Freeware plugins are usually not up to the standard of commercial plugins, but there are still many of them that can be very useful for certain tasks. With thousands of free plugins available, it takes quite some time to sort out the good ones, especially if you are only looking for plugins for enhancing photos. Many free plugins are only available for Windows, so Mac users are disadvantaged here.
The PhotoFreebies from The Plugin Site consist of 10 plugins. The most sophisticated among them is the Sepia plugin which creates a variety of uniform and colored sepia looks. Another interesting one is the Desaturation Gradient plugin, which draws a gradient starting from B/W to full color in four possible directions.
Among special effect plugins the David Blend Filters also contain some photo tools. The three Frosted Edger plugins apply a vignette of varying radius and color, the three Gradient Sky plugins are for overlaying landscape photos with color gradients and the two Transparent Sky plugins make bright or dark image areas transparent. The Highlight Correction plugin on the other hand lets you darken bright image areas, but easily produces hard edges.
Cybia's Fotomatic package for emulating traditional photo techniques includes several plugins. Three of these plugins are specialized on B/W variations with a lot of grain, high contrast and colorization. The SkyGrad plugin applies a colored top-bottom gradient for changing the color of the sky in certain photos.
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DreamyPhoto made the fish and light beam glow even more.
After selecting the colors of the berrys, the Xero Emphasis plugin desaturated the background area.
Another set that is continuously expanded are the plugins from Richard Rosenman. Most useful for photo enhancement are the Grain Generator, Diffuse Glow and Lens Distortion Corrector. People who enjoy using mathematical formulas for altering images will like the Evaluate plugin.
Fans of soft focus effects should have a look at Auto FX's free Dreamy Photo plugin. It comes as a standalone application as well as a plugin and offers several options for softening, blending, colorizing and zooming. The 45 presets that are included will certainly provide a good start.
Many different effects can be found in the four sets of Xero Plugins. Some plugins in Set 1 and 3 are very nice for subtle photo enhancements. Grayscaler and GreyTinter gradually fade colors into B/W, Mistifier creates simple soft focus effects and Skycleaner makes white skies in photos transparent. The Emphasis plugin lets you turn parts of photos into B/W and keep others colored by selecting certain colors. Improver blurs photos while keeping edges intact to remove JPG artifacts. Tweaker lets you adjust highlights, midtones and shadows in photos and Soft Vignette produces various kinds of vignette and circular blur effects.
Similarily useful is the Mehdi plugin collection. Recommended are the Absolute Color plugin for selectively changing colors, Contrast Balance for adjusting contrast and colors, Curves for a simplified version of Photoshop's Curves filter, Equalizer for adjusting tones and Grain Natural for adding noise effects. There are also several other graphi design effects available.
For some more or less realistic natural effects you can have a look at the Snowflakes plugin from VDL and the free Particle Plugin known from Ulead PhotoImpact. VDL Snowflakes adds some quite realistic looking snowflakes to photos while the snow effect from the Particle Plugin looks more like confetti. The Particle Plugin also offers bubble, rain, cloud, fire and star effects which are nice to play with, but they can hardly be called realistic.
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The Colored option of the PhotoFreebies Sepia plugin was used here.
PaintEngine turned an already nice photo into a classical painting.
For turning photos into paintings Paint Engine from Fantastic Machines is a must. In fact you may wonder why it is freeware, because it beats most commercial paint effect packages. Its dialog is somewhat small and the controls sound strange, but the many nice presets are a good starting point. Paint Engine performs the brush strokes automatically according to the selected parameters. A Randomize buttons even lets you invent your own painting style on the fly.
AIM DeepSpace Filters offer various tools for photo correction. They have a very technical approach and aren't as good as similar commercial plugins, but there may be some plugin that may be useful to you. For example Despeckle and Rank Replace can be used for noise reduction, Tonality and Gamma for contrast and brightness adjustment, USM for sharpening, ColorTemperature and Space Hunter for color correction.
If you envy Photoshop CS users for the Match Color command, you may find a good alternative for it in Metrix from Joshua N. Rubin. Metrix offers an Analyze mode, which can be applied to as many images as you want, and an Apply mode which matches a photo to the collected image data. Metrix can be useful if you want to create a panorama image of various photos or want to compose a photo with photo material different sources.
People who haven't upgraded to Photoshop CS yet, but want to open and save JPEG 2000 files in Photoshop, can have a look at the j2k file format plugin from fnord. Especially the Lossless option is nice for saving edited photos without further quality loss. The same company also offer SuperPNG, an enhanced PNG file format plugin.
This article was published in Issue 9 of the Digital Photography Techniques Magazine. It was updated for The Plugin Site in August 2004.