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The best automatic image enhancement solution - apart from version 1.

By far the most common and much the most important photo-editing task is making your photos look their best. It might sound simple but, as anyone who's tried to get to grips with a program like Photoshop's array of colour correction capabilities knows, it's actually a major undertaking. Not many users have the necessary expertise and even fewer, in these days of digital cameras, have the time to spend tweaking every single image.

This is where automatic image enhancement comes in. By making intelligent colour correction decisions based on an image's existing tonal values the computer can effectively cut out the middleman. Many photo editors now offer single-click correction commands but these fixed solutions are generally a hit-and-miss affair. Third-party developers have taken the idea further and the best dedicated automatic enhancement package that I have come across is Auto FX's AutoEye. Nine times out of ten all you have to do is apply AutoEye's default settings and your image suddenly springs to life with richer colour, contrast and detail.

Apart from its results, AutoEye's biggest selling point is that it works either as a standalone application or as a Photoshop-compatible plug-in. That's still true in version 2, but otherwise the program is almost unrecognizable. The big change is an interface makeover that brings AutoEye 2 into line with Auto FX's other products such as DreamSuite (see issue ). Frankly I'm not a great fan of either the aesthetics or the ergonomics, but at least it's not too hard to get to grips with thanks to a control panel down the left and a large image preview to the right.

AutoEye has been given a makeover and new creative controls.

In terms of the control on offer there are four levels of enhancement strength that you can choose from - though all but the first are generally too strong - and you can also use sliders to remove any colour cast, to smooth noise generated by excess sharpening and to rebuild detail if this gets lost. These cut-down options were a bit of a surprise as AutoEye 1 also offered control over major colour corrections such as Contrast, Lightness, Hue and Saturation. In fact these controls are still there they've just been moved -inconveniently - to a new Colour Controls tab.

Completely new in AutoEye 2 is the Creative Controls tab used for applying special effects to your image. At the top of the panel there are a range of dropdown options that manipulate the image's tonal range. Below this there is a section for applying Motion, Radial and Zoom blurs, the latter offering an interactive Focal Point tool. Finally there is a section for applying different types of grain to your image. All the Enhancement, Colour and Creative Control settings can be combined and saved as re-usable Presets complete with an image thumbnail preview.

Special creative effects like these clearly have their place, but I have to say that I found them a distraction from the main role of image enhancement. In fact I found AutoEye 2's whole new emphasis on fine-tuning and tweaking to be misplaced. After all, the point of automatic image enhancement is that it should be automatic. I want to spend less time in the AutoEye dialog, not more.

Much the biggest regret on this front is that AutoEye 2 no longer offers the option to automatically apply default settings and presets without having to open the main dialog at all. This isn't just slightly inconvenient, applying the default enhancement in AutoEye 1 took six seconds, in AutoEye 2 it took twelve - twice as long! Because AutoEye supports actions you can work around this if you are a Photoshop user, but standalone users are stuck.

AutoEye 2's interface and working approach are definitely a backwards step but what about the all-important end results? When you see these you can forgive just about anything. AutoEye doesn't just massage the image histogram, it applies its own patented "IVIT (Intelligent Visual Imaging Technologies) algorithms" working at the sub-pixel level and in its own optimized colour space. The results can be stunning and certainly better than even an expert could produce with Photoshop's native enhancement controls.

Autoeye2results.png: Before and after - AutoEye's results are excellent.

But are the results any better than with AutoEye 1? I was surprised to see that the default settings did produce different results and that, while the difference wasn't huge, I actually preferred version 1's slightly brighter and sharper images (though admittedly this did lead to occasional undesirable graininess). As I investigated I also became aware of an occasional problem with the blue handling in an image. First off was a navy jumper given a greenish hue, but the final straw was when the cyan in two images (a roof top and sky) suddenly turned purple!

I'm still a believer in automatic image enhancement and in the superiority of AutoEye's underlying engine and hopefully it won't be too long before Auto FX brings out an update that sorts out these problems. Even so I can't see myself upgrading. After all, why try and change a winning formula? It's a lesson you'd think Auto FX would appreciate - why tweak when you don't have to?

requirements Pentium 400 MHz, 128 Mb RAM, 25 Mb of hard disk space, Windows 98/NT/2000/Me/XP

Ease of Use
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Tom Arah

July 2002

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