Alien Skin's Image Doctor 2 is a set of five plug-in filters designed to speed up the process and improve results when taking on common image editing tasks. As the filter names – Skin Softener, Blemish Concealer, Dust and Scratch Remover, Smart Fill, and JPEG Repair – suggest, the focus here is on spot correction and retouching, providing some automation for tasks that have traditionally required a fairly high level of editing skill and user input. While this aspect of Image Doctor 2 potentially makes this package appealing to less experienced photo enthusiasts, maker Alien Skin's target user group for the latest versions of these plug-ins is unquestionably working pros.
It's admittedly hard for me to completely put aside my positive bias toward software from Alien Skin (www.alienskin.com). The firm's Exposure 2 plug-in is one of the absolute best film simulators out there in my opinion, and perhaps the most used of any of my favorite Photoshop tools. Though I haven't had any contact with the original Image Doctor tool set, in light of my positive experience with other Alien Skin software my expectations for Image Doctor 2 were high.
System Requirements and Installation
As a collection of plug-ins, Image Doctor is not a stand-alone piece of editing software. Rather, it requires a "host" editing program from within which it runs as an independent interface. Image Doctor 2 supports the two most common professional image editing suites – Adobe's Photoshop and Corel's Paint Shop Pro – as well as the more consumer friendly Photoshop Elements package. Version requirements include Photoshop CS2 or later, Elements 4 or later, or Paint Shop Pro Photo X2.
Image Doctor 2 comes in both Windows and Macintosh variants (with Intel native support added to the latest Mac version). For the purpose of this review, I took a look at the PC version used in conjunction with a fresh install of Photoshop CS2.
If you're downloading the Image Doctor installer over a slow dial-up connection, getting the set of plug-ins up and running might take more than a minute. Otherwise, for the tested Windows version it's as simple as running the EXE, unpacking the files, and reloading Photoshop. The editor found the new plug-ins with no difficulty on the first reload, meaning they were ready and waiting for my use in the "Filter" toolbar.
With the filters in place, I was ready to see what Image Doctor 2 had to offer.
Skin Softener and Blemish Concealer
The Skin Softener and Blemish Concealer filters are designed to work in tandem to smooth out portraits and get them ready for print. The interface for both tools is straightforward, with a limited number of control options.
Skin Softener provides a combination of softening/blur and contrast control, designed to both even out the highlights and shadows in skin tones to a more pleasing, neutral value and also mask slight imperfections. Blemish Concealer appears to work on the same principle and with the same basic controls as Skin Softener, but more aggressively normalizes areas that are lighter or darker than the surrounding tone. With both tools, the user has to manually a selection area (using one of Photoshop's selection tools in the case of our test) for the filter, but unlike with the Skin Softener, it's best to work in small patches with the Blemish Concealer – it's by far the more processor-intensive of the set, and a large selection area is enough to grind a general purpose PC with limited RAM to a halt. Given that the majority of the Image Doctor's patients are probably working on purpose-designed graphics machines, however, it's questionable whether this is a serious concern for most users.
With all of this in mind, I ran both processes on a portrait from a recent beach vacation that looked great, but suffered a bit from some unflatteringly harsh midday lighting.
Creating the ideal selection for the Skin Softener requires a fair degree of precision. In this case, I found it best to make a rough selection that covered the entire face and then exclude areas (hair, glasses, mouth) where I didn't want the filter applied. The more time you spend in careful selection, the better the end results, but even so I was able to get a very workable selection in about a minute.
From there, I used a value of 20 for the amount in Skin Softener, which yielded subtle but very nice overall smoothness that shows up especially well at higher enlargements. Any remaining spots were touched up using small, lightly feathered circular selections with the Blemish Concealer. When compared to the original, the end result shows a nice evenness of tone and a very polished, professional, print-ready look.
On the whole, Skin Softener may be the best filter of the set, building what would traditionally be done through a combination of duplicate layers, masking, blurring, and selective dodging/burning into a single-selection tool. Portrait photographers may wish for more control (some kind of threshold setting to automatically exclude light/dark areas, perhaps, as well as some control for the amount of contrast reduction would be a good start), but if you don't have the time, energy, or patience to painstakingly process a big stack of shots at the pixel level, Image Doctor's filter is a more than adequate substitute. At normal print sizes, the results are just as good as manual softness processing in most cases.
At the end of the day, while Skin Softener is a good combo package, Blemish Concealer doesn't impress quite as much. While it's considerably more nuanced in its rendering approach than something like Photoshop's spot healing brush, I'm still a bit conflicted about the Blemish Concealer's overall usefulness. The central question in evaluating a process tool like this is whether experienced photographers would consistently use the plug-in in place of standard image editing practices that provide similar results. In this case, with the Blemish Concealer's limitations and its sluggishness, I'm not entirely sure they would.
Dust and Scratch Remover and Smart Fill
If the Blemish Concealer didn't entirely win me over, I'm pretty well sold on the related Dust and Scratch Remover and Smart Fill tools. These plug-ins are what the clone stamp tool in Photoshop wants to grow up to be, with a level of adjustability in the interface that's just right.
Although the Dust and Scratch Remover and Smart Fill tools are theoretically separate, they appear to use the same underlying technology, and Smart Fill's slightly more detailed range of options (shown above) quickly made it my preferred choice for both in-image resampling and scratch removal on scans.
A fairly precise selection is required here for maximum effectiveness in some cases, but once you get it, the tool's ability to clone in sampled backgrounds either automatically or from a user-defined source is simply unmatched. Simple obstructions (power lines on a blue sky, for instance) can be dropped out in a matter of seconds, and complex objects don't take much longer.
Just to see what the Smart Fill filter was capable of, I dug out a photo I'd been meaning to do some removal work on.
I was pleased with how everything in this shot turned out – except, that is, for the umpire's disembodied legs in the background. My traditional approach to this problem would have been to use the source-select healing brush, grab some of the field pattern, and paint out the obstruction. The transition from grass to dirt would require a bit of straight-up cloning, and then some feathering all around to get the transitions seamless. Total time? Probably ten minutes or so.
To give the Smart Fill a run, I grabbed the lasso instead, set up a two-pixel feather to soften the selection edges, and drew a quick selection around the offending umpire's outline. I was careful not to interfere with the baserunner's helmet or the foul line, but my selection was otherwise pretty lax.
Then I pulled up the Smart Fill filter and selected default settings across the board. One click, the tool went to work, and 30 seconds of processing later I had the following:
Even without user prompting, the tool was smart enough (it is the "Smart" Fill, after all...) to maintain the appropriate texture (grass versus dirt) in the appropriate area with default complexity settings chosen. A little more fine-tuning in the interface and/or follow-up with the healing brush could further smooth things out, but even then the whole process might take three minutes start to finish. Not bad at all!
The JPEG Repair filter claims to be able to "repair overly compressed and blocky JPEG images, such as cell phone photos." If the choice is between a bad photo and no photo at all, graphic designers and journalists understand the need to make the best of the bad image whenever possible. This is where the JPEG Repair tool comes in.
For this test, I opted to see what JPEG Repair could do with an actual cell-phone camera shot. This quick snap grabbed in the parking lot of our office courtesy of my Motorola cell shows all of the usual problems: lots of chroma noise, some hot pixels, and a visible pixel block structure at full view.
From here, the only place to go has to be up. With the idea of making an image suitable for at least 200-percent enlargement in mind, I used one of JPEG Repair's presets to fully smooth the image and remove compression blocking. While a long way from clean, the end result is considerably more pleasing when enlarged than the original.
JPEG Repair proves to be about as good as it could be in this case, providing levels of adjustment that work specifically with the unique requirements of making cell-phone and other extremely low-res/high-compression images printable. There are no miracles in this particular application, but given the extremely low quality of the beginning stock, none were expected. That said, by smoothing out the noise and blockiness (admittedly, at the expense of whatever fine detail may have been captured), images can be usably enlarged up to 300 percent in some cases – enough to create small print sizes at low resolution (as in a newspaper) at the very least.
Similarly, note that the process works equally well on pixelated images that have been over-enlarged before the fact. The results are a little painted looking for sure, but less obnoxious than a blocked up image.
With Image Doctor costing as much as a cheap digital camera, it would be a bit of a ridiculous purchase for the average consumer wanting to clean up cell phone images: you'll get better results by spending that same amount of money on a bargain basement digicam instead. For graphic or web designers trying to bring cell-phone images – shots from eyewitnesses at a newsworthy event, for instance – up to a publishable quality level, however, Image Doctor's filter is a time saver.
For the average consumer, or even the aspiring amateur, Image Doctor 2 aims a little high. Though possible consumer uses are mentioned in the advertising copy, Alien Skin markets this product primarily to "service bureau, printing, advertising and interactive agency, photographic, graphic design, and other professionals." Based on my experience with Image Doctor 2, unless you're a hobbyist scanning lots of prints or film or an aspiring portrait photographer, you're probably not lining up to get your hands on a copy.
As a former graphic designer, I spent a lot of time writing, tweaking, and re-tweaking scripts and actions in Photoshop to batch automate the kind of tasks Image Doctor handles. For working professionals, those hours in work you aren't getting paid for quickly add up – making this package's $199 price tag seem like a reasonable investment when considered over a year's time. The amount of time the Smart Fill tool alone will save you in manual clone/heal operations is probably worth the cost of admission if you edit photos for a living.
On balance, Image Doctor 2 is like the old pickup truck of Photoshop plug-ins. It's not sleek or sexy, and it doesn't wow you with what it can do for the most part (Smart Fill excepted). Conversely, it's reliable, hassle-free, and given the right situation, it can prove indispensable. As plug-ins go, Image Doctor 2 may be a bit too utilitarian for most general users, but serious photographers or graphics pros looking to automate mundane tasks will appreciate its stability as well as its no-frills competency.