REVIEW: BlowUp 2 Delivers Sharp Performance

BlowUp 2 box

Alien Skin‘s BlowUp, a Photoshop plug-in that enlarges images with greater quality, has been upgraded to version 2. There’s some major improvements in the new version:

  • A new batch processor has been added for handling batches of images
  • Image quality in general has been improved, with better handling of noise and simulated film grain
  • Output sharpening controls based on medium (paper or screen)
  • A new “Remove Compression Artifacts” slider to clean up JPEG artifacts
  • The new Settings tab lets you create and save presets based on paper type and size

BlowUp is also on top of some of the improvements in hardware and Photoshop technology, including the new Photoshop CS4. BlowUp can resize the maximum number of pixels Photoshop can handle, and it also has blazing-fast previews on multi-processor and multi-core computers. Photoshop CS4 is also being highly touted for its improvements in multi-processor and GPU performance. Speaking of CS4, BlowUp 2 does work with Photoshop CS4—I tested BlowUp 2 with a beta copy of Photoshop CS4 Extended, and both performed very well.

To test performance, I gave BlowUp 2 a 11″x17″ photograph with 300ppi resolution, two layers and three adjustment layers. BlowUp 2 was always able to preview the image smoothly. As for processing the enlargement, I asked it to blow this photograph up to 24″x36″ and it took nine minutes. This is a long time, but processing the same image after flattening only took two minutes. Extra layers will obviously increase your processing time dramatically. I’m just impressed that BlowUp 2 can handle layered files and retain everything. I also sized the same image down to 7.5″x11″, and then enlarged it back to 11″x17″. This only took 45 seconds.

A deceptively simple interface

BlowUp 2 screen

The BlowUp 2 interface. Click the image for a larger view.

Surprisingly, BlowUp does not have a complex interface. There are two main sections, Settings and Controls—Settings accesses a preset library (see above) and Controls gives the user control over the plug-in. The Controls section is easy to use, with pixel and document dimensions at the top, fine-tuning sliders in the middle, and sharpening settings below. There are only four aspects of the process you can fine-tune with the sliders:

  • Sharpen Edges: Probably the one setting that will change your results the most.
  • Add Grain: Create film grain to compensate for blurring.
  • Preserve Natural Texture: This slider works to preserve textures that are in the original image.
  • Remove Compression Artifacts: Useful only when working with compressed JPEGs.

There are also tools for cropping, and presets by default use an auto-cropping technology to find the best crop when you apply a preset to an image with a different size. This cropping technology works very well.

Saving is fairly easy, though there is no Save button in the Controls section. You can save settings with the standard keyboard shortcut (Cmd/Ctrl-S), or use the Save button in the Settings section. You also cannot modify a preset after it’s been saved—other than name and category—but there is a workaround. First, make changes to your settings as needed in the Controls section. Second, use the keyboard shortcut to save. The name of the last used setting will already be filled in, and you can overwrite the preset.


Quick tip: Press the spacebar to see how the image would be enlarged without BlowUp’s processing. This can give you an easy comparison between BlowUp and Photoshop.

The real test

BlowUp 2 test

This is a detail of an image blown up with Photoshop (left) and BlowUp 2 (right). Click the image for a larger view.

So how does BlowUp 2 do for retaining sharpness while resizing? Very well, actually. Here is a sample from my earlier test, the 7.5″x11″ image enlarged to 11″x17″. The default enlargement with Photoshop is on the left, BlowUp is on the right. I find that BlowUp does a spectacular job with hard edges—the woman’s eye jumps off the screen a lot more after BlowUp is done with it. It seems to have the most trouble with artifacts and noise, and it’s more evident in something like a face, which people don’t usually consider “textured.” I added no grain and maxed out the artifact removal in this test, but I still think the noise in the face is noticeable. Subjects that are naturally textured actually look better with the noise.

I think BlowUp is most suited for photographers, who often want some grain in their images—grain doesn’t look bad when printed, and it is a throwback to film photography. I actually had the opportunity to test this when a customer ordered a print of a photograph. This photograph was shot as a JPEG six years ago with a 3-megapixel camera, and a few years ago I blew it up to 8.5″x11″ with Photoshop and printed it on my printer to hang in my studio. This time around I blew up the original file with BlowUp 2, same size as before, and printed it through Mpix.com.

BlowUp 2 gave me significant improvement in printed image quality. The grain adds “pop” to the photograph and makes the image look sharper, while the actual details are definitely improved. One must be careful not to oversharpen: details can become oversimplified and look posterized or “vectorized.” Judicious users will do best with BlowUp 2.

Conclusion

I am impressed by the quality of BlowUp 2 and its output. I have never used Genuine Fractals, BlowUp’s main competitor, but it appears hard to beat. Photoshop users in general and photographers in particular will love its capabilities.

BlowUp 2
Alien Skin
USD$249.99
Rating: 9/10