Looking at Corel ParticleShop

 Sample ParticleShop Image Courtesy of Corel

Sample ParticleShop Image Courtesy of Corel

Many digital photographers want to add special effects to their images.  It would be cool to add flames, superhero powers, lightning, smoke and other effects easily without a lot of pain.  That's what Corel's ParticleShop is designed to do.This is the first release of the product and is built using Corel's well respected physics engine.  The computational demands of the product are not insignificant and even on the fastest computers you need to be patient as it can take a little while for complex effects to finish rendering.

ParticleShop is a plugin to Photoshop, Lightroom, Elements and Corel's own suite.  While it can launch as a standalone, there is no way to load a file into the program in this way.  The User Interface is very simple.  You get a brush tool, an eraser tool, a blend tool, an eyedropper for sampling a colour and a colour wheel for specific colour selections.  Each brush gives it's own tool across the top of the window with revert, brush size, brush opacity and zoom being consistent across brushes.  As you select a brush from the brush selector, the control bar will change in accordance with the brush selected.

ParticleShop is a layer centric tool, so let's be clear that to get real usability, you will want to work  in an application that uses layers.  While you can launch ParticleShop from Lightroom, the tiniest screw up could mean cancelling and starting over.  There's no step back capability beyond a basic brush reset.

ParticleShop acts like many older Photoshop filters in that it only works on 8 Bit images so if you are doing a complex edit, consider making ParticleShop one of the last things you do as you will not be able to send it 32 bit or 16 bit images.  While this is annoying, it's not a killing stroke because the effects should be minor enhancements not the reason for the image.

When Corel says layer based, they aren't kidding.  The eraser tool, which should really be called the "Remove Everything" tool is a classic eraser.  A single use will erase everything under the brush right back to transparency.  There's no gradation and for people used to working on layers and painting with an opposing colour to remove an error, this is not happening.  You must reset otherwise everything on the layer gets erased when touched by the eraser.  The software is not intelligent enough to erase only it's own work.

 The 11 brushes in the Starter Pack

The 11 brushes in the Starter Pack

When you purchase ParticleShop, you get a sample kit of brushes.  They are listed for your convenience.

  • Debris - basically creates dust and spots and artefacts where painted.
  • Fabric - creates a swath of coloured fabric where you paint with it
  • Fine Art - candidly, I still don't see what this thing does other than minor blurring and some unengaging brush strokes, but if you are drawing freehand, it's a custom pencil/brush tool
  • Flame - does a decent job of making fire, keep the brush size small and build up
  • Fur - grows fur on a subject, can be randomized and does a very neat job
  • Hair - while I have not been successful with it, samples show the ability to paint hair on a subject, perhaps to create a Rapunzel type feel
  • Light - creates pinpoints of light easily in addition to trails of light, nice for adding specular highlights
  • Smoke - creates tendrils of smoke that look very realistic, go slow and build up
  • Space - when used on a dark area, creates the sense of nebulae, but you need to change colours regularly
  • Storm - creates realistic lightning
  • Superhero - creates the effect of a superhero energy weapon

Sounds pretty cool right?  It is, but you discover fairly quickly that the individual brushes are limited.  Don't worry though because more brushes are available, with each pack of 15 brushes only an additional $29.99, so if you want everything, you're only in the hole about $400 including the engine.  If this sounds bloody expensive for effects, we're on the same page.  If you think that this is an awesome deal, then you are the buyer that Corel is looking for.  Don't worry about where to get more brushes, Corel will pop up a window on every launch and on brush selection to help you with an in-app purchase of more brushes.  Some will find this useful, I find it very annoying, like they know the starter brushes are inadequate and that to get real control you need to buy a brush pack.

Due to the random nature of some of the effects, you may have to try the same thing many times until you get what you want.  The lack of predictability may create some frustration with some users.  Some of the effects look great one time, and then are horrible the next.  

It is plain that there is a lot of power in ParticleShop.  I don't have the time to spend days learning the nuances for, what for me at least, will be finishing touches, not the artwork itself.  

Corel ParticleShop is one tool that really gets the value proposition of a pressure sensitive tablet. I find that working without a Wacom tablet is very difficult because I am used to that type of interface, but it really comes into its own when the pressure sensitivity is well leveraged.  ParticleShop does a great job in this scenario.

Conclusions

Corel gets physics.  Their particle engine is very good.  Their ability to render effects, if the samples are indicative, is superb.  For my use cases, the product is too unpredictable, the add-ons far too expensive and the completely destructive nature of the tool in unacceptable.  The folks at Corel are smart people.  Perhaps a future version will be non-destructive and will include more useful brushes in the basic package.  As a first go, it's interesting and I bought it.  Unfortunately, it's likely to go unused as I don't have the time to spend trying things and having to start over completely when something goes awry.

All images used are the property of Corel and used for the purpose of education only.