Plugins for Photoshop, Elements, Lightroom, PSP & others

Plugin Essentials

Copyright (c) 2002-2016 by Harald Heim



1. About Photoshop-compatible Plugins
1b. Other Photoshop Add-ons: Actions, Scripts and Extensions
2. Plugin Hosts
3. Incompatibilities
4. Free and Commercial Plugins
5. Converting FFL files
6. Installing Your Plugins
7. Organizing your Plugins on the Hard Drive
7b. Moving your Plugins to a New Computer

8. Making FilterMeister Plugins work under Windows XP / Vista / 7 / 8
9. Using Filter Factory Plugins under Newer Operating Systems
10. Using Older Plugins under MacOS X
11. 64-bit Photoshop Plugins
12. Using 32-bit Photoshop Plugins on 64-bit Operating Systems
13. Using Photoshop Plugins with Adobe Lightroom
14. Running Plugins
15. Image Modes and 16-bit Images
16. Non-Destructive Filtering with Plugins
17. Batch Processing with Plugins
18. Managing your Plugins
19. Creating your Own Plugins
20. Conclusion
21. Feedback



1. About Photoshop-compatible Plugins

There are many types of plugins available: for web browsers, audio players, video tools and all kinds of applications. One of the most commonly used and popular type of plugins are Photoshop plugins or more generally expressed Photoshop-compatible plugins. Since they were introduced by Adobe in 1992 with Photoshop 2.5, thousands of them were developed by a few hundred people and companies all over the world. More than 80 image and video applications presently support Photoshop plugins to a more or less large extent. Most commonly used applications that support them are Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Paint Shop Pro, Photo-Paint, IrfanView and GIMP.

Photoshop-compatible plugins are aimed at supplying additional image effects or performing special tasks that are impossible or difficult to achieve with the means of an image application alone. They integrate into the host application and are executed from within the application. There are several types of Photoshop-compatible plugins available, e.g. filter plugins, import and export plugins, file format plugins and automation plugins. Additionally there are also color picker, selection, parser, stack renderer and meassurement plugins, but noone else than Adobe seems to have ever created plugins of these types. The most common type are filter plugins which have the have the file extension .8bf and usually supply special image effects. Import/export usually let you acquire or write image data from or to certain devices, file format plugins let you open and save exotic image formats and automation plugins automate certain tasks in the manner of Photoshop actions.

1b. Other Photoshop Add-ons: Actions, Scripts and Extensions

In addition to plugins Photoshop (and partially Photoshop Elements) also support other types of add-ons: actions, scripts and extensions. Extensions could be called "plugins", but as Adobe chose to name them extensions and not panel plugins, we can conclude that they are not plugins in the strict sense. Nevertheless, actions, scripts and extensions are sometimes wrongly named as plugins by the press or even some developers.

A Photoshop action is a sequence of actions that was recorded in Photoshop 4 (1996) or later. It can be saved a .atn files and played back again later. You can make Photoshop action display the dialog of called functions, e.g. those of filters, in order to adjust settings. However, the action sequence is fixed and cannot be changed dynamically, which makes Photoshop action ineffective for certain tasks.

In Photoshop Elements 11 an Action panel was added, so action files can be opened and played. In older Elements version you have to place the .atn file together with a thumbnail image in a certain folder in order to make it accessible. The ElementsXXL plugin makes it much easier to play back actions in Photoshop Elements 10 and older. ActionsXXL (for Windows) even lets you record actions in Photoshop Elements 6 and higher.

Shortly after Photoshop 7 was released in 2002 the Photoshop Scripting plugin became available. This automation plugin is delivered with Photoshop since then. It allows running scripts that are written in JavaScript, VBScript or AppleScript. Unlike Photoshop action these scripts can have an UI and react flexibly to user input. Lately Photoshop scripts are able to behave like automation plugins and can be controlled by actions. The HDR Toning effect that is available since Photoshop CS5 on the Image > Adjustments menu looks like a filter, but is actually a script. ElementsXXL allows running scripts in Photoshop Elements.

When Photoshop CS4 became available in 2008 a new type of "add-on" called extension was born. Photoshop extensions, also called flash panels, look and behave like the other Photoshop panels. So they have a non-model UI that is open all of the time. Extensions are enhanced versions of Photoshop actions and scripts and are comparable to automation plugins. So they cannot process images themselves, but can run filters that do that.

With the arrival of Photoshop CC 2014 flash panel extensions are no longer supported. They are replaced with HTML5 panel extensions, which also work in Photoshop CC. Unfortunately this means that hundreds of flash panels can no longer be used in Photoshop CC 2014 and future Photoshop versions. As the complete UI needs to be rewritten (Besides, HTML5 does not support all Flash features!) it is very likely that only a minority of the flash panels will become available as HTML5 panels.


2. Plugin Hosts

Applications that let you execute and apply plugins are called plugin hosts. Most graphics applications that support Photoshop-compatible plugins are commercial. The most popular plugin hosts are Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro, Photoshop Elements, PhotoImpact, Photo-Paint, Fireworks and Painter. But there are several dozens more of plugin hosts, e.g. Plugin Commander Pro, Serif PhotoPlus, PhotoExpress, Picture Publisher, PhotoDeluxe, PhotoBrush, Digital Image Pro, Photo House, PhotoDraw, Ultimate Paint and Photoline.

But not only graphics applications support Photoshop plugins, also vector, 3D, animation, video and presentation applications do, e.g. Illustrator, CorelDRAW!, Freehand, Canvas, 3D Max, Bryce, After Effects (up to version 5.5), Premiere (up to version 6), Combustion and HyperStudio.

However, through the years more and more freeware applications support Photoshop plugins. You can find links to such tools on the Free Photoshop-Compatible Tools page at The Plugin Site. The most recommended ones are PhotoPlus, IrfanView, XnView and Ultimate FX.

3. Incompatibilities

While Photoshop (and usually Photoshop Elements) support all available plugin types to the full extent, other applications only support filter plugins and sometimes also import/export and file format plugins. Automation plugins only work in Photoshop and Photoshop Elements, because they need special features that are only available from Adobe. Many low-cost applications don't even support all available filter plugins. They sometimes crash with some plugins, they don't display transparency correctly in the preview (like Fireworks), they don't display a color selection dialog (like PhotoBrush), they don't let you zoom or scroll the preview or they display only a part of the image in the preview (like GIMP).

Not only the image application developers are to blame in some cases, because some plugin developers (e.g. Visual Infinity) wanted to provide the look of Photoshop by using the Adobe Dialog Manager in their plugin. As a consequence such plugins don't work in non-Adobe applications.

Some plugin developers make their plugins only compatible with Photoshop and don't care about or even try to avoid supporting other image applications. In some cases there are some tricks to make them work in other applications nevertheless: You need to install a trial or demo version of Photoshop (Elements) to keep the installation of some plugins from quitting and afterwards you need to copy some of the .dll files of the plugin into the main folder of your image application. Of course, you also need to copy the .8bf file(s) into the plugin folder of your image application.

In 2002 Adobe restricted access to the Photoshop SDK, which contains the specifications for Photoshop plugins, and also changed the license agreement of the Photoshop SDK. Luckily 2006 Adobe gave up asking plugin developers a $195 fee for accessing the SDK. It seems the new license agreement does not legally allow to use newer versions of the Photoshop SDK to add support for Photoshop plugins in non-Adobe applications. So incompatibilities with non-Adobe applications that support Photoshop plugins may rather increase.


4. Free and Commercial Plugins

We have to distinguish between free and commercial Photoshop plugins. While there are several thousands of free plugins available, there are only a few hundred commercial ones.

Most of the free filter plugins were created with Adobe Filter Factory, which has not been updated since 1995. These FilterFactory plugins can be recognized by their zoomless preview, up to eight sliders with a triangular knob and a file size of 49,152 or 56,344 bytes. Whereas the majority of these thousands of plugins produce abstract, modern-art-like effects, which are barely useful in many cases, there are some plugins which produce nice and useful effects. But as FilterFactory doesn't support any sophisticated interpolation or antialiasing, several of these plugins produce hard edges in the image.

Unfortunately many FilterFactory collections aren't distributed with the one or two files that are needed to make them work. You can find a tutorial about this problem at The Plugin Site. For links, ratings and descriptions of these Filter Factory plugins visit the Filter Factory Plugins page at The Plugin Site.

Example of an Filter Factory plugin dialog: simple sliders and no preview zooming

Many of the remaining mass of free plugins were created with FilterMeister and FilterFormula, enhanced successors of Filter Factory. Because FilterFormula hasn't been updated since 1999 and FilterMeister is still developed further, a lot of sophisticated plugins have been created with FilterMeister. Unlike most Filter Factory plugin, these FilterMeister plugins often touch the level of professional plugins. Several commercial plugin colections were also developed with FilterMeister. Screenshots of FilterMeister plugins can be found at the Filter Gallery of the FilterMeister web site.

Several companies also offer feature-limited, free versions of their products, one or two free plugins from a commercial product or other free plugins with a limited range of possibilities. Additionally there are some developers that only produce freeware or open-source plugins, but don't use FilterFactory and its successors. All in all, there are some very useful plugins available as freeware which can even be compared with commercial plugins. For links, descriptions and ratings of these free plugins please visit our Free Plugins page at The Plugin Site.

More than 200 companies currently offer commercial plugins with prices ranging mainly from $5 to $200. Other than the free plugins which are mostly limited to special image effects, commercial plugins offer solutions for a wide range of different image processing tasks. Although commercial plugins are usually more sophisticated than free plugins, you may also come across low-quality plugins that are offered for much money. So the price of a plugin is not always an indicator for quality. For links and short descriptions of commercial plugins, please visit the Commercial Plugins page at The Plugin Site.


5. Converting FFL files

Back in 1998 I created a file format called "Filter Factory Library" (short FFL) for storing thousands of Filter Factory plugins in one file at less than 1% of their original size. This is achieved by only saving the filter source code, slider names and author information in the FFL file. The only application that can create such FFL files is Plugin Commander Pro, but there are several other applications that can use them, e.g. Plugin Galaxy, Filters Unlimited, PicMaster, Ultimate Paint and the User Filter for GIMP.

If you want to convert a FFL file back to Photoshop plugins, you at least need the Light Version of Plugin Commander. There are text and video tutorials on how to do that on the Plugin Commander Tutorials page.


6. Installing Your Plugins

Some applications like Paint Shop Pro, PhotoImpact and Photo-Paint let you define several plugin folders in the Preferences or Options dialog. This gives you a lot of freedom to decide yourself where to install your plugins. Whereas Paint Shop Pro and Photo-Paint immediately display new plugins, you need to restart PhotoImpact and some other tools to make the plugins accessible after you defined a new plugin folder.

A few applications like Photoshop and Photoshop Elements usually demand installing or copying plugins to a predefined folder e.g. a folder called Plug-ins which is located inside the application's folder. Nevertheless Photoshop and Photoshop Elements let you choose an additional plugin folder under Edit > Preferences > Plug-Ins, but Photoshop needs to be restarted to make it work.

Under 64-bit Windows you need to make sure that you install 64-bit plugins in the Plug-ins sub folder of the Photoshop 64-bit folder, which is usually located a C:\Program Files\Adobe\Photoshop xxx\. On the other hand 32-bit plugins have to be placed in the Plug-Ins sub folder of Photoshop 32-bit located at C:\Program Files (x86)\Adobe\Photoshop xxx\. Under 32-bit Windows and MacOS X there is only one plugin folder, so this problem does not arise.

Unfortunately the Plug-Ins sub folder is translated in localized versions of Photoshop up to Version CS3. This can be a bit confusing for non-English users or for people using various localized versions of Photoshop. Here are the names of the Photoshop plugin folder in other languages, so that you know where to put plugins in case you are using a non-English version of Photoshop:

English (Photoshop 5 and later): Plug-Ins
English (up to Version 4): Plugins


Modules externes
French: Modules
Danish: Ekstramoduler

Luckily Adobe decided to not translate Plug-Ins anymore in localized versions starting with Photoshop CS4. Better late than never.

To learn how to install plugins in your graphics application and how to access them in your graphics application you can find instructions for more than two dozens of applications at The Plugin Site.


7. Organizing your Plugins on the Hard Drive

If you use your Photoshop-compatible plugins with only one image application, you can of course install them into its plugin folder. But once you upgrade to a newer version of your application, you have the problem of moving your plugins to the new plugin folder. Simply copying the plugins into the new plugin folder works for many but not all plugins, so you may be forced to install some of them again. Similarly, if you want to use plugins with different graphics applications on the same computer, it might be a waste of hard drive space and time to do multiple installations of each plugin.

A solution for these problems is to use a central folder, e.g. at C:\Plugins\, for storing your plugins. It is also recommended to use a sub folder for each plugin manufacturer, plugin collection or plugin product, otherwise you may have problems if you want to delete or remove a certain plugin and its additional files later.

How to create a shortcut to your central plugin folder

To make your graphics application(s) display the plugins located in a central plugins folder (e.g. C:\Plugins\) or any other folder, you have to enter or choose the path in the Preferences or Options dialog of your application(s). But as some applications won't let you do that, you can use a little trick. This trick won't work with each application, but it works fine with Photoshop (Version 5 and later), Fireworks (Version 4 and later) and Painter for Windows. The trick is to place a shortcut (a .lnk file), which points to your plugin folder or one of its sub folders, into the plugin folder of your graphics application. The shortcut file can be created by right clicking above your plugins folder in Explorer, selecting "Create Shortcut". Now you just need to drag the shortcut e.g. into the Photoshop Plug-Ins folder.


7b. Moving your Plugins to a New Computer

When you want to use your Photoshop plugins on a new computer, you should backup your installed plugins on the old computer and transfer them to the new computer, e.g. by copying them into Photoshop's plugins folder or by copying them to a new main plugin folder and pointing your application(s) to it. This works fine for many plugins. Some basically work, but not allow access to presets or the manual. A few require a full installation to work on the new computer. Nevertheless, you can save yourself many installation procedures this way.

Another important aspect are preset files, which you saved yourself and are essential for your image processing. Try to locate them on the old computer (e.g. by doing a system-wide search with a preset name) and back them up. Then copy them into the appropriate preset folders on the new computer.


8. Making FilterMeister Plugins work under Windows XP / Vista / 7 / 8

Unfortunately some developers abandoned their plugins that they created with FilterMeister. They did not recompile them with the latest version of FilterMeister to make them compatible with the latest Windows operating systems. There are two major problems that old FilterMeister plugins have: First of all, they crash under Windows XP, Vista and 7 if your CPU supports Data Execution Prevention (DEP) and you have DEP activated for all programs. The only workaround at the moment is to go to Start > Control Panel > System > Advanced > Performance > Settings > Data Execution Prevention and limit it to system programs. Alternatively you can add your graphics application (which you use for running plugins) to the exclusion list on the same dialog.

The second problem of old FilterMeister plugins is that they crash under Windows Vista and 7 if your computer has 2 or more GB RAM. On some systems they even crashes with less RAM. This problem can be fixed by using FM Patcher. FM Patcher is a tool that manipulates old FilterMeister plugins to make them run under Vista.

A 64-bit version of FilterMeister was released in October 2014. Unfortunately not all FilterMeister plugins were recompiled as 64-bit plugins. So to run 32-bit FilterMeister plugin a 64-bit application you need the LaunchBox plugin.

Nevertheless it is recommended to contact the developers of such plugins, tell them about the problems and ask them to recompile their plugins with the latest version of FilterMeister.


9. Using Filter Factory Plugins under Newer Operating Systems

Under Windows XP, Vista, 7 and 8 Filter Factory plugins have the same problem as FilterMeister plugins: Crashes because of Data Execution Prevention (DEP). To avoid crashes go to Start > Control Panel > System > Advanced > Performance > Settings > Data Execution Prevention. There you can either limit DEP to system programs or add your host application to the exclusion list.

The better alternative is to use Filter Factory filters with tools like Filter Foundry, FilterMeister, Filters Unlimited or Plugin Galaxy 3. Plugin Galaxy for Windows renders Filter Factory effects with even higher quality than the original Filter Factory plugin and allows using them in 64-bit host applications.

On the Mac the Filter Factory plugin was not updated when Photoshop was ported to MacOS X. It was possible to run Filter Factory plugins under earlier versions of MacOS X with Photoshop 7 in Classic Mode, but it required MacOS 9 installed on another hard drive partition.

Luckily there is a workaround: You can open and use Filter Factory plugins and .AFS files (which contain Filter Factory source code) directly with a Photoshop plugin called Filter Foundry. You need at least Version 1.2 of Filter Foundry for this. Even more interesting is that Filter Foundry lets you open and use Filter Factory plugins that were only released for Windows, which is the case for more than 90% of all Filter Factory plugins. Filter Foundry doesn't display the slider names, doesn't render some filter effects absolute correctly and runs a bit slower than the old Filter Factory, but these are only minor issues. More serious is the fact that there is no 64-bit version of FilterFoundry available yet. So to use Filter Foundry in Photoshop CS6 and CC you have to rely on LaunchBox.

A list of all available Filter Factory plugins an be found on the Filter Factory Plugins page at The Plugin Site.


10. Using Older Plugins under MacOS X

Under Windows you can still use all Photoshop plugins that were developed since 1994 for 32-bit Windows. With Apple's constant changes of the MacOS that cannot be said for the Mac versions of Photoshop plugins. With the switch from MacOS 9 to MacOS X many old plugins became unusable in Photoshop. Unfortunately some of them were never updated for OS X. As previously mentioned you can only use them under MacOS X if you have Photoshop 7 and MacOS 9 installed.

Another obstacle was added with the Mac version of the Adobe CS2 suite. Photoshop plugins developed for Photoshop 7 and CS are PEF binaries that can be executed in Photoshop CS2, but other CS2 applications like Illustrator or Image Ready are not able to run them anymore. From Version CS3 on these PEF plugins are also not running in Photoshop anymore. The new plugins that work in Photoshop CS2 and later are so called Mach-O binaries.

With Apple's switch to Intel processors and the arrival of Photoshop CS3 there is another problem with Photoshop plugins that were created for the PowerPC processor. They are not displayed in Photoshop CS3/CS4 if your Mac has an Intel processor. However, there is a way to overcome this obstacle: You can select the Photoshop CS3/CS4 icon, choose Get Info from the File menu and activate the "Open using Rosetta" check box. After starting Photoshop CS3/CS4 it will be executed in Rosette mode and recognize the PowerPC plugins. Unfortunately this also means that Photoshop will run slower.

Starting with Version CS5 Photoshop only supports Macs with an Intel processor. This means that you cannot use plugins, which were developed for the PowerPC processor, in Photoshop CS5 and subsequent versions anymore. Additionally the 64-bit version of Photoshop CS5 is executed by default, which means that 32-bit Intel plugins are ignored. In order to use 32-bit Intel plugins in Photoshop CS5, you need to run the 32-bit version of Photoshop. To do that select the Photoshop icon in the Photoshop folder, choose File > Get Info from the menu and activate the "Open in 32-bit mode" check box.

Photoshop CS6 and CC for MacOS are 64-bit only. This means that they cannot run 32-bit plugins anymore. So you need to get 64-bit versions of your Photoshop plugin in order to run them with Photoshop CS6/CC. As some plugins will never be available as 64-bit versions, you have to run them in older versions of Photoshop. However, there is a tool called LaunchBox, which lets you run 32-bit plugins from within Photoshop 64-bit. This way you do not need to switch Photoshop CS4 or CS5 to 32-bit mode in order to run 32-bit plugins and you can also use them in Photoshop CS6 and CC.

If you are using MacOS X 10.8 and higher, you have to deactivate Gatekeeper in order to install Photoshop plugins. To do that go to System Preferences > Security & Privacy > General, click on the lock icon on the lower left of the window, type in your system password and finally activate the Anywhere option.

If your Mac has a Retina display, you may experience problems in Photoshop CC with older plugins without Retina support. Unused space can be seen on the plugin dialog and crashes may occur. To avoid this problem please do the following: Select the Photoshop icon in the Photoshop folder, choose File > Get Info from the menu and activate the "Open in Low Resolution" check box.


11. 64-bit Photoshop Plugins

Since version CS4 Photoshop is available as a 64-bit executable for Windows in addition to the usual 32-bit version. Photoshop 64-bit only runs on 64-bit editions of Windows (XP 64-bit, Vista 64-bit, Windows 7 64-bit, Windows 8 64-bit). Under 32-bit Windows only the 32-bit version of Photoshop is installed. Creating a 64-bit version of Photoshop for MacOS X meant more work for Adobe (because of Apple's frequent change of programming platforms), so a 64-bit Mac version of Photoshop became available later with CS5.

Photoshop 64-bit is not able to run 32-bit plugins. It can only run 64-bit plugins. 32-bit plugins need to be executed in Photoshop 32-bit or other 32-bit application that supports Photoshop plugins.

But there is a workaround: A tool called LaunchBox lets you run 32-bit plugins from within Photoshop 64-bit. Launchbox makes it work by installing a 64-bit bridge plugin, which launches a 32-bit program that executes the 32-bit plugins and passes the processed image back to Photoshop.

64-bit Photoshop plugins do not run on 32-bit operating systems. 64-bit plugins can only be used in Photoshop and in Photoline so far. Applications like Photoshop Elements, Paint Shop Pro, Photo-Paint and Fireworks are still 32-bit programs, so they cannot use 64-bit plugins even if they run on a 64-bit operating system.

64-bit Photoshop plugins can access more than 3 or 4 GB of RAM, which means that they are able to process much larger images. For a filter plugin to need more than 4 GB of RAM either the image needs to be huge (e.g. 100 Megapixel and above), there need to be a lot of layers or the plugin's image algorithm needs to work on a lot of copies of the image in memory. Most people do not need more than 4 GB RAM for processing images.

If RAM is a critical factor, 64-bit plugins may render up to two (or even three) times faster than 32-bit plugins. Under normal circumstances 64-bit plugins are only up to 30% faster. Still, this speed increase can mean a real advantage for Photoshop professionals with a deadline in their back.


12. Using 32-bit Photoshop Plugins on 64-bit Operating Systems

Running Photoshop 32-bit (or other 32-bit applications that support Photoshop plugins) under a 64-bit Windows operating system has some advantages. On a 32-bit system Photoshop and Photoshop plugins can only access up to 3 GB of RAM. When running under 64-bit Windows, 32-bit Photoshop plugins and Photoshop 32-bit have access to 4 GB of RAM, provided that the computer has that much RAM. At least 6 GB of RAM is recommended, because the operating system also needs some of it.

There is another advantage of running 32-bit Photoshop under an 64-bit operating system (MacOS X as well as Windows). Photoshop can use the memory above 4 GB as a scratch disk. This improves performance when working with a lot of layer or history/undo steps, because memory is much faster than any hard drive.

However, Photoshop CS5 32-bit for MacOS X only uses 2 GB of RAM and does not use memory above 4 GB as a scratch disk. Photoshop CS4 for Mac accesses 3 GB RAM and uses memory above 4 GB as a scratch disk. So it is better to use Photoshop CS5 64-bit or Photoshop CS3/CS4 for MacOS X if you work with huge images. Since CS6 all Photoshop for Mac versions are 64-bit only anyway.

Since Photoshop Elements 12 for Mac and Photoshop Elements 13 for Windows you can only install the 64-bit version of Photoshop Elements on a 64-bit system. There is no way to install both the 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Photoshop Elements anymore. So to use 32-bit plugins with Photoshop Elements you have to keep older 32-bit-only versions of Photoshop Elements installed. With Photoshop Elements 15 the 32-bit version was dropped, so that Photoshop Elements 15 and higher can only be used with a 64-bit version of Windows.


13. Using Photoshop Plugins with Adobe Lightroom

Adobe Lightroom does not support Photoshop plugins directly, but offers an external editing feature. It works this way: In Lightroom you select the images that you want to process and use the Photo > Edit In menu to run Photoshop or another application. In Photoshop you apply the plugins as you normally do and save the processed images before you return to Lightroom.

Some companies offer Lightroom versions (external editors) of their Photoshop plugins, which start up faster, because they avoid loading Photoshop, and require less clicks to process Lightroom images. There is also a tool called LaunchBox, which works as an external editor in Lightroom and runs Photoshop plugins itself. It is a nice way to use Photoshop Plugins from Lightroom without using Photoshop or another host application.

Lightroom does not support real plugins like Photoshop does, so external editing is the only solution for applying other image processing algorithms. Unfortunately it is a bit inconvenient, because Lightroom creates TIFF duplicates of RAW files, which are passed to the external editor (e.g. Photoshop or the Lightroom version of a Photoshop plugin). This conversions step requires additional time, which can be quite long if you selected numerous image files. JPEG and TIFF files can be processed directly, but it is recommended to work with quickly created duplicates, otherwise the original JPEG and TIFF image files will be overwritten. As a result the original file and the processed file appear side by side in Lightroom. Without external editing you deal with only one copy of an image instead of two.


14. Running Plugins

Filter plugins are usually displayed on a menu called Filter or Effects in Photoshop or other applications. Each plugin collection is displayed as a sub menu on this menu. Native plugins that are installed with an image application itself are usually placed more at the top of this menu while third party plugins from various companies are placed more at the bottom. If you have hundreds of third party plugins installed, you need to scroll down the menu in some applications to access certain plugins.

Photoshop 5 and earlier versions used to move the remaining plugins into the Other sub menu if the number of plugin sub menus exceeded 21 or 22. This made the situation even worse, because the Other sub menu became totally overcrowded. Other applications use some tricks, e.g. by repeating the menu over the screen or by creating sub menus within sub menus to avoid scrolling.

The Photoshop Filter menu with native filters at the top and third party filters at the bottom

If you want to avoid hunting down the menus and access your filters with a double click, you should have a look at FilterHub. FilterHub is a panel that displays all filters and automation plugins in a tree list and lets you create a Favorites list with your most needed filters for quick access.

Automation plugins, which only work in Photoshop and Photoshop Elements, can be executed from the Automate or Automation Tools sub menu of the File menu. Photoshop extensions (supported by Photoshop CS4 and higher) are accessible from the Extensions sub menu of the Window menu.

The Mac version of Photoshop also lets you specify the additional plugin folder at Startup. If you hold down the Command and Option keys right after double clicking the Photoshop icon, a folder selection dialog will appear. That way you don't need to end and restart Photoshop when changing the additional plugin folder. However, this doesn't work with the Windows version. Applications like Paint Shop Pro or Photo-Paint, which don't force you to restart before plugins from newly defined plugin folders are accessible, make it quite easy to add or remove plugins while working on an image.

Running a plugin with a key shortcut is quite helpful if you want to execute certain plugins more than one time and don't want to hunt down a large menu every time. Unfortunately most image application don't lets you assign key shortcuts to certain plugins with the exception of Photoshop starting with version CS2 (Edit menu > Keyboard Shortcuts). There is a workaround for Photoshop versions prior to CS2. You can create an Action that includes the plugin, toggle the plugin dialog on in the Action palette if necessary and assign a key from F2 to F12 to the action. Pressing the appropriate F-key will now immediately execute the assigned plugin.


15. Image Modes and 16-bit Images

Beside the regular RGB image mode, applications like Photoshop and Photo-Paint also offer several other image modes, e.g. CMYK, Bitmap, Grayscale, Indexed, Duotone and Lab. However, most plugins only support RGB mode and no plugin at all supports Bitmap and Indexed image mode.

So if you have opened a grayscale image in your graphics application, you will notice that some of your plugins are grayed out on the menu. That means that these plugins don't support the current image mode. To use these plugins you need to convert the image to RGB (or another mode that is supported by the plugin) at first. This is done differently in various applications, so please consult your application's manual. In Photoshop, for example, you can swap image modes with the Image > Mode menu. After you applied the plugin, you can convert the image back to its original mode.

By default, plugins support images with 8-bit per channel (24-bit images). Lately more and more plugins, especially those for photo correction, support 16-bit per channel (48-bit images). Still many plugins only work on 8-bit images. So these plugins are grayed out on the menu if you have a 16-bit image opened.

If you shoot RAW files with your digital camera or use a film scanner and want to keep your photos at 16-bit precision, you have to use plugins that support 16-bit images. Otherwise you'll have to convert them to 8-bit and converting them back to 16-bit does not bring back the lost bits. Currently only Photoshop, Photoshop Elements (Version 4 and higher), Photoline and Sagelight support processing 16-bit images with Photoshop plugins.

Corel Paintshop Pro X3 (with Service Pack 3) also lets you process 16-bit images with Photoshop plugins, but there is an implementation mistake that produces image artifacts under certain circumstances, which depend on the plugin effect and the white point of the images. This was fixed in newer versions of Paintshop Pro. PhotoImpact and older versions of Corel Photo-Paint support 16-bit images and let you apply their native filters to them, but they don't allow you to apply Photoshop plugins on 16-bit images.


16. Non-Destructive Filtering with Plugins

The first application to allow applying Photoshop plugins in a non-destructive way was Macromedia Fireworks MX. Non-destructive means that you can change the effect of the plugins any time without the need to undo the effect. Only Photoshop plugins that are scriptable (which means that they pass their filters parameters when recording an action or macro) can be used that way in Fireworks.

After Adobe merged with Macromedia, we now see non-destructive filtering in Photoshop CS3 and higher, too. Unfortunately this so called Smart Filtering is a bit more limited in Photoshop when compared to Fireworks. First of all, you can only apply plugins non-destructively to smart objects in Photoshop, which involves an extra step and limits the plugin effect to the smart object layer. Unlike adjustment layer effects a "smart filter" does not affect any layers below it. The main reason for this limited implementation of non-destruction filtering was speed gain.

By default Photoshop CS3 and newer versions only allow those Photoshop plugins to be used as smart filters that were updated to support it. However, there is a workaround for this limitation, which lets you use all filter plugins as smart filters. To enable it in Photoshop you need to choose File > Scripts > Browse, navigate to the \Scripting Guide\Sample Scripts\JavaScript\ sub folder of the Photoshop folder (which is usually at C:\Program Files\Adobe\Adobe Photoshop CS3\Scripting Guide\Sample Scripts\JavaScript\) and load the file EnableAllPluginsForSmartFilters.jsx. When you are asked if you want to enable all filters as smart filter, press OK.

Now you will be able to use all filter plugins as smart filters on smart objects in Photoshop. However, non-scriptable plugins will not store their filter settings in the smart object. So once you apply the same non-scriptable plugin with other settings to another image or layer, the filter settings that were applied to the smart object will be lost when edit the smart filter again. The same will be the case if you exit and restart Photoshop and the plugins does not store the last settings itself. So non-scriptable filters will usually be useful as smart filters only within one editing session, but that is still better than nothing. On the other hand plugins that support scripting will not loose their settings even if you exit and restart Photoshop.


17. Batch Processing with Plugins

Several applications let you use plugins for batch processing images. In Photoshop, for example, you need to create an action with the plugin(s) at first. After that you need to go to File > Automate > Batch and choose the previously recorded action. This allows you to process an whole folder of images with the action. It works very similar in Paint Shop Pro (Version 8 and higher). You need to record a script, which includes the plugin, at first. Then you can use the File > Batch > Process command. Another sophisticated application for batch processing images with plugins is Debabelizer Pro. Plugin Commander Pro also lets you batch process images, but in the current version, you can only use FilterFactory plugins for that purpose.

During batch processing there is no plugin dialog displayed and instead the plugin is immediately applied with the recorded parameters. Some plugin, however, don't support scripting and display the dialog for each image, which forces the user to hit OK for every image. Usually FilterFactory, FilterFormula and FilterMeister plugins react that way.

To avoid that in the case of FilterFactory plugins, you can use Plugin Commander Pro to convert them to plugins that apply their effect without displaying a dialog or you can use Plugin Commander Pro for batch processing. Otherwise it may help to hold down the Enter key (or place the top left corner of a heavy book on the Enter key) until all images are processed.


18. Managing your Plugins

With hundreds of plugins installed the filter menus of most graphics applications get quite crowded and some applications don't even display all plugins anymore. Secondly with hundreds or even thousands of plugins installed one can hardly remember what effect is produced by which plugin.

The Browser dialog of Plugin Commander Pro displaying plugin effects

For this purpose The Plugin Site offers a tool called Plugin Commander. It lets you disable rarely used plugins to prevent them from showing up in your application and overcrowding the Filter/Effects menu. It also lets you change the sub menu names (also called categories) and move plugins from one sub menu to another giving you the chance of having the plugins displayed in the Filter/Effects menu in a more ordered way. In addition to many other features it also lets you preview plugin effects applied to a preview image and view them side-by-side in a thumbnail browser to obtain a quick overview. Plugin Commander doesn't care where you have your plugin installed, so you hunt them down everywhere on your hard drive(s) and apply them to images of your choice.


19. Creating your Own Plugins

If you have a few programming skills and knowledge about image processing, you may be interested in creating your own Photoshop-compatible plugins. As already mentioned above, the Filter Factory, Filter Formula, Filter Foundry and FilterMeister tools let you do that relatively easily. All of them are plugins themselves, which has the advantage that you can develop the plugins right inside a graphics application.

If you like it more flexible, have more time to invest and a good C programming knowledge, you should consider using the Photoshop SDK from Adobe with Visual Studio or XCode. Delphi programmers were able to use the Photoshop SDK for Delphi from Centaurix to create Photoshop plugins, but unfortunately the company is out of business now.

For a more detailed description of these tools please refer to the Plugin Creation Tools at The Plugin Site.


20. Conclusion

The colorful world of Photoshop-compatible plugins can really turn someone into an addictive plugin collector. But in general most people only keep or continually use a small percentage of the offered plugins. Many plugins are probably only used once and forgotten or removed. It really depends on what type of graphics or image processing someone regularly does. Digital artists and people who like to experiment with image effects will find many filter plugins attractive whereas people who only want to correct their photos with the computer will mostly limit themselves to only a few plugins.

All in all, the world of image editing would be less interesting without Photoshop plugins. The plugin scene can be considered as an innovative and inspiring field where new ideas for image processing are tested and special solution for important problems are offered. Several good ideas were at first only available as plugins and were later built into graphics applications. Many cool effects and time-saving tools are still only available as plugins and probably would never have become available otherwise.


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