Photoshop has become an archaeological treasure. Most of the original Photoshop plugins (opens in new tab) and filters date back to the mid-1990s, and haven't changed significantly since then. What started out as a spare-time darkroom tool has become an industry standard, so needs have changed, and there's a huge market for more professional products - if only because everyone knows what the Watercolor and Twirl filters do, and most design studios will fire anyone who uses them in a project without written permission.
There's a popular myth that many commercial plug-ins are just repackaged preset filter actions, and that if you work at it for long enough you can duplicate what they do in your own time. That may have been true 10 years ago, but it's not true now. Most add-ons rely on custom code that not only doesn't go anywhere near the standard filter set, it also doesn't use any of the same principles or ideas. For example, most noise removal tools use technology developed for digital signal processing that was repurposed for photography when someone noticed how useful it might be. It's clever stuff, but you don't have to understand it to use it - you just need to know what's possible, and when it's best to use it.
Choosing a best-of list is always going to be subjective, and a few favourites didn't make our cut because they were too specialised or not quite mainstream enough. We liked the retro range from Permanent Press for its offset-based inky stylings, but it's not a look most designers are going to need every day. Similarly, there's an almost endless shelf-load of photo effects from an equally endless array of small plug-in houses. But bokeh and depth-of-field effects aren't quite essentials, so we've reluctantly given them a miss.
Instead, we've put together a list of both free and paid-for effects that provide inspiration, improve production values, save you time on common design tasks or all of the above; the kinds of add-ons that you don't just rediscover a couple of times a year, but that will come in useful again and again to make life simpler, more creative and more productive.
Productivity and feature extensions
Fred Miranda Software
Price: From $4.50
The interfaces look extremely dull, but this family of plug-ins offers solutions for sharpening, resizing, colour fringe removal, noise reduction and HDR compositing. All are affordable and offer terrific value for money with professional performance.
Another collection of different products, but this time completely free. Many of these plug-ins improve on Photoshop's own more basic effects, and some of them give professional tools a run for their money. They're unspectacular, but often unexpectedly useful.
Price: $149 (professional version)
More than 6,000 filter effects, covering almost every application you can imagine. Almost infinitely versatile and creative, and capable of a vast range of different styles and looks - and when you get bored with the presets, you can start making your own custom effects. At the time of going to press, this is offered at a reduced price of $149.
Alien Skin Eye Candy 6
A mixed bag. Quite a few of the filters look dated and a bit amateurish, but Glass, Bevel, Chrome and Perspective Shadow effects can save you a fair bit of time when those need-it-yesterday moments hit, and Wood, Drip and Squint have their uses too.
Price: $79.95 (Pro Bundle)
Even though Noise Ninja has been around for more than five years, it's still quite possibly the best noise removal tool there is. It removes grain and smoothes images, making the output from any camera look professional and expensive.
OnOne PhotoTools 2.5
A fine collection of stylised looks and preset effects that you can drop into any photo project to improve the production values. The effects are ideal for fashion, location work and model portraits, but not so suited to more abstract design.
OnOne Genuine Fractals 6
The industry standard image resizer, Genuine Fractals increases resolution and makes small images bigger by analysing and duplicating textures. The pro version we've listed handles CMYK separations, but you can also buy cheaper versions for RGB-only work with a limited maximum image size.
Vertus Fluid Mask
An increasingly popular choice, Fluid Mask offers quick and easy edge analysis, making masking relatively painless. If you never want to lasso a line around some fine hair again, it can save you hours of studio time and is ridiculously easy to use.