The OnOne Photoshop plugins bundle offers three industry leading tools, one-nice-to-have, an odd-box neither fish-nor-foul which you'll either find incredibly useful or incredibly annoying, and a tool that improves on a Photoshop built-in function.
First, the industry leading tools. Genuine Fractals pips SizeFixer XL to the post as the best extreme image enlarger, beyond anything you can do with Photoshop's native tools, even using techniques such as stepping. Colortune and Skintune are superb colour adjustment tools which guide you helpfully through the process of perfecting image tones. Mask Pro beats Vertus Fluid Mask in ease of use as a top-end masking tool, with equally good results on difficult areas like frizzy hair. Ease of use is key on masking tools because -- if you're willing to put the time in -- you can in principle achieve perfect masking with Photoshop's built-in tools. But if you're working in a commercial graphics environment, the extra time required to use Photoshop's built-in tools may make it more worth your while to reshoot the picture.
Photoframe has been around for some time, and is, essentially, the leading collection of high quality framing to give your Photoshop images a more finished look. Or a totally tasteless and tacky look: Photoframe gives you possibilities, not an injection of good taste. Photoframe is great for quickly picking a frame, although -- to my mind -- you would be wise to stick to the darkroom edges type frames, rather than the faux-wooden frames which it also offers. There are hundreds to choose from, and Photoframe probably offers the highest number of top quality frames of any application right now. The caveat is that there is nothing here you couldn't do in Photoshop yourself, and, once you've learned how to do it, it's not particularly difficult.
Phototools began life as some fairly cheap and cheerful auto-enhancements to images. The current incarnation still has lots of automatic presets, but it now contains a vast array of quite reasonable photographic, darkroom, tinting, colour conversion, tinting and style filters, as well as a few 'trick' filters. Some of them are paintable, and the software is highly Wacom aware, if you're using a tablet or Wacom screen. But some of them are 8-bit only, which is a bit cheap and nasty in today's world. Typically they have a handful of parameters each.
I have to say that the Phototools themselves fail to thrill me. They are nowhere near as systematic as the Tiffen dFx, which must now be the gold-standard for taking photographic and lighting filters into the digital world. They seem on a par with the NikEfex set, but not as well thought out, and without the innovative U-point controls. If you don't have a set of premium photographic filters, then Phototools might save you from having to buy them. But if you do have Tiffen or NikEfex, then you'll probably give these a miss.
The other tool is FocalPoint, which allows you selectively defocus parts of the image. Photoshop includes the more powerful, but much slower and clunkier Lensblur. There are also competitors of varying degrees of sophistication such as Trueblur (Fixerlabs) and Tiffen's dFx. FocalPoint does its job well, but is not particularly special.
All in all, for the money you are saving if you buy the bundle, the total price is a lot less than the separate price of Genuine Fractals Pro ($299.95), PhotoTune ($159.95) and Mask Pro ($159.95), so you are effectively getting FocalPoint, PhotoFrame Pro and Phototools Pro for free.
Genuine Fractals Pro goes head to head with FixerLabs SizeFixer XL. Essentially it allows you to enlarge up to 1000% with no artefacts, although, of course, you don't introduce any new details in doing so. SizeFixer actually claims to go to any size, and works fine at 1600% -- however, that depends on using SizeFixer's proprietary FocusFixer sharpening routine, which effectively means you can't further sharpen after you've upscaled. Straight out of the box, and with no further work, SizeFixer has the edge, but, if you are going to work further on the image, Genuine Fractals is ahead -- and GF does have its own sharpening and grain routines if you want to use them. GenuineFractals Professional, as included in this bundle, also integrates with Lightroom, provided that you have Photoshop installed (it's a bit more sophisticated than just swapping into Photoshop, but you may still feel this is a bit of a cheat), and with Aperture. Both GF and SizeFixer are life-savers if you need to turn a decent quality, decent size image into a huge image. Neither of them are good for enlarging images from the internet to be used in print, because you need an initial level of detail to look right. On the other hand, taking images from the internet is frequently a breach of copyright anyway, and is unlikely to be an application that interests photographers.
About two years ago, I downloaded every demo from every company available for colour controlling pictures (as opposed to colour controlling monitors). At the time I saw Colortune (then known as 20/20 color MD) and Skintune as far and away the best, but I felt the price to be a little much for my need, which was to solve a particular problem with blues and purples. Full Spectrum Portrait solved that problem for me, but I always meant to come back to Colortune and Skintune which are exemplary in guiding you through the process of getting general colour balance and skin colour balance exactly right. It's unusual to find a plugin that has no competitors, but, in this case, there's really nothing out there. The original name for Colortune was supposed to reflect the notion that this was like going for an eye test, where you tell the optician which of two images you prefer, and he keeps narrowing it down until he's worked out exactly what lenses you need. That's what Colortune does -- it doesn't offer colour corrections which can't be achieved by other means, it merely offers corrections which wouldn't be achieved by other means, as well as avoiding the common mistake of beginning with an image which is fairly well balanced, and correcting it with curves, levels and hue/saturation until it is completely wrong. Skintune is a slightly simpler product, but uses the same underlying technology to help you quickly and reliably get the right skin result. In either case, the results are remarkably good, provided that your monitor and output device are properly calibrated. If they aren't, then there's really no point using this product, as you'll never get it right anyway. But that's a different matter.
Mask Pro's best competitor is Vertus Fluid Mask. Both of these products are high-end attempts to give better masking for complex areas such as hair, and difficult areas such as flame, than is possible through either layer masking or Photoshop's initially promising but ultimately lamentable Extract tool. Vertus do it by chopping the image up into regions, and getting you to select the regions, Mask Pro does it much more transparently, and I found myself cutting out hair with much more than the usual ease.
This is me in Westminster, London:
Honestly, my hair is usually better kept and better kempt than that — it was a blowy day.
Here is a cut out using Mask Pro, which took no more than 30 seconds. I've entirely replaced the uninspiring sky with Photoshop clouds, so you can see the effect more clearly. Doing this is an operation which would take at least ten minutes in Photoshop's Extract, and at least five in Vertus Fluid Mask. My 30 seconds were essentially the first thing I did after I fired up the software for the first time. There's a lot more sophistication to the product than I used here, as there ought to be, and, on a more challenging image, or where you wanted a much more contrasting background, you would need it. But as an example of raw ease of use, this is pretty good.
Photoframe is -- to me -- a bit more of a grey area.
Back in 1999, I thought this was a really cute effect. I still do — sort of.
I'm not so sure about this one:
And this one just makes me go 'Yukk!'
It's a real photo, for heaven's sake, so why put it in a fake frame?
Anyway, if this is your thing, then Photoframe will be a source of endless delight, with 1300 frames to choose from in the Professional Edition. Or you could just do it yourself in Photoshop, and know then that your results would be unique to you. Your choice
Phototools is something I really struggle with. It's got loads of different effects, but it doesn't seem to do any of them with much control or particularly brilliant results. The sales blurb says it all for me: "PhotoTools 2 is the fastest way to add a professional look to your photos in Photoshop." Say what? Professional, to me, isn't a look, it's a result of shooting as part of your paid job, or as all of it. It's not a 'look'. There are almost 300 effects in Phototools, but some of them are 8-bit only, which strikes me as just cheap and nasty in today's world, and they vary from the sublime (FixSkin Shine -- works better than ImageTrends ShineOff, because you can paint it on or off in the software) to the ridiculous (the debigulator, which just seems to mess up the image). Some of them don't work in CS2 -- important to me because I still keep CS2 for using FocusMagic on an Intel Mac. The problem with them is that very few of them are as good as the best on the market — Imagenomic Portraiture does much better for portraits, for example — and the selection seems quite haphazard. For the same (unbundled) price, Tiffen dFx has just 110 filters, but more than 1,000 'effects' which more exactly correspond to Phototools notion of 'effects', because many of the Phototools effects seem to be little more than different presets from the same base filters. What's more, the Tiffen collection have acres of tightly matched digital reproductions of industry standard lighting or photographic filters, whereas Phototools has a few of those, and a lot more celebrity-designed presets. The Tiffen collection has about 20-30 parameters for each effect, whereas Phototools has about four per effect.
Interestingly, FocalPoint, which is a selective focus tool, more or less parallels one of the Tiffen tools, but is in the bundle as a separate product, and retails on its own for a hefty price tag.
For my money, Mask Pro, Genuine Fractals and ColorTune are more or less must-have plugins if you do the kind of work that needs them: each of them are the best available in their field, and unlikely to be overtaken anytime soon. Unless you really, really know that you will only ever need one or two of them, you're getting a discount by buying the bundle. Phototools, FocalPoint and PhotoFrame are not — in my view — anywhere near as compelling. PhotoFrame is definitely the best on the market, but you can reproduce it's effects either by making your own Photoshop masks, or, if you like the cutesy wood-effect frames, then you can get free actions to do them for you. Phototools is just too random to interest me. Many of its effects can be reproduced with free actions downloadable from Adobe's own Exchange, and most of the rest are simply not as good as competitor offerings at similar prices. FocalPoint is rather better — it is much, much easier to use and quicker than the Photoshop tool, and outperforms FixerLabs' True Blur, although it doesn't really have anything that Tiffen dFx doesn't include.
There's a quite clear difference of approach in Mask Pro, Genuine Fractals and ColorTune from the others. Phototools, FocalPoint and PhotoFrame contain lots of presets, including celebrity photographer presets in Phototools and PhotoFrame. Mask Pro, Genuine Fractals and ColorTune don't — to my mind, this marks them out as truly professional products, whereas the others sell themselves as products which help amateurs achieve professional results. Mm…
Overall, at the regular price, this is a good buy. At the time of writing, with another $100 off the price, it's an excellent buy, even if you never bother with the PhotoFrames or Phototools.
FixerLabs bundle their SizeFixer XL with their other tools for a similar price. It contains far less, but SizeFixer is arguably better than Genuine Fractals for some tasks, and FocusFixer, NoiseFixer, and ShadowFixer do things that none of the Phototools effects do, and these three are more important and generally useful things. TrueBlur is about as good as FocalPoint, but has less control parameters, and is therefore less useful. However, FocusFixer is not as good as FocusMagic, NoiseFixer isn't as good as Noise Ninja, and ShadowFixer isn't as good as Nikon D-Lighting.
Tiffen dFx blows Phototools and FocalPoint out of the water in everything it does, but it doesn't have any of the functions of Genuine Fractals, Mask Pro and ColorTune.
Vertus Fluid Mask is at least as good as Mask Pro, but it's much more frustrating to use, and, ultimately, the quality of your cut outs depends on how much work you put into them. You can get results in 1/5 of the time with Mask Pro, which means you can produce better images in the same time.
Imagenomic Portraiture is king of the skin-fixing and beauty enhancing plugins. It's expensive, but if your main interest in this bundle is the portrait functions in Phototools, you should really look at it.
Full Spectrum overlaps slightly with ColorTune, but they are really designed for very different purposes. PictoColor iCorrect EditLab makes similar promises to ColorTune, but is much less sophisticated and much less sure in its results. Xe847 claims to be able to get images right without much interaction. I'm still not sure I agree, but you can download their demo and see if you like it. It doesn't compare with ColorTune in my opinion.
There seem to be an ever growing number of commercial and shareware plugins which do photo-frames. None of them have as many presets as PhotoFrame.
A final warning:
Some of these plugins seem to be a bit unstable in Photoshop CS2 on an Intel Mac — I haven't had time to track down what causes this, and you can live with it. But, really, they are targeted at CS3 and CS4.
Martin Turner August 2009
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