Not long ago, when I was working on the product images for the iBook Fan Book, I found myself in a tight spot that just about every photographer has faced at one time or another. In the end, I managed to make the deadline, but not without the help of one of the Digital GEM plug-ins for Photoshop.

Here's what happened. When I work on technology books, I don't use product shots from the manufacturer unless I have specific approval to do so. Often I'll grab a shot off the Web to use as a place holder until I either get the OK to use the high-resolution version, or I shoot a new image myself.

During my work on the Fan Books for O'Reilly Media, I had used a photo of the iPod mini from Apple's web site as a place holder until I got approval. As it turned out, I never could get through to the right people, and suddenly I was facing a production deadline with no legitimate image in hand.

I don't own an iPod mini, nor did I know anyone who had one at the time, so I dug through all my image libraries and found a shot I had taken with a pocket digicam in an Apple Store while browsing one day. I had jacked the ISO up to 400 to get a decent image, and it was a little underexposed and showed lots of image noise. But what do you expect under those conditions? An photo taken under store lighting with a pocket camera isn't really fine art. But it was all I had on the eve of a deadline.

I tried a few Photoshop techniques for reducing noise, but nothing was working very well. I then remembered that I had exchanged email with the folks from Kodak's Austin Development Center about a few plug-ins it had designed for professional photographers. One of them, the Digital GEM Pro, is designed specifically to reduce noise in digital images or grain in film-based photos (that have been scanned). I decided that now was a good time to test this software.

Using the Digital GEM Plug-In

After installation, the plug-in resides on the Filter drop-down menu in Photoshop. You apply it in much the same manner that you would any other filter such as the Unsharp Mask. One of the major differences is that it does take a little longer to load than most of the standard Photoshop filters.

The Kodak plug-ins reside in the Filter drop-down menu in Photoshop.

You open your image and select the Digital GEM filter of your choice from the drop-down menu. (Yes, there are a variety of them, which I'll discuss later in the article.) When the dialog box opens, you're greeted with lots of controls to play with. The plug-in uses default settings to begin with, and for the most part, they work very well. If you want a little less or more effect, you can tinker with the Noise Controls and Clarity sliders. One feature that I really like is the Blending slider that allows you to apply a percentage of the filter between 0 and 100 (much like the Fade command in Photoshop, which is also one of my favorite tricks).

One important note: If you're working on a digital image, be sure to select "Noise Suppression" from the Algorithm Selection drop-down menu. And conversely, choose "Grain Suppression" for film-based photos. Having these controls set correctly makes a big difference.

When you select the filter you're presented with a comprehensive dialog box to adjust the amount of noise suppression. This is the Pro version of the plug-in that costs $99.95.

Here's the standard version of the Digital GEM plug-in. It works just as well as the Pro version, but you don't have as many controls. It costs $49.95.

Once you've created the look you want, click OK, and Digital GEM will apply the filter to your picture. If you want to preview the effect before clicking OK, use the "Before" and "After" radio buttons directly below the image preview.

Real-World Testing

I used the plug-in in hopes of salvaging an iPod mini image that I could use in the book. I was very pleased with how well Digital GEM performed. At first I thought that maybe my eyes were deceiving me since it was rather late at night. Or maybe because "I wanted it to look better," that's what I saw. But in reality the darned thing really worked. Here's a slice of the original iPod mini photo at 100 percent.

The original image captured under existing light with a pocket digicam at ISO 400.

You can see that the camera misread the lighting temperature and couldn't record a clean image. Now here's the adjusted image using the Digital GEM Pro plug-in. Not only was the noise reduced but the software also cleaned up the color, producing a shot that looked much more like what I observed in real life.

The adjusted image created by applying the Digital GEM Pro filter.

What a life saver! I uploaded the corrected photo with the others for the book and went to bed. Since then, I've used this plug-in for other shots with similar problems and have had good results in those instances too.

Additional Plug-Ins Available

I've also had good luck with the Digital GEM Airbrush plug-in. The procedure for adding it to Photoshop is the same as for the noise reduction filter.

I like the airbrush filter for softening facial lines for portrait assignments. The name would imply that you use an airbrush tool for this task, but actually it's far easier than that. When you load the filter you see a dialog box similar to the one for noise reduction. You apply the amount of "airbrushing" you want for the overall image, and the plug-in takes it from there. It's designed to apply more correction to skin and less to eyes, hair, and clothing. In my testing, the airbrush filter seemed pretty intelligent and usually produced improved results.

For me, the best feature is that I can control the effect so I can keep it very subtle. I know I've done it right when the client doesn't realize I've touched up the photo. Instead he or she believes "it's just a good picture of me." I advocate lots of restraint when using any airbrush technique. If you're not careful, you can produce skin tones that look more like a character out of iRobot than the Bold and the Beautiful.

Another plug-in offered by Kodak's Austin Development Center is the Digital SHO filter that helps adjust shadows, contrast, and exposure. I like the filter, but the built-in Shadow/Highlight filter in Photoshop is fantastic and covers most of my needs in this area. As a result, I use this filter less than the others.

I do like the Digital ROC plug-in, which helps correct, restore, and balance color for old photos that have faded or suffered from severe color shifts. If you spend any amount of time working on photo restoration, you should take a look at this plug-in.

Works with Photoshop Elements 3.0 Too

Initially I tested all the Digital GEM plug-ins in Photoshop CS, which is my default image editor. For many photographers, however, CS is too expensive to justify its additional features, especially when Photoshop Elements 3.0 is available for both Mac and Windows for less than $100.

Elements 3.0 is a terrific program and will satisfy 95 percent of what most serious photographers would ever want to do with an image editor. In fact, you might bump that percentage up even higher because in my testing, all the Digital GEM plug-ins worked wonderfully in Elements 3.0. This means you can put together a robust imaging environment for less than $200 (<$100 for Elements and two of your favorite standard Digital GEM plug-ins). This is great news for serious photographers on a tight budget.

Final Thoughts

The "pro" versions of these plug-ins run $99.95 each, and the standard versions cost $49.95. You can download and test any of them before buying to help you determine which are most useful for you. All the plug-ins are available for both Mac and Windows versions of Photoshop CS and Elements 3.0. (They might work with older versions of Photoshop too, but I didn't test them.)

My two favorites are the Digital GEM Pro and the Digital GEM Airbrush Pro. They have already paid for themselves in time saved while working on the computer. And in the case of the iPod mini photo for the iBook Fan Book, the Digital GEM plug-in was the difference between making the deadline and getting some rest, or staying up all night trying to figure out what I was going to do.