Alien Skin's Image Doctor (review)

Image Doctor BoxCopyright © 2002 by John Passarella
(This article originally appeared in 2002;
pricing info may no longer be current.)


Alien Skin Software made their name in the Photoshop plug-in effects (EyeCandy, Xenofex, Splat!) market by creating filters that added stunning visual effects to humdrum digital photographs. Fire, Smoke, Baked Earth, Chrome, Drop-Shadow, Fur, Bevel, and Lightning are some of the “wow” effects one could apply to digital photographs with the Alien Skin arsenal. Along comes Image Doctor with a contrary mission. A stealth mission. The goal of these effects utilities is to go completely unnoticed. In this case, the “effects” are really different tools in a photo repair kit. If you scan in creased or scratched photographs, the “Doctor” can digitally repair these defects. If you take a beautiful landscape picture marred by an unsightly street sign, the “Doctor” (via Smart Fill) can remove that sign from sight.

So the “stealth” mission is threefold: repair physical damage; improve aesthetics; compensate for over-compression. Its success is measured by how little the end-viewer notices the application of Image Doctor effects. Of course, viewing the before and after images tells a completely different tale.

The Filters

Image Doctor consists of four image repair utilities or effects. Billed as the most powerful tool in the kit, Smart Fill seamlessly removes and heals large image defects or, as the box humorously suggests, Smart Fill will “remove unwanted tourists from vacation snapshots and estranged persons from family photos.” Scratch Remover, as the name implies, removes scratches (i.e., linear defects) in scanned images, along with “wires, microphones, telephone poles, trash and logos.” Spot Lifter removes round defects, such as skin blemishes, watermarks, stains and dust. JPEG Repair smooths over those blocky artifacts you see in overly-compressed JPG images.

Repairing Badly Compressed Images
Repairing Tears, Cracks, Rips  
Removing Scratches, Creases, Folds  
Removing Small Objects from Image  
Removing Zits/Blemishes/Moles  
Removing Large Objects from Image    
Removing/Adding Texture    
Restoring Texture, Restoring Skin Texture    
Repairing Textures    
Removing Stains    
Removing Shadows Under Eyes      
Removing Dust, Mold      

The Interface

The Image Doctor interface is pleasantly simple (one dialog box), and will be familiar to anyone with any of the Alien Skin plug-in filters. There is a large preview window of the image with the filter applied. However, with the click of a button you can view the original unprocessed image in the same preview window. For subtle changes, this provides a quick visual aid to before and after. There are sliders to make incremental adjustments, e.g., to expand or contract pixel selection and to increase or decrease texture feature size. And after you are finished tinkering, if you are unhappy with your new settings, click on Settings/Reset to Factory Default.

Smart Fill

Smart Fill is the most dramatic filter in Image Doctor’s bag of tricks. Smart Fill takes the concept of a clone brush to its evolutionary extreme. Sample photos show the removal of a bike rack from in front of a brick wall, a fire hydrant from in front of bushes and mulch, and a bunch of paddling ducks removed from the surface of a lake. I found that the best results are when the object is clearly outlined against a uniform background or a background made up of almost random elements, i.e., blades of grass, a cloud filled sky, an expanse of water. Trying to remove a person from in front of a ladder back chair leaves a chair that would make Salvador Dali proud. The manual advises you to remove an object that’s in front of more complex backgrounds in slices. E.g., the top of the fire hydrant is in front of a bush (note: random leaves); the bottom of the fire hydrant is in front of mulch (note: random bits of mulch). The result is that you may have to invest a lot of time to remove that unwanted tourist or estranged family member from your photos. On the other hand, removing magnets from a cluttered refrigerator is a breeze with Smart Fill.

Below, in the pictures of Matthew blowing out the candles on his (9th) birthday cake, I noticed an area on the cake that lacked icing (left); after selecting that area with the Lasso selection tool, I applied the Smart Fill filter and improved the cake decorating job immediately.

Matthew, Cake Icing MissingMatthew, Cake Fixed 

JPEG Repair

Eye before and after JPG repairOne of the benefits of the JPG image format is the ability to compress images on an inverse sliding scale of compression vs. quality. Often file size can be reduced dramatically before quality is impaired. But the greater the compression, the poorer the quality. Sometimes too much quality is sacrificed in the interest of creating fast downloading Web graphics. The result is ugly, blocky artifacts on JPG images. Image Doctor’s JPEG Repair undoes some of this compression damage. Below is an eye with considerably more problems than the onset of crow’s feet—blocky artifacts. The lower “after” image shows the JPEG Repair tool’s quality restoration capability.

Scratch Remover

As with the Smart Fill tool, I found that removing scratches from photographs works best when the scratch is against a uniform or random background. If part of the background is flesh (e.g., a bare arm) and the rest of the scratch is across cloth (e.g., a shirt sleeve), even selecting both scratch areas separately still produces problems right at the border between the two different backgrounds. I took a beach photo of my children and drew 1-pixel white scratches on several areas of the photo. The scratches against a plain off-white plaster wall disappear magically. A scratch that crosses Luke’s bare leg and his shorts becomes a bit problematic. As does another scratch that crosses the background of the wall into Matthew’s hair. No amount of adjusting the width of the fill/repair produced a perfect repair. Matthew ended up with plaster in his hair and Luke’s leg swelled on either side. (Note: Alien Skin recommends making several selections in such cases and that certainly improved the overall results.) To get around this problem (even after making multiple selections), I dabbled around with the clone brush in Matthew’s hair, and used Image Doctor’s Smart Fill around Luke’s leg. The result is certainly acceptable. But the perfectionist might be in for some painstaking work to complete a desired repair.

Below are the before (with artificial scratches) and after images, completed for the most part with Scratch Remover.
scratch repair needed scratch repair made

Spot Lifter

Spot Lifter removes blemishes, birthmarks, scars, etc. while leaving background texture intact. While Scratch Remover works best with linear imperfections, Spot Lifter is the tool to use for round ones. Taking a page from the Alien Skin portfolio, I tinkered with a Philadelphia Zoo photograph to prove a giraffe, at least, can change its spots.

Giraffe, spotless


Image Doctor’s Smart Fill has the ability to work instant wonders in ideal situations, i.e., distinct foregrounds on uniform (e.g., concrete) or random (i.e., grass or water surface) backgrounds. Removing unwanted items from a photo becomes trickier—if at all possible—against a background with horizontal or vertical lines or bars, e.g., the posts on a chair back or aluminum siding. Scratch Remover can also be instantaneous in the best scenarios, or it might require a bit of fine-tuned selection(s), along with a handful of other built-in image editing tools to produce best results. Spot Lifter removes blemishes by equalizing shading tones while maintaining background texture integrity. The effect ranges anywhere from subtle to dramatic. JPEG Repair revitalizes over-compressed JPGs, removing most if not all blocky artifacts. Rather than trying to dazzle you with wondrous effects, Image Doctor is all about improving image composition and restoring quality. The higher your regard for quality and composition, the more you will value the Image Doctor filters. These tools may not dazzle in the way of Alien Skin’s special effects filters, but the results will impress. After all, the whole point of stealth technology is to go unnoticed.

Technical Specifications

Pricing: Image Doctor has an estimated street price of $129.00. Sidegrade pricing (for owners of other Alien Skin filters) is $99.00. Academic pricing is available.

PC: Window 98/2000/Me/XP [Windows NT is not supported.] Pentium II-class processor; 64MB or more of physical RAM. Host software required: Adobe Photoshop 5.5 or later; Macromedia Fireworks 4.0 or later; Paint Shop Pro 6.0 or later

MAC: Macintosh System Software 9 or later; OS X 10.1 or later; PowerPC processor; 64 MB or more of physical RAM. Host software required: Adobe Photoshop 5.5 or later; Macromedia Fireworks 4.0 or later

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