While Essentials 2 for iPhoto (see issue 198, page 84) is a consumer-friendly 'lite' suite of apps, Plug-In Suite is the full-fat, hardcore version that bundles the pro editions of all its Photoshop plug-ins into one big box.

And despite the price difference, it's genuinely good value if you're seriously into image manipulation. Almost everything that Plug-In Suite 4 does, you could do in Photoshop with a little effort and some technical and creative know-how. And you could even replicate much of its functionality in Photoshop Elements, but this suite makes everything much more accessible.

Adding effects

PhotoTools 1.0 Professional Edition (which we reviewed on its own in issue 196) is a great example of this. Essentially, all it does is give you a bunch of locked-down Actions for Photoshop so you can apply various effects to your images, but in fact it makes it so easy to add a professional polish to your images that we think it's worth the money.

Effects can be layered and manipulated within the PhotoTools interface, many have configuration options for you to tweak, and the results are undeniably impressive, ranging from lo-fi Holga effects up to slick high-key, studio-style effects. It needs a decent photo to work on, but add in its batch-processing abilities and it's a solid, creative addition to any photographer's arsenal.

The FocalPoint plug-in enables you to apply selective blur and vignetting to an image, either to draw the eye to the subject of a portrait, say, rather than the background, or to apply a software equivalent of using a tilt-shift lens on your camera. Again, there's nothing here that a layer mask and a spot of blurring wouldn't replicate in Photoshop, but we recommend it simply because its intuitive control system – a spindly FocusBug whose 'legs' you pull and angle to affect the type of selective focus you apply – makes it simple to use.

PhotoTune, another module, is less about applying special effects to photos, and more about colour balancing the images you have, getting great skin tones and generally giving your photos a bit more visual appeal. The interface is great; rather than presenting you with a bunch of sliders and colour wheels, you're simply stepped through the process of improving your image, at each stage being asked to pick between two different images, until you're presented with the finished result. You can take a snapshot of each step along the way to compare them at the end, and in the final step you're presented with the manual controls so you can fine-tune. The companion SkinTune tool enables you to colour balance images based on getting the skin tone right.

PhotoFrame 3.1 adds a range of frames to your photos – some that look like negatives and film strips, some that look like they've been washed onto the page, and many more. Though the interface feels little
more modern than in the version included with Essentials 2 for iPhoto, you can here, at least, apply the effect to a layer mask to give you more placement flexibility.

Scaling and cut-outs

Genuine Fractals 5 Print Pro and Mask Pro 4.1 round off the package, offering high-quality scaling and background knock-out respectively.

Genuine Fractals produces sharper results than Photoshop's bicubic scaling, but it's only really noticeable above 500%. Mask Pro remains the best way to cut out objects from a scene, but its lead matters less now thanks to Photoshop's stellar Extract tool.

This is a great suite of plug-ins, which – especially if you lack Photoshop savvy – can help you turn out great results.