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Alien Skin Blow UpImage enlargement plugin for Adobe Photoshop Summary: Blow Up is the latest plugin for Adobe Photoshop from Alien Skin. Unlike the company's previous software releases, Blow Up is not an effect tool, and it doesn't perform multiple tasks. Its single, simple function is to enlarge images, hopefully with better quality than Photoshop's built-in algorithms. And, for the most part, it does succeed at this.
Developer: Alien Skin (http://www.alienskin.com)
Platform: Mac OS X and Windows (Photoshop CS or Photoshop Elements 3 or higher required)
Price: $199 ($99 for users of other Alien Skin titles)
Users: Graphic designers, art directors, photographers
Alien Skin is known for its effects filters for Adobe Photoshop, but the company's latest software release falls into a different category altogether. "Blow Up," as the software is called, is designed for a single purpose: to enlarge images using alternative methods to Photoshop's built-in algorithms. Is it worth the $200 price tag? We shall see....
Blow Up is an automation plugin, meaning that it's accessed through the File menu (File > Automate), rather than the Filters menu. When invoked, it appears in a dialog window with an interface similar in design to other Alien Skin plugins: a large preview window on one side and controls and navigation on the other.
That's about where the similarities end because Blow Up, unlike most other Alien Skin releases, is not an effect filter. Its purpose is just to enlarge images--to blow up small images into bigger ones and reduce artifacts and enhance details in the process.
Aside from allowing you to set the new dimensions for your image--in pixels, as a percentage, as a new resolution, etc, it also provides sliders for sharpening and for adding grain to an image.
Sharpening, I've found, is best applied in extremely tiny degrees, as it can easily detract from organic images, highlighting edges and making a photograph look more like a colored pencil sketch than anything else. But, on the right images (architectural images, for example), sharpening can help bring crispness to an image where there might otherwise be softness.
Grain, on the other hand, is there as a tool to put some detail back into an image that might be too smoothed out y the resizing process.
The quality of Bow Up's resizing can be extraordinary--especially in comparison with Photoshop's own bicubic method.
This first example shows Blow Up versus Photoshop's bicubic interpolation with a 1,600 percent area enlargement. (The original image is also shown.) No sharpening was used at al in this image. Notice that Blow Up's results are much crisper than Photoshop's, despite the lack of sharpening.
But where you'll really see the difference is in images that contain ore geometrical elements. Below, for example, is a detail from an image of a butterfly. Again, we see much crisper edges on the elements with hard lines, such as the antenna. Though, it should be said, with sharpening on, you do begin to see a loss of some of the smaller details in the wings and body, which start to look a little like swirls.
And, as you move entirely away from the organic and into images with hard lines and edges, you'll see where Blow Up really stands out against bicubic interpolation. This time around, Blow Up is using a sharpening value of 50 and no grain. Again, both images were blown up to 16 times their original area.
So the quality is definitely there. It just takes a little finessing on our part to get the best results for the type of image you're working with.
Ease of use/performance/workfow
Blow Up, like all Alien Skin plugins, is extremely easy to use. Invoke the plugin; set your parameters while previewing the results; hit Apply. That's it. Blow Up also has one nice little workflow feature, which is to apply the image resizing to a duplicate of your original image automatically. This, of course, allows you to apply variations on the effect and compare them side by side without having to create duplicates manually. Nice touch.
As for performance, Blow Up isn't the fastest effect ever created for Photoshop, but the lag isn't terrible when you're working with smallish source images. Actual performance will vary based on your system and the size or the image and the size of the resulting blowup. There is a demo available on Alien Skin's Web site, so you can try it out and see for yourself.
The bottom line
Alien Skin's Blow Up can do a great job resizing images, especially when you begin to get into the 16x range for enlargements. It simply bows away Photoshop's built-in image interpolation. And it does a great job of reducing or removing artifacts entirely from enlargements, especially on line art and images with a lot of hard-edged geometry. The price for the full version is a bit steep--$200 for a plugin that does just one thing--but the "upgrade" price for users of other Alien Skin titles ($99) is fairly reasonable. I give Blow Up a recommendation of "Buy." If you're unsure, there's a 30-day fully functional demo available on Alien Skin's Web site, so you can try it out for yourself.
Alien Skin Blow Up is available now for Mac OS X and Windows for $199 for the full purchase, $99 for "upgrades" from previous Alien Skin releases. It requires Adobe Photoshop CS or higher or Photoshop Elements 3 or higher. For more information, visit http://www.alienskin.com.
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