Plugins for Photoshop, Elements, Lightroom, PSP & others


Plug-Talk #005

An Interview with Harald Heim from The Plugin Site

Plug-Talk is a a series of interviews that give you a better idea about the people behind the scenes of the Photoshop plugin business.



1. Anyone that has been around awhile easily recognizes your name and/or your products. For newcomers, could you give me a brief history of Harry and The Plugin Site. (G-rated please lol)<--- KIDDING! HA!

Most people seem to know me because of my free Harry's Filters. They were the first Photoshop plugins that I created almost 10 years ago with Filter Factory. I started back in 1997 with a web site called Premiere Plugin HQ, which was renamed one year later to Plugin Com HQ. It was hosted and sponsored by the I/US corporation, which helped a lot to make it popular. After I/US was acquired and shut down by Getty Images in 2000, the current The Plugin Site web site was born.

The Plugin Site is a hybrid web site that offers its own plugin products and also delivers information about other companies' plugins. Somehow I have never managed to do two different web sites, one for my own plugins and one for plugins in general, but so far it has worked out fine.

For two years I wrote dozens of articles about Photoshop plugins for the Digital Photography Techniques magazine, which was later renamed to Digital Photo Effects. I have also written many articles for The Plugin Site and and recently one for the Luminous Landscape web site. Additionally I am publishing the monthly Plugin Newsletter, whose subscriber base has grown to more than 120,000 during the last nine years.

In regards to my software there were basically three periods: From 1997 to 1999 I only developed freeware products. From 1999 on I started doing commercial products. The products consisted of image effect plugins, standalone tools and image collections. I also did the Alpha Magic video effects with Hollywood FX, which were sold to Pinnacle later. Finally, at the end of 2002, I started developing photo correction plugins, which turned out to be more successful than my previous products.

Since 2001 I have also been helping to improve the FilterMeister tool, which is used by many plugin developers for creating freeware and also commercial plugins. I am glad that I can give something back to the community of Filter Factory / FilterMeister users.


2. Not everyone is aware of what you did before you started creating some of the best plugins on the market, can you tell me what you did before and why you chose to go the plugin route instead?

I started programming for fun at the age of 13, but decided against studying informatics (computer science) at 22. You know, teenagers often ask themselves why things are as they are and not as they would like them to be. I guess that's why I was more interested in psychology at that time. When I started studying psychology at the local university in 1995 I came in touch with the internet for the first time. When searching the web for some effects for Adobe Premiere on improving my own wedding video, I came across the Filter Factory plugins. They sparked my interest in programming image effects. I had a lot of free time at the university - except the few months before the intermediate and final exams - so I started developing my own Filter Factory plugins and a software for managing and converting them.

During my last two years at the university I already made a living with my software. But I usually finish things that I start, so I completed my final psychology exams in 2001, luckily with very good results. After that I decided to continue with developing software full time. I could not resist the convenience of being my own boss.


The PhotoWiz logo


3. What's the story behind your famous logos? Speaking of which, why don't your beta testers have their wizard hats yet? LOL

The "PhotoWiz" name and logo with the wizard hat was mainly inspired by the Lord of the Rings (No, not Harry Potter! I am not a fan of him!). The atmosphere among the beta testers also reminded me a bit of the fellowship of the ring. They were so eager to break the software like the fellowship was eager to destroy the ring :-). I didn't find anyone yet who manufactures such hats, so the beta testers still have to wear their virtual PhotoWiz hats, I am afraid. Sorry.


4. Which product is your most popular product?

Harry's Filters is certainly the most popular and widely known product of The Plugin Site, but that is no surprise since it is freeware and has been around for a very long time. If you take only the commercial products into account, the most popular product at the moment is FocalBlade for Windows, probably because it got so many fantastic reviews. If you only consider the Mac side, ColorWasher for Mac is currently the most popular, although it is hard to say with the two other Mac plugins just released. All in all, it is quite a close race between the PhotoWiz products.


5. Which of your products do YOU consider to be the most important or the best? Why?

Personally I use ColorWasher more than any of my other products. So I guess it is the most useful to me. Other than that I consider all three PhotoWiz plugins equally important and good.


Screenshot of FocalBlade for Mac


6. Since you create plugins to be Photoshop compatible I assume that PS is your graphics editor of choice. (??) What version did you start with? How was creating plugins for that first version you used compared to the most current version you use?

Although I tested my plugins in Photoshop from Version 4 on, I was a big fan of Paint Shop Pro up to Version 7. Photoshop 6 turned the tide for me, because I started with digital photography at that time and Photoshop felt much more elegant for editing photos. My filter plugins are still mostly based on the Photoshop 4 SDK, so nothing really significant has changed when developing plugins for Photoshop CS and CS2. Only my plugins get more and more complex, so they need more thorough testing.


7.The plugins you create also work in Paint Shop Pro. What do you think about the changes made to it compared to the earlier versions you were writing for?

Well, I wish some features of Paint Shop Pro X would have been added earlier, around Version 8. Then it would have had a chance to earn some recognition among professional photographers. As it is now Corel apparently doesn't have any ambition turn it into a serious competitor for Photoshop. On the contrary it is aimed much more at average consumers than it was when Jasc was in control of it. It is a bit sad for me to see that its potential was not fully used and that the latest major releases appeared to contain so many bugs. Still, it is a nice tool for amateurs and semi-professionals.


8. Many graphic editors have their own suite of built-in filters that work reasonably well. How do you find yourself able to compete with these large companies with bottomless pocketbooks?

As a plugin developer you have to try to stay ahead of graphics applications that contain more and more stuff with every major release. It is quite easy to develop better versions of some Photoshop tools that have not changed since Version 2 or 3, but on the other hand Adobe adds a lot of good new tools with every release, which are not so easy to top.

There are a few factors that play in the hands of plugin developers. Graphics applications usually offer very general and simple tools that are meant for a wide range of people. Plugin developers can offer more specific and complex tools, which work more effectively for special tasks and are aimed at more advanced users. Additionally the software developers of these big companies have to work on a wide variety of things and are usually not highly specialized experts. As an exclusive plugin developer you can spend more time on a single image processing subject and therefore deliver a more sophisticated tool. Plugins can also offer alternative workflows for reaching the same result. As taste and preferences vary a lot among users of image editing software, you can find a group of people for every available solution who will tell you why they like this particular software best.

Clever plugin developers can also think of tools that are currently not available in Photoshop. But such things tend to be included with newer versions of Photoshop, unless they are very specific and not so interesting to a wider audience. If you develop special image effects, it is much easier to create something really innovative. If you create photo correction plugins, you often have to develop improved versions of existing tools.

Apart from the big companies a developer of commercial plugins also faces competition from freeware developers and other plugin companies. Freeware plugins get more and more sophisticated and are sometimes better than commercial plugins that were created a few years ago. So you have to make sure that your commercial plugins offer something that isn't already available for free or for less money.

I think my products are quite competitive because I offer them in the $50 price range. (Although they could certainly be sold for twice the money). Other plugin companies who have several employees and other production costs usually have to offer their plugins for $100 to $200 to make enough profit.

All of this competition also has a good side. It forces plugin developers to be more creative, which results in better products for all of us.


9. Have you ever considered creating YOUR OWN graphics editing program?

No, not really, although I guess every plugin developer may have had such thoughts now and then. I think you can only compete with Adobe, Corel and other big companies if you create graphics applications that are for very specific tasks, e.g. digital painting, RAW conversion or image management. But currently I have no ambitions in this direction.


Screenshot of LightMachine for Windows


10. I noticed your most recent release of LightMachine is now available in Mac version. How did this come about when you are primarily a PC user?

I don't have any motivation to dive into Mac programming, so I hired a company who does it for me. They have done quite a good job. Concentrating only on the Windows versions gives me more time to develop new products.


11. Do you have plans to make all your products (both future and present) MAC compatible?

Future plugins will certainly become available as Mac versions. There are no plans for Mac versions of HyperTyle, Plugin Commander and HTML Shrinker though.


12. How long does the process of creating a plugin take?

Looking at various plugins that are available I think the process can vary between one day and a few years. It mainly depends on how sophisticated you want your plugin to be. Developers of freeware plugins often only put a few days of work into their plugins whereas people who want earn something with their plugins have to invest much more time.

I usually need several months to develop a commercial plugin product. It seems that it gets longer and longer for every new product, because I am getting more and more demanding. Additionally you have to invest even more time for minor updates. Major updates with a lot of new stuff usually take just as long as the initial product development, but they are worth the time if the product sells well.

Programming the main functionality of a plugin doesn't take so long. Much more time needs to be spent on optimizing the code and user interface as well as adding some extra features that make it more comfortable. Getting rid of all the bugs certainly takes most of the time.


13. What do you use as inspiration for new products?

I always create products that I, personally find useful but I also try to include features that others can easily use as well. I started developing ColorWasher because I needed to correct photos from my father's birthday and was not able to achieve satisfying results with other tools. FocalBlade on the other hand is the result of playing with various algorithms. And I developed LightMachine because I was dissatisfied with Photoshop's Shadow/Highlight tool, although the final product ended up with a much broader feature set.

So generally speaking my inspiration comes from everyday image correction problems or from playing with abstract ideas and algorithms. Sometimes I also get some inspiration when looking at other tools that could be improved. I hate copying other products - it would be intolerablely boring for me anyway - so I always try to do it differently, offer more possibilities or try to approach an image editing problem from a different angle.


14. If someone wanted to start making his own plugins, what would you recommend they do to get started?

People with no programming experience better start with the Filter Factory language like I did. It is more like writing small mathematical formulas than real programming, but it gives you the basic knowledge about how image filtering works. FilterMeister and Filter Foundry are nice tools for writing Filter Factory code. More advanced people can try the more sophisticated FilterMeister modes or programming in C with the Photoshop SDK.


One of Harald's flamenco photos


15. What little spare time you have, what do you like to do with it?

I have always been a fan of Science Fiction stuff, so I try to consume as much of it as possible. My all-time-favorite SF books are Contact, Hyperion and Dune. I also love eating at Chinese restaurants and travelling Spain.

I have developed into a photomaniac since I use digital cameras. Sometimes I take up to 10,000 photos during a holiday and up to 2,000 photo on one occasion. At the moment I'm fond of photographing animals as well as Flamenco dancers. I also love shooting people in a photo studio (No, not with a gun, with a camera!). I hope I will be able to have my own photo studio in the near future.

Two years ago I started learning Flamenco dancing and have become almost addicted to it. We are a group of three couples and if there is a Spanish fiesta somewhere, we are the first one who you will see dancing. I also learned the basics of Medieval sword fighting, but found that dancing is more fun, so I didn't pursue it further. I also tried creative writing, mainly short stories, but it consumed too much of my time.


16. And of course now we come to those questions that everyone wants to know but is afraid to ask. <g> How and why were you given the name Harry the Raver back some time ago?

Actually I gave the name myself. I thought I needed a pseudonym for some online activities back in the 90s, although you need one more today than you needed it back then. Before I started with digital video and computer graphics stuff I composed a few pop and techno songs. Raver basically means a fan of techno music. Luckily I noticed quickly that I have more talent for computer graphics than for computer music. Today I am more a fan of Flamenco and Oriental pop music.


17. Is there a Mrs. Plugin ? What role does she play in your plug-in development?

My wife Miriam helps with processing orders and answering emails. She is currently my only employee. Unfortunately she dislikes math stuff, so she is no help with programming, although she can calculate prices much faster than myself when buying shoes or clothes. Nevertheless she does a lot of things for me so I can spend more time on plugin development.


18. Any plans for a Plugin Junior? <vbg> If it's a boy, will you name him PICO? LOL Personally, I think Bonesy is the perfect name but we can discuss that later, after the interview.

Yes, we have some plans, but we didn't start this project yet. If it is a girl, my wife wants to name her Angelina after her first computer virus called "Stoned Angelina". Luckily she doesn't want to name a boy Pacman after her first computer game. She favors the name Manuel, because of some flamenco guy. I guess I have nothing to say on this subject... you need to talk to her about it.


19. Would you encourage the future generation to continue creating plugins?

Certainly. There are many great tools available that would not exist if Adobe had not started this plugin thing. So plugins bring a lot of variety to the image editing business. The people who work for the big companies can't think of everything, so it helps a lot to get new creative input into the market from hundreds of plugin developers and companies all over the world.


The B/W Styler logo


20. Do you have plans for any new plugins in the near future? If so, can you share with us what the product is?

My next product B/W Styler has already been announced on The Plugin Site. Other than that, I have a lot of new ideas for the existing PhotoWiz plugins and plan to work on them in the near future. I would also like to do updates of older products like Plugin Galaxy and Edge & Frame Galaxy if time permits. Even more, I have some rough ideas for a plugin for enhancing portrait photos, but I don't know yet if they are realistic. I have even more ideas, but I guess these plans alone provide enough work for the next two years. I usually have more ideas than time, so I need to carefully choose which ideas to work out.


21. Where do you see The Plugin Site 10 years from now?

You certainly kept the toughest questions for the end. If you had told me 10 years ago what I would be doing now, I would not have believed you. So I guess I would be surprised, too, if someone told me what I will be doing in 10 years.

I guess some people will dislike me for saying this: Making big money and having a lot of success is not what makes life worth living. So I don't have any plans for making The Plugin Site "really big" by hiring many people and trying to dramatically increase sales. That would only mean more administrative work, less free time and letting others do the interesting stuff, the plugin coding. I also don't think earning more money would make me happier. I wouldn't be sad if The Plugin Site would run just like it does now. However, I am quite sure that the software that I will be producing in 10 years will be much better.


This interview was conducted by Sonja Shea, a PSP book author and instructor, in June 2006.


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