“Painterly” Effects with Adobe Pixel Bender

For those of you who are familiar with my Daily Photo posts at SmugMug, you’ll know that my photo finishing has a fairly eclectic look. It seems to me that when I first see the image out of the camera, it tries to tell me what it wants to look like. This is often quite different from what I was thinking while looking through the viewfinder.

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Earlier this year, I stumbled upon a tool that allows me the latitude to create a look that some images just seem made for. The resultant photos get a lot of, “How did you do that?”. It’s done with a free plugin from Adobe Labs called Pixel Bender. To the best of my knowledge it only works with CS4/CS5. It comes with several filters with many more available from Pixel Bender Exchange. Some of the filters are designed for Flash Player developers and others are for CS5 After Effects. But several of them create interesting effects in Photoshop.

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The program is a CPU and Memory hog. I had to replace the Graphics Card in my older Pentium 4 in order to run it without frequent crashes. I swapped the OEM GPU with an nVIDIA GeForce GT 440 1024MB PCIe graphics card. It made a world of difference as I can now process full size images at 16 bits. But the best performance is still with images resized to 1000 pixels on the longest edges. If you don’t have a GPU or if you have an inadequate one you MUST reduce the longest edge to 1000 pixels. B&H Photo has a big selection of graphics cards for very reasonable prices if you think one will improve your performance.

After you’ve downloaded the program you’ll find the software installation directions from the Adobe Labs site are fairly straight forward.

Once it’s installed, open an image in Photoshop, select Pixel Bender from the Filter drop down menu and then select the Pixel Bender Gallery.

A window will open with your image displayed with default settings. At the top is a small box labeled GPU. If you know you have one, make sure this is checked. If you don’t have a dedicated GPU, it won’t allow you to select it. Then select Oil Paint from the drop down menu. Don’t bother with the other filters until you’ve gained some experience with this one. The others can be quite confusing.

There are 5 sliders. The bottom two are straight forward and just create shadows to simulate brush stroke texture.

But the top three are all inter-related and you will just have to experiment until you get a look you like. There are no instructions, no presets, and you can’t save any settings. If Cleanliness is set too far to the right, the Stylization slider will have too little effect. If Colorization is set too far to the left, the image becomes dark squiggles.

With practice you can achieve effects from Pointillism to Pallet Knife. And go from this,

to this:

After you’re satisfied, click OK and return to your normal Photoshop windows. You can continue to process your new image with all the usual PS tools if you wish.

I hope this was helpful or at least informative. I’ll post a Part 2 later that shows some of the other effects that can be created with Pixel Bender.

7 thoughts on ““Painterly” Effects with Adobe Pixel Bender”

  1. Thanks so much for all this excellent information, John…. I’ve been wanting to try the Pixel Bender plugin for awhile now & this tutorial was exactly what I was waiting for!

  2. Thank you John for sending me this info. I don’t usually like to use such PP effects but the images that you have created with this are wonderful – you have an artist’s eye for knowing when and how to use it. You have some really high quality work overall on your Smugmug site.

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