Photoshop plugins and extensions are an easy way to add functionality to the leading image processing app and to improve your workflow.
You can find plugins for almost anything. Some will simplify the professional skin retouching you’d expect to see on the cover of a glossy magazine, and cost hundreds of dollars. Others take care of boring, repetitive tasks. All will make your life a whole lot easier.
In this guide, we’ll take a look at 10 essential free Photoshop plugins that you should start using right away.
The best free Photoshop plugin is actually a set of seven that also function as standalone apps. The Nik Collection started out as professional photo processing software that cost $500. Google bought it and eventually made it available for free, but it’s no longer in development. As a result, the software will one day cease to be compatible with your computer. But for now, it is the gold standard of plugins.
The collection consists of:
- Analog Efex Pro 2 — Replicates the look of classic analog cameras and film stock.
- Color Efex Pro 4 — A huge collection of filters and presets for color correction and image processing.
- Dfine 2 — High-end noise reduction, with more control than Photoshop’s built-in tools provide.
- HDR Efex Pro 2 — Create stunning but natural looking HDR photos.
- Sharpener Pro 3 — A powerful sharpening tool to bring out the subtle details in your shots.
- Silver Efex Pro 2 — Create beautiful black and white conversions.
- Viveza 2 — Selective control of tone and color for making local adjustments.
Each tool installs as its own self-contained program, with the option to add it to Photoshop or Lightroom. If you only choose one of our recommendations from this list, the Nik Collection should be it.
Pexels.com is one of our favorite free stock image sites. The free plugin the site provides enables you to access its content without ever leaving Photoshop.
Go to Windows > Extenstions > Pexels to open Pexels.com in its own panel. Here, you can browse images split by Recent or Popular, or view popular searches and tags under the Likes tab. There’s also a search option.
Just click a photo and it will download and insert itself onto a new layer in your open Photoshop file (or will create a new one if none are open). Stock photos are great if you ever need to add a texture to an image, change the background, or for countless other purposes. Having a stock library essentially built into Photoshop really helps simplify your workflow.
You can also get plugins for commercial stock photo services like iStock and Getty. These are free, but you need to pay for the images.
ON1 Effects adds Instagram-style functionality to Photoshop. It provides a massive array of presets covering generic looks like “Hipster” or “Cinematic”, to those fashioned around specific film stock. It also offers a large number of filters that can enhance the colors and tone of your image.
ON1 Effects works as a one-click panel in Photoshop, or you can open the accompanying standalone app for more granular control over how you apply the presets to your photos.
Ink is an add-on for web designers who put their layouts together in Photoshop. It converts the elements in your document into HTML and CSS code so they can be faithfully recreated on a web page.
The information Ink generates is pretty detailed. It’ll give you info on fonts used, and their size, color, leading and tracking, and so on. It’ll create code for shadows and gradients, and also pixel-perfect measurements between the various elements that make up your design.
Another tool for web developers, CSS3Ps turns individual layers into CSS code. Photoshop has some of this functionality built in, but the plugin goes further by giving you SCSS and SASS code as well.
CSS3Ps can also be quicker when you’re working on complex designs, as it’s all cloud based. It’s an excellent tool, and takes a lot of the pain out of designing buttons, especially when using shadows, glows, and other effects.
Photoshop offers support for many file formats into which you can save your images. PNG is one of them, but the options you get when saving are very limited.
You get a lot more control with SuperPNG. There are more settings to find the right balance between speed and quality — somewhat counterintuitively a lower quality image takes longer to save, due to the sluggishness of PNG compression. You can also retain transparency in an image, and keep or remove the metadata.
When you’re working with typography in Photoshop you’re limited to using the fonts you’ve got installed on your computer. There are a few plugins that can give you more fonts — fonts.com has one — but sometimes these cost money, and you have to check the usage rights for each font.
A simpler choice is Fontea, which gives you access to Google Fonts. They’re all free and open source, so there’s no issue with usage. Just browse through the fonts, filtering down to the styles that you’re after. Each font will download automatically when you need it, and you can remove them just as easily.
Some of the most essential Photoshop plugins and extensions are the ones that simplify common tasks. That’s certainly true of Long Shadow Generator 2, which does exactly what its name suggests.
The options are deliberately sparse. You can adjust the angle, length, and darkness of the shadow you want. You can also choose between a flat shadow or one that fades the further it travels. And you can produce white shadows when your text or objects are on a dark background. But if you prefer, you can do it all with just one click.
Layers are an integral part of Photoshop, but once you’ve got a lot in your document managing them becomes a tedious task.
Layrs Control 2 makes the process a lot easier. It makes seven common layer management actions accessible through a single panel. They are:
- Layer name editor.
- Remove unused effects.
- Flatten all layer effects.
- Delete empty layers.
- Rasterize smart objects.
- Find similar files/folders.
- Convert to smart object.
You’d usually have to do all these tasks manually, or find or create your own scripts to handle them. That’s no longer the case with this plugin, which is a real time saver.
If you ever need to drop a Twitter or Shopping Cart icon onto your website you probably use Font Awesome to do the job. With Font Awesome PS you can now use the same iconic font in your Photoshop designs as well.
There are 675 icons to choose from. They’re added to your image as vector shapes, so they can be resized, colored, and edited with no loss of quality.
Working With Photoshop Plugins
Plugins and extensions install and work in different ways. Some are installed just like regular programs. Some download in ZIP files and need to be copied manually to the Photoshop plugins or extensions directory — check the website for instructions in these cases.
If the add-on is in the ZXP format, try the app ZXPInstaller, available for both Windows and Mac. This replaces the now defunct Adobe Extensions Manager, which used to be used to install these files.
You can access the add-ons in one of a few different places. You’ll normally find them under Windows > Extensions. Sometimes you’ll find them in the Filter menu. In the case of SuperPNG, above, you’ll find it as a file format in the Save As… menu.
All the plugins work non-destructively. Any edits they make to your images go on separate layers, leaving you free to experiment to find the ones that best suit how you work.
Do you have any favorite Photoshop plugins or extensions? Share your tips with us in the comments.