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Plug-Ins for Adobe Photoshop

A plug-in (or plugin) is software that runs only within another program. It adds to or extends the program’s features or functions. Adobe developed a plug-in standard for Photoshop that competing products (such as Corel’s Paint Shop Pro) subsequently implemented. Some plug-ins use features specific to Photoshop and won’t work with other software. Other plug-ins work just fine with Paint Shop Pro and other non-Adobe products.

I use these plug-ins regularly with Photoshop CS5. I previously used some of them with Photoshop CS3 and CS2, and with Paint Shop Pro. (But be aware that plug-in support is incomplete in Paint Shop Pro versions X through X2. Plug-ins won’t work correctly with color spaces other than sRGB, and won’t work at all with 16-bit images. Corel issued a patch for X3 that lets plug-ins work with 16-bit color, though I don’t know whether the patch also lets plug-ins use color spaces other than sRGB. X4 is supposed to have full support for plug-ins.) They should work with Photoshop Elements, but I can’t say whether they work with other compatible photo editing programs. If Macintosh versions are available I’ll mention them, with the caveat that I don’t have a Macintosh.

They’re all available for download in “demo” versions that either don’t allow saving of images, add annoying watermarks to saved images, or work only a limited number of times. A “demo” should provide a good idea of whether a plug-in is useful and whether it works with your software and hardware.

Except where specifically noted, the Windows versions of these plug-ins are available in 32-bit and 64-bit versions. The installation package typically includes both. 64-bit versions of Photoshop require 64-bit plug-ins. The 32-bit versions require 32-bit plug-ins, although you can run them under 32-bit or 64-bit versions of Windows.


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iCorrect EditLab Pro

iCorrect EditLab Pro (I’ll call it EditLab from now on) for Windows and Macintosh from PictoColor ($100; $50 upgrade from a previous version) provides quick and easy correction of color balance, levels, contrast, brightness, and saturation in one convenient tool. It’s designed for the professional photographer who needs a “one-stop shopping” solution for efficient post-processing high volumes of digital images. But it’s very useful for anyone who wants to “get the color right” with a minimum of hassle. I have used it on most of my pictures since 2002.

Getting the Color Right

When you start the plug-in in “Smart Color” mode, EditLab analyzes the image to create an initial automatic correction of color balance, tonal distribution, brightness, and contrast, which it displays in a preview window. You can then adjust this correction using four tabbed “tools”: Color Balance, Black Point/White Point (levels/histogram adjustment), Brightness/Contrast/Saturation, and Hue Selective Edit. EditLab effectively forces you to use the tools in that sequence to prevent them from interacting adversely. Adjustments in a tool won’t affect what you did in tools earlier in the sequence, but going backwards will undo any changes in tools later in the sequence. EditLab works with your image editor and operating system’s color management, and uses the current working color space (e.g., sRGB or Adobe RGB). A calibrated and profiled monitor is essential for accurate correction and adjustment.

If you disable “SmartColor” by un-checking a box, EditLab will not attempt to correct the image. You can then use the adjustment tools individually. For example, if you’ve got an image that needs Curves adjustment, you can use just the Color Balance tool to correct the color, and then exit the plug-in to adjust Curves. Or else you can use the Hue-Selective Edit tool alone to adjust specific colors (something I sometimes do to fine-tune saturated colors after converting pictures from the Adobe RGB or Pro Photo color space to sRGB for Web use). You can manually enable “SmartColor” separately for each tool, and also set EditLab’s “SmartColor” preferences to disable the automatic adjustments each tool makes.

The Color Balance tool is probably the most valuable feature of EditLab. It looks for neutral tones (black, gray, or white) and automatically removes any color casts. As it makes the neutral tones neutral, it balances the overall image color. The initial automatic correction can be amazingly good; the busy professional rushing to process a large number of pictures on a deadline may find it adequate for deliverable images without further change. But you’ll usually want to further optimize the correction by manually selecting neutral areas in the image with an eye-dropper cursor. You can adjust the size of the eye-dropper’s sample, and if necessary zoom and pan the preview window to find small neutral areas (such as teeth, sclera, branches, or rocks).

EditLab corrects the continuous range of tones from black to white in an image. A “wedge” display of square patches shows the color cast EditLab found in five representative tones. So with one click you can, for example, remove excessive blue from shadows without affecting the rest of the image. Several well-placed clicks can sometimes miraculously restore the colors in slightly overexposed slides, or reveal a range of color hidden in images with color casts (such as the excessive blue of high altitude). For a number of my pictures, EditLab has produced more satisfactory color in a few seconds than I could get from spending an hour or more with Photoshop’s layers and Curves.

EditLab’s neutral color balancing is extremely helpful for most but not all images. It’s intended for, and works very well with, “normal” pictures taken in sunlight or studio lighting. That means it can fail with pictures that do not include neutral tones. And, in attempting to produce a neutral color balance, it can annihilate the warm “magic” light of early morning or late afternoon (although the most recent versions of EditLab seem better at recognizing “magic hour” lighting than earlier versions). For those images, the Color Balance tool provides two alternatives to clicking on neutral tones. You can use a set of three sliders to manually adjust the cyan/red, magenta/green, and yellow/blue color channels individually. Or you can use “temperature” and “tint” sliders to adjust the color balance as you would in Adobe Camera Raw. But you’re probably better off using Photoshop’s native adjustments for images that need this sort of correction. Another set of sliders lets you optionally alter the color balance of neutral tones; you can “tint” the image warm, cold, or anything in between.

Adjust Hue Without Crying

The Hue Selective Edit tool adjusts specific colors. Click the eye-dropper on a colored area of your image and you can use sliders to adjust the brightness and saturation of that color, or change its hue on a color wheel, all without affecting other colors. You can, for example, darken a sky (to simulate a forgotten polarizing filter?), make a flower or fall foliage more saturated while muting a green background, keep skin tones looking natural while saturating the background colors, or make yellowish grass look greener. “Handle” settings on the color wheel let you specify a particular range of colors a hue adjustment will affect.

“Smart Color” mode sets the tool’s six “handles” to the dominant hues in the image. The tool includes three one-click “memory color” adjustment buttons for sky, foliage, and skin. You can define three more buttons. I haven’t found the built-in adjustments particularly effective or useful, but it is possible to customize them.

The Hue Selective Edit tool can also convert color images to black and white. A “B/W” button sets all the hues to zero saturation. You can then click the “handle” for each hue and use a slider to adjust its brightness, thereby selectively brightening or darkening the tones in the black and white image. This approach can produce much more vibrant black and white images than a simple grayscale conversion, and with much less effort than Photoshop’s classic Channel Mixer. A “Sepia” button can apply a standard sepia tint to the entire image; you can also adjust that tint to whatever color you want.

In Photoshop CS3, Adobe at last provided a usable black and white conversion tool that works much like the “B/W” button in Hue Selective Edit. But EditLab still has one trick up its sleeve— you can have a single color stand out from a monochrome background by simply increasing the saturation for that hue.

Leveling the Field

Although the Color Balance and Hue Selective Edit are EditLab’s most glamorous features, its two other tools provide essential workaday tone adjustments. The Black Point/White Point tool imitates Photoshop’s Levels adjustment. As the name implies, it sets the black and white points, and includes a gray point adjustment to lighten or darken midtones. “SmartColor” mode makes initial settings that you can adjust. As in Photoshop, holding down the alt key while adjusting the black point or white point slider reveals shadow or highlight clipping.

The Brightness/Contrast/Saturation tool is self-explanatory. The contrast adjustment applies an adjustable S-curve to increase or decrease contrast. Separate brightness adjustments for shadows and highlights can modify the two halves of that S-curve. Clicking a button opens a fly-out window that shows the shape of the resulting curve, but there’s no histogram display to put it in context. It amounts to a simplified, very friendly Curves adjustment that’s entirely adequate for the “normal” images EditLab is intended to process. I usually avoid the contrast adjustment in favor of the highlight and shadow adjustments— a symmetrical setting of these sliders creates the same balanced S-curve as the contrast adjustment. I also usually leave the saturation adjustment at zero in favor of adjusting the saturation of individual colors in the Hue Selective Edit tool.

Saving Graces

When you’ve gone through the tools in sequence and adjusted the image the way you want it, you can click a button to save the settings in a small text file for future use. You can restore the settings as a general preference applied whenever you click the “Load Custom Settings” button, or else load a setting file directly by holding down the alt key when clicking the “Load Custom Settings” button.

Alternatively, you can click the “Prev” button to apply the settings from the last image you processed with EditLab. You can also apply the custom or previous settings for specific tools by clicking the “Custom” and “Prev” buttons within those tools. Either way, loading settings disables “Smart Color,” so you can make individual adjustments to the settings within the tools (or select “Smart Color” within a tool for a new automated starting point).

EditLab also supports Photoshop actions, so you can “play” EditLab adjustments as part of an automated workflow.

Odds and Ends

EditLab can optionally apply Unsharp Mask sharpening and “adaptive” noise removal while making color and tone corrections. While these features aren’t as good as dedicated tools for these functions (such as NeatImage for noise reduction and Topaz InFocus or Focus Magic for capture sharpening), someone processing a large volume of pictures could find them convenient. For those users, PictoColor also offers a stand-alone version that bypasses Photoshop entirely. iCorrect EditLab ProApp 6.0 packages EditLab’s features in a user interface designed for selecting and batch processing collections of images. It costs $150, or $100 for an upgrade from previous stand-alone versions of EditLab.

EditLab includes some specialized color editing features that most users will never need. It can create and edit ICC profiles, and also do normal color editing of “linear” (gamma 1.0) 16-bit images from certain very expensive digital cameras and drum scanners. For some reason, the default “Smart Color” setting attempts to detect linear images automatically. So occasionally you’ll see an oddly washed out preview, and only notice that the “linear” box is checked after you’ve spent some time trying unsuccsessfully to correct it. Most users will want to disable this detection by un-checking a box in the “Smart Color preferences” setting dialogue.

Conclusion

I first downloaded a trial version of EditLab 2.0 in 2002, after reading a review of it. Forest Floor was the first picture I tried it on, and the result immediately convinced me to buy it. The uncorrected image from the scanner had a green cast in the highlights and a magenta cast in the shadows. I had spent nearly two hours in Paint Shop Pro trying to get a color balance that was neutral but well-saturated. Even after all that work, I wasn’t particularly happy with it. With EditLab, I quickly removed both color casts on the logs, with the right saturation and “glow” on the leaves and grass. Then I used the Hue Selective Edit tool to add extra saturation to the red and orange leaves. The whole process took less than a minute!

Rockies and River and Athabasca Falls are two pictures on which EditLab worked near-miracles. The combination of high altitude in the Canadian Rockies, a not-quite-neutral polarizer, and slight overexposure made the original slides dull, bluish, and disappointing. With a few clicks and a few adjustments, EditLab revealed the full-color images behind the blue veil. Even with less troublesome images than these, EditLab can make the often arduous process of “getting the color right” far easier, quicker, and more pleasant.

The current version of EditLab is 6.0, released in December 2010. The Windows version provides separate plug-ins for 32-bit and 64-bit Photoshop. The addition of the 64-bit plug-in is the only significant improvement over the previous version (5.5, released in July 2007). But it also provides two fairly minor feature tweaks. The Color Balance tool now provides an option to adjust color balance by temperature and tint like Adobe Camera Raw, which can be very helpful for images that lack neutral tones. And it’s now possible to specify separate default settings for each tool. The Macintosh version is a “universal binary” that runs natively on Intel machines.

PictoColor also offers versions of EditLab for Adobe Elements (Windows and Macintosh) and Corel Paint Shop Pro (Windows only). They cost $30.


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FocalBlade

FocalBlade for Windows and Macintosh ($50 download, $60 for CD) is a universal image sharpening tool that combines great power and flexibility with ease of use. All digital images need sharpening, usually as the last step after correcting the color and density. Unsharp masking, a feature of any decent image editor, is the most commonly-used sharpening tool. It increases the appearance of sharpness by adding bright pixels to edges (i.e., adjacent pixels that differ significantly in color), thereby increasing their contrast.

Unsharp masking is too often a mysterious and frustrating process. You have to rely on experience, intuition, and plain old trial-and-error to determine the appropriate settings for “radius” (the width of the band of pixels added to edges), “strength” (the number of added pixels), and “clipping” (how different adjacent pixels must be to constitute an edge). Too little sharpening means a soft image, but over-sharpening adds visible halos, artifacts, and noise to the image. Sometimes you have to settle for inadequate sharpening because of noise and artifacts. An image intended for printing needs more sharpening than one intended for viewing on a monitor; that means you need to figure out unsharp mask settings for each use (and for each image size). Because of the complexity of unsharp masking, image editors include other simpler sharpening tools. But those tend to exaggerate noise, film grain, and similar flaws in the image.

FocalBlade provides better and more flexible control of sharpening than unsharp masking, while eliminating the frustrating guesswork. It’s better because it sharpens edges separately from “surfaces” (image areas that don’t have enough contrast to be edges), resulting in much less noise and artifacts. It also has options to eliminate halos, noise, and artifacts. It’s more flexible because it provides several levels of automation to determine appropriate sharpening, while allowing full manual control of all parameters when that’s needed. It also adjusts its sharpening for screen display or printing— you merely need to click the “Screen” or “Print” button.

In its simplest automated mode, you use three pull-down menus to indicate the amount of sharpening (from “soft” to “extreme sharp”), the amount of texture in surfaces (from “even” or “light” to “heavy” or “extreme”) and the amount of detail (from “very fine” to “very rough”). It will then choose parameters for sharpening edges and surfaces based on the menu settings. You can use those settings directly, or as a starting point for manual adjustment. When you’ve found the right settings for an image, you can save them as a “preset” that you can load later for a similar type of image.

If you can’t decide which words describe what you want, you can select the sharpening visually. In the zoom-able preview window you can select a representative area of the image. FocalBlade will then determine appropriate settings to sharpen it optimally. Alternatively, you can divide the preview window into five “strips” reflecting different parameters. Click on the one that looks best, and it will use that setting on the entire image.

In addition to controlling the sharpening of edges and surfaces, FocalBlade includes a “fix” setting that reduces the sharpening of highlights and shadows. That’s intended to clean up any visible “halos” the sharpening process introduces, but the shadow reduction is also very useful for slide scans that have noisy shadows. You can sharpen the image appropriately, and then reduce any scanner noise that sharpening may have intensified.

FocalBlade has many more features than I can describe here. The Web site gives a complete description and includes the user manual. The developers of FocalBlade have collected just about every conceivable sharpening technique and option (plus blurring and soft-focus effects) into a clever, well-organized, and very usable package. Novice users can opt for a simplified interface that shows only the three automated pull-down menus. Expert users can choose an interface that includes every adjustment and option, with or without a help window that explains the use of each one as the mouse cursor moves over them. And there are other selectable modes between these two extremes. It’s no exaggeration to say that FocalBlade has just about every conceivable option you’ll need for sharpening any image.


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Focus Magic

Focus Magic for Windows and Macintosh ($45 from Acclaim Software in New Zealand; includes unlimited upgrades) can restore detail to many blurred images. It’s also very useful for “capture sharpening” of film scans and raw image files from digital cameras. Some of the advertising and review hype implies that it can turn a fuzzy snapshot into a tack-sharp enlargement. The reality, though impressive enough, is nowhere near that spectacular. It’s more accurate to say that Focus Magic can restore the crispness of images that are slightly unsharp due to poor focus, low resolution, sub-optimal lens settings, or the limitations of scanning. That’s far from magical, but still very useful: It can significantly improve a great many images, and even rescue some of them from the dustbin.

Most sharpening techniques, such as unsharp masking, make an image seem sharper by exaggerating the contrast of edges. But they often add objectionable noise while revealing no actual detail. Focus Magic works differently. It’s based on the principle that a blurred image loses detail in a consistent, mathematically predictable fashion. A point (or pixel) in a sharp image becomes a circle (or several pixels) in a blurred image; a sharp edge of one or two pixels spreads out to many pixels. The more blurring, the bigger the circle or the wider the spread. The appropriate processing— a deconvolution algorithm— can reverse that degradation and, within limits, recover detail and crispness. Deconvolution processing requires quite a bit of computation, which makes it slow. Versions 3 and 4 are noticeably faster than earlier versions, which would have lost a race with a constipated snail. But all that processing still takes time.

The plug-in is actually two separate tools in one. When you select “Focus Magic” from your image editor’s plug-in menu, you’ll get a choice of “Fix Motion Blur” or “Fix Out-of-focus Blur.” The former is specialized for correcting blur due to camera or subject movement. The latter is for everything else. I’m not sure whether it’s feasible to run them successively on an image that suffers from motion blur as well as poor focus.

Both tools have an interface that is fairly easy to use. The full image appears in a window, with a red square outlining a small section. Two smaller windows magnify the contents of that red square, one “before” and the other “after” focus enhancement. The “Fix Out-of-focus Blur” tool tries to automatically detect an appropriate setting when it starts. But that setting is not likely to be useful, since it’s apparently analyzing the extreme upper left corner of the image where it initially puts that red square (maybe a future version will start with the square in the center of the frame?). Move the mouse over the square, hold down the left button, and you can drag the square over the image to find a more representative sample.

To do its “magic,” Focus Magic needs to know how blurred the image is. The “blur width” means the number of pixels a blurred point or edge has spread. You can select a blur width between 1 and 20 pixels with a spin box.

There is also a pull-down to tell it the source of the image (e.g., digital camera, film camera, television frame). However, when I’ve experimentally compared those settings side by side using the same images, I haven’t been able to see any difference between them. This pull-down is always set to “Digital Camera” when you start the plug-in. That’s helpful if you only use a digital camera, but if you consistently use a film scanner or something else it’s an unnecessary extra step to change this each time you run Focus Magic. It really should retain the previous setting.

Next to the blur width selection is a “Detect” button that automatically determines the width. I find this button usually chooses too large a value.

That leaves the trial-and-error approach. Move the red square to a detailed part of the image and try different blur widths. I suggest starting with a low value and increasing it until the sample is maximally sharp. Increasing the blur width beyond that turns the image grainy, and then “cartoony” as it actually loses detail. This sounds more complicated than it really is, since it’s fairly obvious when you’ve found the right blur width.

The “Fix Motion Blur” tool works similarly, except you have to specify the blur direction— which way the camera or subject was moving. The spin box literally spins a little dial corresponding to the degrees in a circle. The blur width is called “blur distance,” which is the length of the streak a point of light creates. With all the possible settings of direction and width, it’s not exactly easy to find the right combination.

There are two other less frequently used controls. One sets the strength of enhancement; it’s usually left at 100% but the ability to increase or decrease the strength allows additional fine-tuning. The other control sets noise reduction, which works only when the blur width is 5 or greater.

Once you’ve found the correct settings, click the “OK” button and wait. When you’re sharpening images that are significantly out of focus— requiring a blur width of 3 or more— the extensive computation it needs to do can take quite a while, particularly if it’s a 16-bit image and you have an older computer. But blur widths of 1 or 2 use special optimized processing that’s reasonably fast. If you can’t decide between a blur width of 2 or 3, this is a good reason to choose the lower setting. The optimization makes Focus Magic very useful for routine capture sharpening.

Images that come directly from scanners and digital camera raw converters are often “soft,” and could benefit from immediate sharpening of the captured image. That’s why scanner software and digital camera raw file converters usually include sharpening. Applied carefully and sparingly, Focus Magic does this initial sharpening better, adding less noise and fewer artifacts. For raw files from my Canon Digital Rebel XT or PowerShot S100, I disable all sharpening in the raw file conversion. I open the file, reduce noise with NeatImage, and then run “Fix Out-of-focus Blur” in Focus Magic with a blur width of 1 or 2, often with 75% or 50% strength to avoid an artificial “over-sharpened” appearance. That also works for capture sharpening of 35mm film scans. For scans of 110-format slides, I use a blur width of 2 or 3, at 100% strength.

Focus Magic complements rather than replaces other sharpening tools such as unsharp masking or FocalBlade. They serve related but distinct purposes. Focus Magic corrects blurring in the original image media, such as that caused by incorrect focus or camera shake. Sharpening corrects the blurring that digital processing and printing introduces. So before you print an image you’ve un-blurred with Focus Magic, you’ll need to sharpen it.

Although it doesn’t quite live up to the “magical” hype, Focus Magic is worth buying. It’s a useful tool for the initial sharpening of images from scanners and digital cameras. And it’s possibly the best available solution to the all-too-common problem of images that are “just a little soft.” But even its mathematical “magic” can’t honestly make a severely blurred image look sharp.

Focus Magic also includes a stand-alone program that could be useful for quickly processing digital camera output, or to provide Focus Magic capabilities in Adobe Lightroom. It runs the “Fix Out-of-focus Blur” (which it calls “Focus”) and “Fix Motion Blur” tools independently of Photoshop. It also provides three tools that the plug-in lacks. The “Defocus” tool is the opposite of the “Focus” tool, softening over-sharpened images. “Despeckle” smooths out half-tone images scanned from newspapers or magazines. And “Increase Resolution” can make images two or four times larger. The stand-alone can read files in the JPEG, TIFF, PNG, BMP, and PSD file formats— an improvement over earlier versions of the Focus Magic stand-alone that could only read JPEG files. You can save files as JPEG, PNG, TIFF, and BMP. There is no control over the compression level (quality) when saving as JPEG.

You can download Focus Magic for free and try it on ten images (no watermarks or crippled functionality) before you need to buy a registration key.


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Topaz InFocus

InFocus for Windows and Macintosh ($70 from Topaz Labs) might be the successor to Focus Magic. It has similar capabilities, and uses similar deconvolution processing— which Topaz calls deblur— that “magically” restores detail and crispness to images that are slightly out of focus. But its user interface is more modern and sophisticated, and it provides sharpening options (an “advanced” form of unsharp masking) to complement the deblurring.

Please read my review of Focus Magic, if you haven’t already. It describes deconvolution and the deblur features common to both products, and where they fit in my work flow. This review will emphasize the “InFocus vs. Focus Magic” comparison that I’m sure many readers are looking for.

User Interface

By default, InFocus fills the Photoshop window (or the full screen) with three panels. The left panel shows presets for deblurring and sharpening. As you work with InFocus you can save settings as presets. Topaz provides three useful presets with the initial installation.

The center panel is the image preview window, with a tab that lets you toggle between the unprocessed version and the deblurred version. (You can also click and hold the left mouse button on the preview window to see the unprocessed image, or use the “1” and “2” keys to respectively select original and processed views.) By default the preview window shows a 100% view of the actual pixels, but you can zoom in or out. I usually close the presets (left) panel to increase the size of the preview window.

The right (tool) panel contains a navigation window that shows the portion of the full image displayed in the preview window, and lets you pan the the preview window over the image. More importantly, it contains the sliders for setting the parameters for the two “tools” that deblur sharpen.

Blur Types: “Generic” and “Out-of-Focus”

The deblur tool provides four modes (“blur types”), selected from a pull-down. Generic is for “a well focused image,” for which you “would like only to enhance image clarity.” Out-of-Focus is for “slightly out of focus images.” These two modes act the same, but “Out-of-Focus” is more aggressive. The Blur Radius slider specifies the extent of blurring in the image for the deconvolution algorithm. This is similar to the blur width setting in Focus Magic, except that it allows “continuous” adjustment between 0.00 and 4.00 unspecified units rather than Focus Magic’s 20 discrete “pixel widths.”

The trial-and-error approach to deblurring is similar to that of Focus Magic, but with much finer control. Slowly increase the Blur Radius until the image is sharp, but not so much that artifacts or grain are visible. After you’ve moved the slider, InFocus updates the preview window, a process that requires two or three seconds on my computer (an Intel i7-860 processor). The large preview window makes assessing the deblurring much easier than Focus Magic’s squinty little peep-hole. The difference surely reflects the fact that Focus Magic first came out in 2000. Updating such a large preview window would have been unacceptably slow on computers available then.

To help you compare different Blur Radius settings, you can click a button to save temporary “snapshots” as you work. A tab lets you switch between these “snapshots” to quickly compare different settings. It’s like an optometrist fine-tuning a lens prescription by asking the patient to choose between “1” and “2” or “7” and “8.”

As with Focus Magic, it’s obvious when the Blur Radius is too large. As you continue to increase it, the image starts to look “grainy,” and then turns into a mosaic. This usually happens at settings higher than 2.00. But before it becomes visibly “grainy,” an image can acquire more subtle artifacts like halos or lines around sharp edges. You could back off the Blur Radius to eliminate or reduce those artifacts, but then the image might no longer be sharp enough. A second Suppress Artifacts slider can soften the artifacts with much less effect on overall sharpness, though it will reduce sharpness if set too high. Topaz considers this slider an “advanced” option, as the fine-tuning it allows isn’t always necessary.

Although it’s part of the Sharpen tool and separate from deblurring, a low setting of the Micro Contrast slider can add the final razor’s edge of sharpness to a properly deblurred image. It seems to work by amplifying the high-frequency components of the image that contain the smallest details.

“Straight Motion”

Straight Motion is the third blur type. It corresponds to the “Fix Motion Blur” tool in Focus Magic. You adjust a Motion Angle slider (grayed out and inactive when one of the other blur types is selected) until you’ve figured out the exact direction the subject or the camera was moving. Then you adjust the Blur Radius for optimal sharpness.

As the InFocus documentation points out, motion deblurring is highly prone to artifacts. The Suppress Artifacts slider is even more essential here than with other blur types. The “snapshot” feature is also available with this blur type, and may be even more useful when you’re desperately trying to discern the often minuscule differences between Motion Angle settings.

The “Straight Motion” correction has the same limitations as its counterpart in Focus Magic, although the large preview window makes judging the direction of motion that much easier. Finding the correct direction of motion is not always easy; it might not even be possible if if the subject or camera is bouncing, shaking, or otherwise not moving in a single straight line. The InFocus documentation implies that this mode is more suited to “forensic” use than for pictures. But if you’ve got a cherished family snapshot marred by visible camera shake— or if you need to read the license plate on a robber’s getaway car— it’s worth trying.

Note that Photoshop’s Smart Sharpen filter, introduced in CS2, includes a motion blur correction option. It requires similar finicky determination of the motion angle. I haven’t compared this to either Focus Magic or InFocus, since I don’t find any of them very useful.

“Unknown/Estimate”

The fourth blur type might be the most powerful feature of InFocus. You could describe Unknown/Estimate as semi-automatic deblurring. Topaz particularly recommends it when “the blur is complex.” I have found that it can sometimes yield better results than “Generic” or “Out-of-Focus.”

Using “Unknown/Estimate” can initially seem counterintuitive. First, move the preview window over a section of the image with fine details, and preferably with “multiple edges.” Then arbitrarily select a Blur Radius. In this mode, the slider selects integer values between 0 and 10 unspecified units. I usually start with 3. Finally, click the “Estimate Blur” button (grayed out and inactive in other modes) and wait for the progress bars below the preview window to show that the “estimate” is complete.

When “estimating,” InFocus automatically determines deconvolution parameters based on the Blur Radius and the contents of the preview window. After you see the result (and move the preview window to check other parts of the image), you can then increase or decrease the blur radius as appropriate, or adjust the Suppress Artifacts or Edge Softness sliders. As in “Generic” and “Out-of-Focus,” Suppress Artifacts fine-tunes the deconvolution to reduce or eliminate lines or halos. The Edge Softness slider— available only in “Unknown/Estimate”— can smooth out over-sharpened edges without affecting the rest of the image.

The key here is that whenever you change any setting, you must click the “Estimate Blur” button again and wait for a new “estimate.” Confusingly, InFocus displays progress bars when you adjust any slider, even if you don’t click the button. And since InFocus uses the contents of the preview window to make its “estimate,” moving the preview window will change the “estimate” when you next click the button. So if you move the window after getting an “estimate” to check the effect on other parts of the image, you’ll have to rely on memory to reset the window if you want to use the original part of the image for a new “estimate.” The “snapshot” feature is very helpful for this, if you remembered to take one.

Although “Unknown/Estimate” might seem tedious and time-consuming as you wait for new “estimates” after each adjustment of settings, the process is actually fairly fast and straightforward once you’re used to it. And the results can be worth the effort. It sometimes succeeds when “Generic” or “Out-of-Focus” doesn’t quite produce the desired result. Topaz isn’t forthcoming about how the “estimate” works, but the recommendation to use it “when the blur is complex” suggests that it’s a more sophisticated deconvolution algorithm than “Generic” or “Out-of-Focus.”

Focus Magic has a superficially similar Detect button that is supposed to automatically choose a blur width based on the preview window contents. This function is automatically invoked when Focus Magic starts. But I’ve found it mostly useless in either case. At startup, the little preview window is positioned in the upper left corner of the image, which is almost never a useful sample. But that’s what the automatic detection apparently uses. And the Detect button almost always overestimates the blur width.

Focus Magic vs. InFocus

So which of these deconvolution plug-ins is best? The only real answer is “try both and decide for yourself.” I have been using Focus Magic for capture sharpening for many years, and I’ve been satisfied with it. With sharpening disabled in VueScan or Adobe Camera Raw, I run it on scanned or raw-converted images immediately after noise reduction with NeatImage, or directly on raw images if I’ve used Adobe Camera Raw’s noise reduction.

InFocus works about equally well in this work flow, although its more precise control yields better deblurring often enough to give it the edge. With Focus Magic, I sometimes have to settle for less sharpness than I want because the next blur width setting creates too many artifacts that degrade the image.

Focus Magic has a “strength” adjustment that can vary how much of its sharpened output is blended with the original image. InFocus doesn’t have that feature; but if you use it on a duplicate layer as the documentation recommends, you can adjust the opacity if needed. I have never needed to adjust it. Focus Magic also has noise reduction, which InFocus lacks. But I’ve found this feature nearly useless, since it works only with a blur width of 5 or greater. That’s usually much higher than is necessary for capture sharpening.

The final Focus Magic feature absent in InFocus is a pull-down to select the origin of the image (e.g., digital camera, film camera, print, television frame). It supposedly optimizes the deconvolution for the image source. But I’ve found this feature to be a nuisance, since the pull-down resets to “Digital Camera” every time the plug-in runs. If I’m working with a series of film scans, I have to remember to reset it each time Focus Magic starts. And when I’ve experimentally compared the “film camera” and “digital camera” settings side by side using the same images, I haven’t been able to see any difference between them.

InFocus has a Sharpening tool that optionally adds unsharp masking and Micro Contrast enhancement of fine details to the deblurring. While a small amount of Micro Contrast enhancement— try 0.1 unspecified units— can sometimes add helpful sparkle to an image after you’ve found the right deblur settings, unsharp masking or similar sharpening really is best saved for the final step in the workflow.

I have noticed that InFocus seems to work faster than Focus Magic, once I’ve found the right settings and clicked the OK button. That might be because it already did some of the processing when it created the preview.

When I switched to 64-bit Photoshop CS5 in 2011, I bought InFocus because Focus Magic— then a 32-bit plug-in that was last updated in 2007— was not compatible with 64-bit Photoshop. Acclaim finally released the long-delayed version 4 for Windows, which includes a 64-bit plug-in, in April 2013; they released Macintosh version 4, compatible with current versions of OS X and Photoshop, in August 2013. I still primarily use InFocus because I’ve become accustomed to it. But as I’ve found with raw converters, having a choice of similar tools can be very helpful. Because each one implements its function differently, there may be times when one will will work better than another with a specific image. And I have indeed encountered several images for which the new version of Focus Magic yields better results than InFocus.

Focus Magic is probably worth trying first, if only because it costs less (unless you get InFocus with a promotional offer, as I did). It’s somewhat easier to use, and its simpler interface may run better if it’s been a while since you bought your computer. But you can’t go wrong with either one.


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NeatImage

NeatImage reduces film grain, scanner noise, and the noisy “digital grain” in digital camera files. What makes it “neat” is its use of device noise profiles to discriminate between noise and detail in an image. A profile assumes that a particular device (such as a digital camera sensor) adds a specific, consistent pattern of noise under a particular condition (such as ISO equivalent or level of JPEG compression). Using a profile, the software can automatically subtract that noise pattern from any image that fits the profile, with a minimum of effort from the user. This approach not only greatly improves the effectiveness and “intelligence” of noise reduction that preserves details, but it allows efficient batch operation. Give NeatImage a set of files and it will process them in the background while you read your e-mail.

The NeatImage Web site provides pre-made profiles for many popular digital cameras. Most of them are prepared and donated by users, so you have to make sure the configuration matches what you’re using. For example, there is an elaborate set of profiles for Canon Digital Rebel XT/350D raw files, with settings for nearly every combination of ISO and shutter speeds. The user who prepared them carefully noted that they apply to raw files processed with Adobe Camera Raw 3.2. So they probably aren’t useful for the output of Canon’s two raw converters, RawShooter Essentials; and they may not be optimal for version 4 of Adobe Camera Raw, although they seem to work well enough when I’ve tried them. But if an “exact-match” profile for your camera and configuration isn’t available, it’s easy to create your own profiles. The program has a built-in target that you can either print out or photograph directly from your monitor. After you use the fairly straightforward process (more about which later) to create a profile from this image, and you can save it to use whenever you’ve got a picture taken with the same camera and settings.

As useful as saved profiles are for digital cameras, they’re not always feasible for scanning film. While you could certainly photograph the target on slide or negative film, the resulting profile may not be useful for real-world film that isn’t exposed with the same density. The grain of color negative film varies significantly with exposure, for example. And there’s no way to create a profile for a film that’s no longer made.

Using NeatImage with film scans (or with digital camera files for which you don’t have a prepared profile) requires the creation of a one-time profile for each scan. NeatImage makes this easy with a one-click “Automatic Profile” option. Or else you can do it manually by selecting for analysis areas of the image that have no details (such as a blue sky, often the most intractable noise problem for scans of color negatives). You then adjust the noise filter settings based on that profile. By previewing various areas of the image, you can set the amount of luminance and chroma filtering (including different frequencies if you use “Advanced” mode) to optimize the balance between noise reduction and detail preservation. Click one more button and it applies the profile and settings to the image. This is the same process you’d use to create and save a reusable device noise profile for a digital camera using the NeatImage target.

While it’s primarily promoted for use with digital cameras, I’ve found NeatImage quite effective for reducing grain in film scans. It’s better than anything I’ve yet seen for handling the very troublesome noise in blue sky areas of color negative scans. It’s also good at reducing the sensor noise in the shadow areas of slide scans. However, I should note that the developers of NeatImage are very truthful in advertising that it reduces noise but does not remove it. It can’t make a grainy sky glass-smooth, at least not without unacceptably blurring and smudging the details in the rest of the image. But it can remove enough of the visible grain so it’s no longer objectionable, while preserving overall sharpness and fine details.

It’s worth spending some time reading the documentation and experimenting with NeatImage before using it for any serious purpose. I find the default settings too aggressive. For film scans, I prefer a luminance noise reduction setting between 35% and 50%. Digital camera files that don’t have much noise (such as well-exposed pictures from a DSLR at ISO 200) may need much less than that. Too high a setting blurs fine details and produces an artificial “plastic” effect. The key is to find the lowest setting that will reduce grain or noise to an acceptable level. The process of removing chroma noise also very slightly reduces color saturation. I use NeatImage as the very first step in my workflow after capturing the image, as I believe this keeps noise from getting amplified during subsequent processing.

NeatImage comes in two editions for Windows and Macintosh. The $30 “Home” edition works with 8-bit-per-color images. The $80 “Pro” edition supports 8, 16, and 32-bit images, along with smart filters and actions. A free demo version “can be used to process small images for non-commercial purposes”; it’s limited to 1024x1024 pixels and will crop larger images. There is also a plug-in version for Apple Aperture (Macintosh), as well as a stand-alone application for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux.


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