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Review: The Power of FilterForge

posted by Matt Ward on Jan 18, 2011.

In this post, I would like to introduce you to a Photoshop plugin called FilterForge. More than just another filter suite, FilterForge actually allows you to make your own filters and grants you access to a massive library of filters create by its users.

Just about one year ago, I wrote an article entitled “10 Photoshop Filters You Should Definitely Know,” which basically covered ten of what I had found to be the most generally useful filters built right into Photoshop. It’s proven to be one of the most frequently read articles on this blog. Moreover, even though I tend to write more about web design that I do about using Photoshop, the article has also been the one that seems to have brought the most visitors in from Google!

There has certainly been some mixed reaction to the post. Comments on the blog itself have generally been pretty positive, but the discussion on Reddit included some of the common rhetoric about how bad it is to use filters.

I respectfully disagree. Filters are still one of my favourite features in Photoshop, one which offers the potential for lots of really interesting effects. The trick is to learn how to adjust their settings to make them work for you, rather than just relying on default settings, which are rarely all that useful. Sometimes it’s also a matter of combining several different filters, perhaps even with some adjustments.

With that in mind, I would like to introduce you to an awesome product that can take the possibilities of filters to a whole other level. That product is FilterForge. What is it? Well, to quote directly from their website:

Filter Forge is a versatile Photoshop plugin which lets both novice and expert users create a wide variety of realistic and abstract textures and effects. Users can take instant advantage of over 7833 free community-created filters in the online filter library, or create their own filters in the visual filter editor by assembling them from components such as blurs, gradients, color adjustments, noises, distortions, or blends – without writing a single line of code.

Over the past little while, I’ve had the opportunity to play with FilterForge, and I have to say that it’s pretty much exactly what they say it is. In this post, I would like to offer my own, honest perspective on the product and how it can be of benefit to my own workflow.

A Massive Library

For me, the biggest benefit of this product is, hands down, the massive library of different filters that are available for download. You saw the number in the quotation above – 7833 filters, most of which have been created and developed by the existing user base, using FilterForge itself as the development tool.

This does two things. First, it provides users with an absolutely massive and continually expanding resource base for all its users. When you purchase the plugin, it’s not just a matter of getting 20, 50, 100 or even 500 filters. You have immediate access to a massive library, with each unique filter having been created to accomplish one of a broad range of visual tasks, from adding atmosphere or drama to a photograph, to creating textures and patterns, to the just plain bizarre.

9 different filters, all applied to the same image

9 different filters, all applied to the same image

Of course, with a wide range of authors, not all filters are created equal, but there are plenty of high quality options to choose from!

The second thing that this vast library does is work as an excellent source of ideas. FilterForge is able to do far more than I ever expected when I first came into contact with it, and there are probably a number of effects that many users would never have even thought of using a filter to achieve. Browsing the library can open your eyes to the many possibilities that exist with this incredibly powerful tool.

Options Galore

Although there are a few Photoshop plugins that don’t have any options, most come with at least a few sliders, which allow you to tweak the way that the filter is applied to your image or layer. FilterForge is no exception. In fact, in my experience, many of the FilterForge filters actually have more options than those that come standard with Photoshop.

A wide range of sliders make filters super flexible

A wide range of sliders make filters super flexible

For example, the Sketchy Painting filter has almost 30 different sliders, each of which can be adjusted in order to slightly, or in some cases significantly, alter the overall effect of the filter. With all of these different options available for customization, even a single filter can become an insanely versatile and powerful tool!

Create Your Own Filters

It’s also important to acknowledge that product’s name is not something like FilterGallery or FilterVault. It’s FilterForge. That very name suggests an act of creation, which is a huge part of what the plugin can do. Using an innovative system that allows you to chain different effects, adjustments and manipulations together in a single “tree,” the Standard and Professional editions of FilterForge allow you to build a virtually limitless array of different types of filters.

Given that many of the building blocks that you use to create these filters appear to be equivalent to some of the basic Photoshop tools, it may seem that the same sort of thing could be achieved with basic actions, until you factor in all the controls, which take the flexibility and re-usability of any given filter far beyond what you can do with Photoshop actions.

That being said, however, it’s important to note that the creation process seems to have a fairly steep learning curve. Creating very simple filters like the built-in Sepia is fairly straightforward. Here’s a screenshot of the “tree” that drives that filter:

The small tree of the Sepia filter

The small tree of the Sepia filter

But for some of the more complex filters, like the Grunge filter, the tree starts to get a little more extensive:

The slightly larger Grunge filter tree

The slightly larger Grunge filter tree

And if we look at some of the real heavyweight filters, like Sketchy Painting, we can see that it some filters can become vast networks of interacting effects and options.

The Sketchy Painting filter is far more complex, as you can see from this filter tree

The Sketchy Painting filter is far more complex, as you can see from this filter tree

Taken individually, none of these elements are particularly complicated, but learning them all and weaving them together into a single filter can become a much more complex process.

As I spent a bit of time playing around with the filter creation tools, it certainly didn’t take me long to recognize the vast potential of the tool, but I had difficulty creating anything more than just a basic colour filter. With a bit more time, I’m sure that I could do a whole lot more, it’s just a matter of learning how everything works and fits together.

So, don’t expect to start creating incredible, stunning filters right away. Chances are pretty good that it will take some time. But that’s okay. I doubt that you learned everything there is to know about Photoshop in a day either.

Wait Times

Probably one of the biggest complaints that people have about Photoshop is that it can be a bit of a system hog, and I’ve found that FilterForge tends to follow that trend. With my 13” MacBook (no Pro), I’m not exactly packing the kind of processing power that I’d like to be, but neither am I running a slow, antiquated machine. Still, even when working on a 500 x 500 pixel image, some filters could take several minutes to render. I can only imagine how long it would take to work on larger, print-ready files.

Based on the amount of work that I know the plugin is actually doing, the wait times really aren’t all that surprising, but it’s definitely something that users will want to be aware of. If it’s bringing my MacBook to a crawl, it would probably have brought my old Toshiba Satellite (which I used to run Photoshop on) right to its knees.

Standalone App

Despite being branded as a Photoshop plugin, one nice feature about FilterForge is that you don’t actually have to be running Photoshop in order to use it. It comes with a standalone application that you can launch independently of Photoshop, something that can be very useful, especially if you are using FilterForge primarily for adding effects to photos.

Just launch the app, open your photos and save them in any one of a number of standard formats.

Of course, FilterForge is not created to be a full-fledged image editing application, and there are certain key limitations, such as only being able to have a single image open at any given time. Your control is also limited to filter options, and you have no direct access to the pixels themselves.

Still, as long as you are aware of these limitations, there’s no reason why the standalone app can’t be a huge asset in the right circumstances, potentially saving both time and valuable system resources.


Ultimately, while it can be a bit slow in processing and has a fairly steep learning curve if you want to actually create your own filters, I think that the vast array of possibilities afforded to users through both the available library and the number of options included with so many of the filters makes FilterForge an incredibly powerful tool for anyone who is using Photoshop.

For many creative types, the Basic Edition would probably be sufficient, providing you with full access to the FilterForge library. When combined with the power of Photoshop, I imagine it would be more than enough for the average user.

If you want to take the next step and start creating your own filters, then you might want to consider the Standard Edition. The Professional Edition is for users who want or need to get the most out of FilterForge, and has to do more with levels of performance, such as being able to work with images larger than 3000 x 3000 pixels (probably not something you’ll need for the web), high-precision formats and so forth.

If you want to see a more complete version comparison, visit the website.

And while you’re there, consider downloading the free trial! It’s completely functional for thirty days, which should give you more than enough time to decide if FilterForge will bring any added benefit to your workflow. It has certainly been useful to me!

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

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About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Jan 24, 2011

IT Manager says:

Nice review. :)

Jan 25, 2011

Jane, from Filter Forge says:

Yeh, nice, detailed and profound work. IMHO one of the best Filter Forge reviews, really

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