Alien Skin plugins road-tested

Keith White
7 March, 2012
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I’m taking my first look at five Adobe-compatible artistic plug-ins from Alien Skin. They have varying system requirements (see table below) but basically you’ll need an Intel processor and at least OS 10.5. You’ll also need either Photoshop, Lightroom or Elements. I’m using CS5 for this test drive.

Some of the plug-ins such as BlowUp are relatively straightforward, others like Bokeh have so many possible settings that it’s hard to know where to begin. With advanced artistic tools the bottom line however is generally a subjective judgement so it’s up to users to make their own decisions. The Alien Skin web site fortunately has lots of examples, tutorial videos, trial versions and extensive help files.

Common features include non-destructive editing – the plug-in creates a new enhancement layer and leaves your original untouched. Custom settings can be saved for reuse. Given the range of possible adjustments you can make, this is a very useful feature.

BlowUp 3

BlowUp 3 runs from either the File/Automate menu or the Filters menu in Photoshop. A three-pane window opens up with a navigation thumbnail of your image on the left and a large centre window to preview your image as you work on it. The right-hand pane contains all the settings.

The three modes available are Crop and Resize, Resize, and Stretch. Which are pretty self-explanatory. An extensive drop-down menu gives you an extensive range of photographic, standard paper and video sizes. I’m working on a 1080p video at the moment with a lot of stills and the 1920 x 1080 preset is very handy indeed.

You can fine tune your enlargement with edge sharpening and adding grain. You can also customise according to your output medium – a range of different paper types or the internet.

Instead of working with pixels BlowUp creates an intelligent vector map of your image and enlarges from that to give smoother scaling. If you’re outputting to print you might want to review this article which will give you a good idea about how big you can get. Print media, print resolution and viewing distance all play a part.

In summary BlowUp 3 is very simple to use and produces impressive results.

Bokeh 3

Bokeh 3 is essentially a lens simulator which allows you to create an amazing array of effects by altering the focal characteristics of a photograph after it has been taken. By replicating the focal qualities of popular lenses from Canon, Nikon, Zeiss and Sony, sophisticated blurring, vignetting and depth-of-field adjustments are easily achieved.

Bokeh runs under the Filters menu in Photoshop. A window opens up with your image on the right hand side and the settings panel on the left. Under Factory Settings you will find a number of independent settings apart from the camera simulations. These allow you to manipulate aperture, motion, film grain, highlight areas and vignetting.

The extensive controls you will find under the Bokeh tab allow you to fine-tune your initial selection and achieve some stunning effects with motion blurs or by using planar tilt to make photographs look like toy models. The Vignette tab contains controls for the adjustment of size, location, feathering and intensity of the vignette you have chosen. And it’s always possible to step back through a number of processes, or to return to your original image.

For my work, largely historical documentaries, I can see immediate use for some of the vignetting features. I’m not a photographer but I could imagine that people with intimate knowledge of lenses, f-stops and apertures would get a lot out of this tool. And the funny thing, too, is that as I use Bokeh much of this photographers’ mystique is becoming more apparent.

Exposure 4

By the time I open Exposure 4 I’m becoming more comfortable in my Alien Skin. Invoked via the Filters menu in Photoshop, the familiar three-pane window opens – image navigation window and factory settings on the left, a large scalable preview pane in the centre, and a range of fine tuning controls in the right-hand pane.

The aim of Exposure is to recreate the warmth and richness of film which many photographers believe has been lost in the conversion to digital. A bit like the old vinyl vs CD argument in music.

Exposure 4 is the result of meticulous analysis of a wide range of current and discontinued film stock and techniques aided by intense discussions with professional photographers. ‘Discontinued’ may be a bit cute. There’s a stunning daguerreotype preset which produces authentic simulations of some real daguerreotype images I’ve been working with. And we’re talking 1839 here.

As you hover over any of the myriad film types the navigation version of your image in the left-hand pane gives you a quick preview, but it’s really too small to get the idea. Better to apply it to the preview image, remembering again that all your enhancements take place on a new layer in Photoshop.

Once you’ve chosen your recreated film stock you can make minute tweaks to colour, tone, focus, grain and age. There’s even an infrared adjustment if you like that sort of thing.

I can already see some exciting possibilities in my documentary work for some of the vintage looks in Exposure. But, as with Bokeh, I can imagine seasoned photographers with a first-hand knowledge of the exotic range of film stock becoming quite excited at the possibility of recreating the warmth and grain of a bygone era.

Image Doctor 2

Image Doctor 2 finds me on more familiar ground. I’ve been using various Photoshop tools for many years retouching old photographs. Image Doctor is actually five retouch tools in one.

Skin Softener and Blemish Remover unsurprisingly soften skin tones and remove unwanted blemishes. They are very good tools but I have some moral and aesthetic reservations about airbrushing everything to a bland perfection. Smart Fill replaces unwanted objects by extending the background. Dust and Scratch Remover gives you far more control than the Photoshop version. JPEG Repair nicely compensates for those annoying compression artefacts when an image has been over compressed or JPEG-ed to death over many cycles.

The main advantage over Photoshop retouching tools is again the fine-tuning controls which give better results and save time. But in Image Doctor you’re not working in a separate layer unless you create it yourself. And there’s always the History window if you need to retrace your steps.

Snap Art 3

And finally Snap Art 3. At first glance it seems very similar to the artistic brushes in Photoshop. But once again the extensive number of high-quality presets backed up by a battery of fine-tuning controls makes the Photoshop options seem relatively limited. But then I suppose that’s the whole point of these Alien Skin plug-ins – to extend in useful and practical ways tools which Photoshop users have long regarded as valuable.

For example, the watercolour brush effect has 12 variations before you even begin to apply fine-tuning controls. Other categories with similar multiple variations include Color Pencil, Comics, Crayon, Oil Paint, Pastel, Pen and Ink, and Pencil Sketch

A key feature of this tool, however, is the availability of layer masks so you can differentiate the main feature of the image from the background. Brush on a mask when Layers is activated and work on the masked area. Switch to Background and perform separate enhancements to make the main feature leap from the canvas. Other tweak options are Color controls and Canvas which lets you choose a fabric, adjust the lighting and even add a vignette.

The realistic quality of the presets and the ability for fine customisation takes SnapArt a long way from some of the quick ‘n’ cheesy photo-to-painting tools around.

The bottom line

My first impressions of these tools are very positive. They have so many capabilities that they are actually mini-apps running inside an Adobe shell. And there are a whole load of other features I don’t have space to mention. There seems to have been a great deal of careful research behind their development and a passion to add beauty and depth to digital imaging. Even as a non-photographer I can already see many potential uses in my work. For those involved in imaging and graphic design in businesses, schools and colleges a visit to Alien Skin is highly recommended.

Exposure US$249; the others US$199. Or buy as a bundle and save a bundle at $495.

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