speedup is “only” 2× or so on the previous-generation Mac Pro. My results were confirmed independently by an associate.

Scratch volume speedup—With really large files that force Photoshop to heavily use the scratch volume, the Bigger Tiles plug-in can speed things up by 30 to 60%. Adding the Disable Scratch Compress plug-in can add another 10% boost. If your operations run in the 10- plus second range, that’s a big deal. That kind of performance boost is something money can’t buy—but it’s free!

With an older version of Photoshop (CS3, CS2), you might need to also add the ForceVMBuffering plug-in— experiment for best results. Always test plug-in performance with your own system and version of Photoshop— results could vary for your particular tasks. However, so far I’ve observed no exceptions to the rule: Photoshop always runs faster overall with Bigger Tiles and Disable Scratch Compress than without. For more on conf iguring Photoshop for best performance, see Optimizing Photoshop at MacPerformance Guide.com at macperformanceguide.com/ OptimizingPhotoshop-Configuration. html.

Paul Schranz

Tiffen Dfx 2

This is one of the most diverse set of plug-in filters and effects in one program. Dfx has 1,000 filters and effects, including post-capture shadow effects that I’ve used for post-capture window effects on some commercial shots. The package also includes one of the best pseudo-infrared filters I’ve worked with, which can really be customized, and a night filter that is very dramatic. Dfx (www.tiffen.com) now includes masking and layering capabilities and an extremely intuitive interface. I’m not a big fan of applying overall filters to an image, but Dfx’s masking control allows for very specif ic use.

Imagenomic Portraiture 2

When you do a lot of portraits, you spend a great deal of time retouching faces—and I don’t like the overall blurring of a glamour effect because I think it reduces some character nuances.

Instead, I use Portraiture 2 (www.imagenomic.com), a very controlled retouching portrait filter. It features intelligent masking capabilities that isolate skin tones from other characters of the subject, using them as a mask for applying the retouching— meaning that hair, eyes, teeth, and lips remain sharp. It has intelligent presets, but allows for user-created presets that control details, including the amount of warming. A real time-saver, with professional results.

Mark Dubovoy

Pixel Genius Photokit

This is one of my favorite plug-ins (www.pixelgenius.com). It contains the best sharpening algorithms I have experienced to date. They are divided into capture and print sharpening algorithms; a wise choice. The creative sharpening brushes are extremely helpful in making corrections such as giving the impression of more depth of field than was actually captured. In my opinion, Photokit provides the Photoshop user with the most effective and highest-quality sharpening tools available today.

Uwe Steinmueller

Nik Software Color Efex 3.0 is a collection of Photoshop filters that strongly encourage creative work. Sometimes I try to go wild playing with different filters, and nearly always discover new ways to interpret my photos. You can put these results down as “only effects,” but that is not how I see it. Often the resulting portrait is more the real mood of the scene than the plain image I started from. The only downside I can see is that you may want to spend hours to explore all the options of Color Efex because it is so much fun. Tip: Use the filters on a new layer and try to blend the results with the original image.

Photomatix Tonemapping

Photomatix is very popular HDR (high dynamic range) software. At the core of Photomatix is the Details Enhancer tonemapping tool. This Details Enhancer is also available (as part of the Photomatix bundle) as a Photoshop plug-in called

Tone Mapping. I quite often use the plug-in version for HDR images created in Photoshop or even to open up the shadows in 16-bit images. If you are into HDR, this is a plug-in you may want to own.

PictoColor iCorrect Editlab

Normally you correct white balance in a Raw converter, at the very beginning of your workf low. But then there are situations in which you work with JPEGs or need to change the white balance later in your post-processing. In this situation, you usually want a simple one-click white-balance correction similar to what you are used to in a Raw converter. In this case, I always use the iCorrect Editlab (www.pictocolor.com) filter on a new layer. Then I may change the opacity to get a blend of the original and corrected white balance. I don’t care that much about the absolute “correct” white balance but rather about the general mood.

Nik Software Silver Efex Pro

Black-and-white photos are as popular today as ever. Nowadays these images often start from digital color photos. Silver Efex Pro (www.niksoftware.com) is an excellent filter to convert your color photos into great black-and-white images. The use of U Point technology (see article on page 27 of this issue) even allows you to perform dodge-and-burn on the black-and-white photo inside the plug-in. Silver Efex Pro also shines due to its innovative grain simulation.


All lenses exhibit some amount of distortion. PTLens is a profile-based lens-correction plug-in, meaning it features distortion profiles for all sorts of camera/lens combinations. PTLens supports an enormous collection of lenses and cameras. This is clearly a must-have filter if you care about lens distortions. (www.epaperpress.com/ptlens/)