Photoshop filters are vital to the functionality of the application – without them Photoshop loses some of it’s quick-fix image appeal. We tested three of the best.

Chameleon 2.1

When you paste a new image of an object or person into a different image, it can be very difficult to blend its edges and even more difficult to match its colour and lighting to the new background. This is particularly troublesome when assembling an artistic collage, in which each individual piece was created under different lighting conditions and yet must blend harmoniously. Equally challenging is the task of adding a new object to a landscape photo – for example a tree, a person, or a boat – especially if either photo was lit dramatically.

Akvis Chameleon 2.1 simplifies this task by blending an object’s edges realistically into its new background, and adjusting the object’s colour and lighting to match the new background.

All this blending and matching doesn't matter, of course, if you don't know how to extract an object from its original background. This process normally requires painstaking detail work, but Chameleon eases the task because it doesn’t require you to make a precise selection. The easiest way to select an object to use with Chameleon is to use Photoshop’s Quick Mask mode and simply paint over the object, making sure to include a bit of the background. Copy and paste your new object into another picture, then choose Filter:AKVIS:Chameleon. There is no dialog, so you can’t specify settings or options. The plug-in just does its thing.

Chameleon can also allow some of the background image to show through the new object. This Snapshot feature, which is actually one of three menu items – Chameleon, Chameleon (Take Snapshot), and Chameleon (Use Snapshot) – becomes essential when your new object includes areas requiring partial transparency, such as an item made of glass, or a boat's sail. The Snapshot also doubles as a creative feature in Chameleon, making it easy to burn or ghost one image into another. In our testing, Chameleon worked well on colourful objects, but not as well on neutral objects – my grey cat turned green on a patch of green grass, for example.

Akvis Chameleon 2.1 saves time when compositing photos, and if used carefully, it can be a tool for professional production. Before buying it, however, use the free 10-day trial version on your own images to make sure you achieve the level of quality you need.

Machine Wash Image Filters and Machine Wash II Image Filters

Making something look old isn't easy. Every year, most things endure a random onslaught of abrasions, bruises, collisions, cycles of freeze and thaw, oxidation, and even some intentional damage. Reproducing (not to mention surviving) this kind of abuse requires an extreme degree of cleverness. That's why Mister Retro's Machine Wash Image Filters are so impressive.

The concept is simple: you want to make a logo, advertisement, or other design look as if it was printed on an outdoor surface such as wood, brick, stone, or asphalt. And maybe you want to make the item look weather-beaten, like it’s been around for a long time. One effective solution is to run it through the Machine Wash Filters. The two Machine Wash filter sets each contain 60 filters.

All the program’s distress effects, from Acid and Rust to Paint Peel, Splinter, and Scrape, are quite realistic. The developers must have spent a lot of time around outdoor signs, judging by the realism of their hard surfaces such as concrete, porcelain, wood grain, and cork. It’s really fun to see what your logo would look like under the ice at a hockey rink.

The package contains texture effects, too, from fabrics such as burlap, linen, beach towel, and denim to animal skins such as elephant, rhino, and reptile, which look authentic. If you need an aged-print-on-paper look, the filter’s realistic parchment, newsprint, and folded paper effects will do the trick.

The names of the effects match their appearance: Boatdock, Sandblast, Mudflap, Overspray, Paint Peel, Chalk, and even Junkyard are absolutely accurate; there’s no guessing what the effect will do.

The difference between Machine Wash and other Photoshop plug-in filters is that each filter is actually a Photoshop Action, a group of steps that applies an aging texture. To use one, you first load two Machine Wash actions – the Regular Cycle action and the Heavy Cycle action – into Photoshop's Actions palette. The Action will then prompt you to choose a filter to apply, and will place its texture on top of your image so that you can resize it, if necessary. No adjustment is needed on most square images. But on rectangular images, you must either stretch and distort the texture in one direction, or enlarge it proportionally, which results in a larger texture.

The active layer receives the abuse from the action. Machine Wash’s Regular Cycle allows the lower layers to show through, while the Heavy Cycle adds a layer of rust beneath the active layer. All visible layers beneath the active layer will show through the cracks and scratches created by the Action. So, it's important that these layers be filled with a colour appropriate to the type of aging you'll be applying.

When you click Apply, the Action creates a new channel in the image file, as well as a new layer mask for the layer. If you don't like the result, you can delete the layer mask and the channel, and try again.

When you click Apply, the Action creates a new channel in the image file, as well as a new layer mask for the layer. If you don't like the result, you can delete the layer mask and the channel, and try again.

Each of the two collections contains more than 600MB of required texture files. You can either copy them to your hard drive or use them directly from the Machine Wash Filters CD.

Overall, the quality of the effects in both Machine Wash Image Filter sets is great, and the $32 (around £17) price is fantastic. However, it would be better if the filters were implemented in Photoshop's Filter menu instead of as Actions in the Actions palette. This would not only make them more convenient to use, but also would make it possible to include a preview window. On the other hand, this would create a 1,200MB plug-in.

Given their low price and high quality, Mister Retro’s Machine Wash Image Filters and Machine Wash II Image Filters are no-brainer additions to any digital artist’s toolbox. Their wide variety of effects will inspire you to think about your projects in new ways, and they make it a pleasure to deliver unique designs to your clients.

Digital Gem Pro 1.0.3

In the world of noise-reduction software, there are two approaches: you can buy or create a custom filter for your specific camera or scanner, or you can use an all-purpose tool for removing noise from different kinds of images. Kodak’s Digital Gem Professional 1.0.3 is an example of the latter.

Most digital images contain some visual noise, either in the form of film grain captured when scanning a transparency or negative, or in the form of multicoloured pixels in photographs shot with a digital camera. Digital Gem Pro 1.0.3 lets you remove the worst of this noise on 8-bit or 16-bit RGB images, but it doesn’t work on images in CMYK, Grayscale, or Lab modes.

The plug-in’s interface is simple: it displays a small thumbnail of your original image and a larger, zoom-able preview of part of your image. The preview window can show the Before image, the After image, or just the noise that will be removed if you commit to the current settings. This last view option is remarkably helpful as a reality check on whether you’ll be removing too much of the image, or whether you’re letting your eyes fool you into believing that you’re removing noise when you’re actually not.

To use Digital Gem Pro, you must first decide whether your image has lots of noise and would benefit more from the Coarse/Noise suppression setting, or whether it has finer noise that requires the less ham-handed Fine/Grain, Noise suppression setting. Then you adjust the sliders for grain, detail, and sharpening until you like what you see. A Blending slider lets you preview how your image would look if the corrected version were placed on a layer above the original version and its transparency were reduced.

Overall, I found it simple to achieve a good balance between noise reduction and image smoothing. And to make the process even easier, on its Web site Kodak has posted a free set of Photoshop actions that includes the regular version of Digital Gem. The result is a superior image, without requiring you to make any decisions. On most images, this action set produces a better result than you could achieve manually.

It seems that Kodak is marketing Digital Gem Pro as a way to repair the most difficult, noisiest images, but many photographers use this plug-in to remove noise from high-quality images. The Coarse/Noise setting uses the same algorithm as Digital Gem, a less expensive version of this software. Kodak also offers a $100 (around £55) Digital Gem Airbrush version that lets you brush on noise reduction using your mouse. I recommend downloading trial versions of the $50 Digital Gem, the $100 Digital Gem Pro, and the action set. Try each plug-in on either Kodak’s sample images or on copies of your images (until you pay for it, the program adds a watermark to your image), and choose the plug-in that has the best price and performance for your needs.

Digital Gem Pro makes it simple to achieve a good balance between noise reduction and image smoothing. The free action set gives you a superior image – it’s often better than what can be achieved by hand.