Extensis PhotoTools 2

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A suite of plug-in tools that fill some of the major gaps in Photoshop's  functionality.

Extensis PhotoTools 2

PhotoTools is another Photoshop compatible plug-in from Extensis the company that produce Intellihance. While Intellihance is a single filter dealing with the single issue of image enhancement, PhotoTools is a suite of three plug-in modules designed to boost both the creativity and productivity of Photoshop users.

In fact the first module, PhotoEffects, is itself a collection of separate filter effects. Three of these - PhotoEmboss, PhotoBevel and PhotoGlow - work by adding their effects to an image selection. In each case the control offered is comprehensive. With PhotoEmboss, for example, it is possible to set the level, contrast, softness, lighting, colour, highlighting and shadowing of the 3D effect. Each of the dialogs works in a similar way with shared features such as eyedropper tools, multiple levels of undo, background processing and a real-time preview window that updates automatically even as the cursor moves over options.

In the past one of the major uses of these filters was to create buttons for web-based image maps, but now this is handled by a dedicated plug-in. PhotoButtons allows matrices of up to 64 buttons to be added based on 16 pre-defined but editable shapes. Again the control offered is extraordinary with independent options for each of the inner, outer and bevelled areas of the button. Thankfully, predefined settings are also available and customised versions can be saved and reused. Also new in version 2 is PhotoCastShadow which replaces the former PhotoShadow. The new name reflects the effect's new realism. In particular, shadows can now be interactively skewed to give them a perspective and their blur can be set to increase with the distance from the object.

The second of the major modules is PhotoText. Photoshop's own handling of text through its separate and under-powered dialog is limited to say the least. PhotoText is far more interactive allowing basic features, such as typeface, alignment, point-size and colour, to be set in situ with the underlying image visible. PhotoText also offers advanced control over kerning and tracking and allows settings to be saved as reusable styles. Another advance is the ability to save text blocks with all settings intact ready for future editing. Extensis' claim to offer the "functionality of a full-featured text layout program" is certainly over the top, but PhotoText certainly comes into its own when text is an important part of an image.

The third major module, PhotoBars, is unusual in that it doesn't concern itself with images at all. Instead it is designed to improve the functionality of Photoshop itself. One of the major criticisms of Photoshop has always been its complexity, a problem made worse by the constant need to hunt through menus and sub-menus looking for commands. PhotoBars overcomes the problem by allowing the user to create their own toolbars so that common commands, such as those for changing image mode, can be accessed with a single click.

PhotoBars are a welcome step forward, but they aren't ideal. Static toolbars are useful for one-off commands, but a context-sensitive property bar that constantly prompts the user with relevant options would be far more useful. Of course this isn't so much a criticism of Extensis as of Adobe, but in a way this is typical of PhotoTools. While each of its features represents a major advance, they would have been better still if they were fully integrated. The ability to create buttons is unparalleled, for example, but without the ability to add URLs in Photoshop this is only half a solution. Likewise being able to save and load text blocks is a useful workaround, but such editability should be in-built.

Ultimately the power that PhotoTools offers is too important for it to be left to an add-in. In the long-run the only acceptable solution is for Adobe to incorporate its functionality directly into Photoshop. Until then, however, the combination of Photoshop and PhotoTools offers the best mix of power and usability currently available.

Ease of Use

4

Features

5

Value for Money

4

Overall

4

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

August 1998


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