If you work with 16-bit or 32-bit images – for example, for HDR photography – then you’ll need a plug-in that works in that mode. Most plug-ins we’ve looked at here work in 16-bit mode: only Digital Anarchy’s ToonIt Photo supports 32-bit images.

Photoshop CS3 and CS4’s Smart Filters give you ‘live’ non-destructive effects that can be edited later in the creative process. These sit in a stack under each layer in the Layers panel (after the layer is converted into a Smart Object). Some plug-ins can’t work as Smart Filters, which means the layer that they’re used on can’t be converted into a Smart Object. There are some filters you won’t want to use as Smart Filters, as the time it takes to re-render multiple effects will interrupt your workflow too much to be practical.

Plug-ins tested

Akvis Sketch 8.5
Alien Skin Bokeh
AutoFX Software Photo/Graphic Edges 7.0
Digital Anarchy ToonIt Photo
Filter Forge
Imagenomic Portraiture 2
Luxology ImageSynth 2
Nik Software Silver Efex Pro
OnOne Software Genuine Fractals 6
Topaz Labs Topaz Adjust

How we tested

We tested all of the plug-ins inside Photoshop CS4 Extended running on an Apple Mac Pro with two 3GHz Intel Xeon quad-core processors and 4GB RAM – except for Filter Forge, the full version of which is currently available for Windows only (though a Mac beta version is available). This was tested using Photoshop CS4 Extended on a CAD2 W114 workstation with a 2.93GHz Intel Core i7 940 processor and 12GB RAM. We had Bridge running alongside Photoshop on both workstations.

Most of the photos used to test the plug-ins -- such as that above -- were taken at and in the grounds of the Gliffaes Hotel, Crickhowell, Wales. The portrait image was taken by Jesse Therrien, and can be found on stock.xchng.