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Bargain Bitmap Apps and Extensions

Tom Arah rounds up some under-appreciated and excellent value photo-editors and extensions.

It's been an exciting time in the world of design recently with the launch of Macromedia's MX 2004 Studio and Adobe's Creative Suite, but with so many big name releases - Dreamweaver, Flash, Illustrator, InDesign and so on - it's easy for less well-known releases to get overlooked. This is especially the case for photo-editing applications where Photoshop - and its budget sibling, Photoshop Elements - hold an ever-tightening stranglehold. However Photoshop certainly isn't the right program for all users, or all jobs, and just because an application doesn't grab headlines doesn't mean it's not worthy of your attention. And this is just as true for Photoshop users looking to extend their horizons as for those taking their first photo-editing steps.

PhotoImpact XL

Take PhotoImpact for example. This has almost as long a history as Photoshop itself, beginning back in 1988 when three Taiwanese developers formed Ulead to produce imaging software, most notably PhotoStyler which it developed for Aldus. With the acquisition of Aldus by Adobe and the arrival of Windows 95, Ulead decided to launch its own application, PhotoImpact. What distinguished the program was its emphasis on eye-catching end results and a willingness to break new ground such as its pioneering introduction of advanced web features and 2D, and even pseudo-3D, vector shape handling. And now to celebrate the company's 15th year and the program's ninth release, Ulead has clambered on board the suffix bandwagon with the launch of PhotoImpact XL ($90, upgrade $50 from www.ulead.com).

So what's new? Ease of use is one of the few areas where it's possible to outscore Photoshop/Elements and, with features such as its central thumbnail-based EasyPalette for instantly applying effects, PhotoImpact has always emphasized a visual approach to producing fast results. Taking up this theme is the new ExpressFix feature, a large, step-by-step dialog which presents automatically generated thumbnails of your image with varying degrees of contrast, brightness, focus, extra cyan, magenta and so on. All you have to do is sequentially select the ones that catch your eye and which you feel improve your image. Generally speaking, I'm not a big fan of this take-what-you're-given approach to image enhancement, but you can at least customize the level of variation for each effect and the large Before and After previews should stop you from going far wrong.

PhotoImpact XL emphasizes its visual and experimental approach to photo editing.

PhotoImpact isn't only aimed at the entry-level and occasional user and this latest release provides some surprisingly advanced colour control. Using the new Colour Cast command you can select what should be a neutral colour from the source image and this is highlighted on the dialog's colour wheel. You can then drag towards the centre of the colour wheel to correct the cast. Even more advanced is the new High Dynamic Range feature which combines different shots taken using different exposure levels to produce a final image with higher "perceivable tonal range" closer to what the eye actually sees. I can't see this feature being used by many PhotoImpact users (you really need a tripod and professional digital camera to get the best results), but when a similar capability is added to Photoshop I'm sure it will be hailed as a major breakthrough.

PhotoImpact XL is on surer ground with its range of new filters. PhotoImpact has always majored on eye-catching special effects and this latest release adds some valuable new capabilities. The Sunlight filter very effectively brings dull photos to life by controlling features such as overall warmth while applying additional filters to, for example, increase the blueness of the sky. Other photographic effects include Diffraction Filter, which creates subtle rainbow effects around highlights and Multivision Filter which creates semi-transparent reproductions arrayed around the original. And to add real impact to night images there's the Moon effect which lets you set the moon's phase and angle and then control the surrounding lighting.

Sadly that's just about it for new photo-editing power which is seriously disappointing - in particular, existing users are unlikely to benefit regularly from the new features so there's little reason to upgrade. However, new users get an amazing amount of power for their money especially when you remember that PhotoImpact itself is only part of the equation. Alongside the main photo-editing module you also get separate utilities for on-the-fly visual image management, GIF animation, immersive panorama creation and a comprehensive cataloguing program, Album, designed to bring your digital camera images under control. You also get an in-built screen capture utility which ensures that PhotoImpact is one of the applications that I turn to on a daily basis.

Crucially all these utilities and extras address areas in which Photoshop (and Photoshop Elements) provides limited functionality at best. Rather than as an alternative to Photoshop it's therefore possible to see PhotoImpact and its associated modules as a complementary partner. In this new light, PhotoImpact XL is a revelation. And it's not just the add-ons. If a new collection of third-party plug-ins arrived offering the same range of effects as PhotoImpact it would undoubtedly receive a warm welcome. In fact Ulead has reworked three of PhotoImpact's effects engines for generating texture patterns, particle effects and warp effects as Photoshop plug-ins to show Photoshop users just what they are missing. There are quite a few plug-in developers who would charge more than the cost of the full PhotoImpact suite for just these filters, but Ulead is providing them as a free taster (www.ulead.com/download/freedownload.htm).

Ulead's free Photoshop filters are a taster of PhotoImpact's range of effects.

PhotoSuite 5

Another recent budget release that also suffers from the Photoshop/Elements' effect and is just as seriously under-estimated is Roxio PhotoSuite 5 Platinum Edition ($50 from www.roxio.com, even less with rebates). Like Ulead, MGI - the company which originally developed PhotoSuite - spotted the new opportunity that the arrival of Windows 95 and of consumer scanners and digital cameras provided. What made the program stand out, apart from its budget price, was its virtually fool-proof, drill-down approach to image editing with all functionality controlled step-by-step in the large and helpful Guide Panel running down the left hand side of the screen.

In many ways the program is too simple for its own good as its considerable power is easily overlooked. When it comes to editing, for example, as befits its intended audience, the emphasis is on quick results. The new PhotoDoctor feature is particularly useful here offering one-click enhancement of exposure, saturation and so on. But there's also some advanced and even unique power, such as the ability to automatically apply the same enhancements to a whole series of images and then quickly review the changes against the originals to accept or reject them - excellent. You also have easy access to the most regularly useful enhancement tools to remove scratches, blemishes and red eye.

PhotoSuite offers some advanced capabilities such as the ability to automatically enhance and then review multiple images.

Also impressive are PhotoSuite's integrated album-based capabilities that make it particularly well-suited to handling digital camera images. In the past it was something of a chore organizing your photos into thumbnailed albums but now this can be automatically handled based on the EXIF metadata embedded in your images by your camera. You can also add your own keywords for easy retrieval. Sharing your albums is also simple - you can either do this instantly and locally on your own system as a QuickShow or you can create a saved slideshow complete with soundtrack that you can then email. You can also quickly print your albums thanks to PhotoSuite's ability to output multiple different images and different sizes on the same page.

And that's not all. In this latest release Roxio, which took over the development of PhotoSuite from MGI, integrates its Easy CD Creator technology so that you can safely archive your image albums to CD while retaining thumbnail links. It also bundles a comprehensive standalone CD Label creator so that you can give your archived disks a professional polish. Most impressive of all, you can take an existing slide show complete with background music and burn it to Video CD format complete with DVD-style menus which you can then play back on TV via most DVD players (so there's no escape from your holiday snaps even for your computer-phobic friends).

By this stage it's clear that PhotoSuite shouldn't only be judged on its photo editing capabilities. In fact many users with their own more advanced photo editor, including Photoshop itself, could benefit from the program as a complement to their existing set-up. This is especially the case as PhotoSuite has one final trick up its sleeve with its Photo Stitch feature. Ever since MGI bought in this technology from Enroute this has been my favourite way of producing panoramas and, in this latest release, the capability has again been enhanced to take account of the images' detected focal length to help ensure that the necessary warping and alignment are as accurate as possible. The near-seamless end results have to be seen to be believed and put Photoshop's Photomerge capability to shame.

PhotoSuite's Photo Stitch feature is more than worth the price of the full package.

Similar and less effective dedicated panorama software can easily cost five times as much as PhotoSuite which again shows that it's a good idea to avoid being a snob when it comes to photo editing. While neither PhotoSuite nor PhotoImpact can compete with Photoshop or even Photoshop Elements for sheer pixel-processing power, they both have a lot to offer both as standalone applications and as extensions to your existing solutions. And compared to most third-party Photoshop plug-ins where prices tend to start at $100 and rise rapidly, both programs have to be seen as absolute bargains.

Photoshop Album 2

The most immediately apparent benefits to Photoshop users that both PhotoImpact and PhotoSuite provide are the two programs' dedicated PC Photography features and in particular their efficient handling of multiple images as thumbnailed albums. This is an aspect of photo editing that Photoshop has always tended to ignore as somehow unworthy for such a professional package, but it's actually very important - after all there can't be many Photoshop users who don't have a digital camera. Ironically though, this is one area where I am an unashamed snob. I'm just not interested in the idea of captioning and cataloguing thousands of images in a budget application that what will only ever be a niche solution and which might not even survive the long-term (Ulead for example hasn't really upgraded PhotoImpact Album since version 3). The bottom line is that I just can't imagine myself let alone future generations digging out PhotoImpact XL 2050 or PhotoSuite 39.  

I can imagine them using a future version of Photoshop however, which makes it particularly interesting that Adobe has finally come around to recognizing the importance of organizing and cataloguing your digital images. This shift of heart began with the introduction of the File Browser palette for visual thumbnail management, and which now, in its latest Photoshop CS incarnation, adds keyword-based tagging and searching as well. It's a big step forward and the File Browser is an increasingly important gateway to Photoshop - but it hardly provides the sort of advanced functionality and ease-of-use that dedicated applications such as PhotoImpact Album and PhotoSuite do.

In fact Adobe does now provide a dedicated solution for PC Photographers - though again you might well have missed it in all the excitement of the launch of the latest Photoshop CS. Adobe Photoshop Album 2 ($50 from www.adobe.com/products/photoshopalbum) is designed to provide all the power - visual management, easy cataloguing and retrieval, archiving and sharing - that the digital camera user needs. And because it comes from Adobe and has the magic word "Photoshop" in the title it automatically becomes the standard to beat (and in a field where being the standard is itself almost unbeatable).

So how does it work? Surprisingly, in spite of its name, what distinguishes Photoshop Album from its competitors is that it doesn't actually take an album-based approach at all. Rather than breaking your images down into named sets, usually based on the directories you copy your files into whenever you get around to clearing your camera's memory card, Photoshop Album instead adds all images to a central Photo Well. In other words by default you have thumbnailed access to every image you've ever taken!

This is powerful but potentially confusing: how on earth do you narrow things down to the images you're currently interest in? Photoshop Album provides two main solutions: date and keyword. To begin with, you can use the timeline at the top of the screen to scroll through your images based on when they were taken (this is based on embedded EXIF data where possible so isn't affected by editing). Alternatively you can use the simple, intuitive and very attractive monthly Calendar view which automatically shows a sample preview thumbnail for each day on which you took pictures. Click on this and you can see all photos taken on that day. It's an amazingly efficient way of breaking down your images into logical units and with absolutely no work involved for you.

Photoshop Album automatically organizes your images chronologically in its Calendar view.

The second way of controlling your images is through keyword tagging which does involve hands-on effort, but Adobe has done everything it can to make this as simple as possible. Using the Tag palette you can easily create keywords under main categories such as Events, People and Places and then simply drag these onto all currently selected image thumbnails. You can then view only those images that meet certain criteria, say featuring you on your holidays in Italy, simply by checking the boxes next to the relevant tag names. It really couldn't be easier to manage files wherever they are on your hard disk, or even on removable disks.

So what can you do once you've selected the images you are interested in? The most obvious task is to enhance them and here again Adobe with its unrivalled photo editing know-how has a huge advantage. Sensibly though it concentrates on keeping things simple with a straightforward dialog providing Before and After previews and access to a range of one-click fixes for instantly correcting lighting, colour, focus and so on (these can now be managed as sliders to provide finer control). You can also crop the image and fix red eye while more advanced editing is possible in Photoshop/Elements again with a single click. A particularly nice touch is the fact that, by default, your original image is automatically kept unaffected so that you can always restore it if you later regret your changes.

There are also plenty of options for sharing your photos. Photoshop Album comes with a range of templates for creating projects such as calendars, cards and web galleries and its Print command lets you automatically print multiple files per page complete with an instant layout preview (begging the question: why can't Photoshop?). You can also create slideshows complete with soundtracks and save these to PDF format for efficient emailing. Crucially, you can also archive your files and creations to CD and DVD and even create a menu-driven Video CD just as you can in PhotoSuite 5.

This is all seriously impressive, but almost all of this power was available in the first release so what more does version 2 offer? Adobe is pushing a range of new features such as the ability to copy photos from your mobile phone or to create Atmosphere-based 3D Web galleries, but these will only be of interest to a minority of users. To be honest there is no new must-have functionality. What there is instead is a whole range of tweaks and reworkings of the interface such as the enhanced Calendar view, the support for video files even with slideshows and the incredible ability to change the thumbnail size of all your images in real time. These changes might sound largely cosmetic but taken together they totally transform the whole Album environment and so experience. Ultimately I wasn't convinced that version 1 was worth the serious commitment involved in tagging, but I'm a hopeless fan of Photoshop Album 2.

In fact I'm so impressed with Photoshop Album 2 that I don't just use it for managing my digital photos; thanks to its in-built support for PSD files, I also use it as an occasional alternative to the File Browser as a front-end for my work in Photoshop. All I have to do is swap catalogs, set the sort order from Date to Folder Location and the Details preference to display the filename under the thumbnail and I'm ready to go. Finding the file you want to edit is much quicker thanks to Album's large thumbnails, simple tagging and searching and its ability to group ad-hoc cross sections of files as Collections. And once you've selected your file, you can load it into Photoshop for editing with one simple keyboard shortcut.

Moreover, you suddenly have access to a great deal of extra power such as the ability to export to new file formats and sizes, to email proofs and slideshows to clients, to backup to CD, to attach descriptive text or audio, to batch rename files and to quickly output contact sheets and multiple-print pages. There are only two flies in the ointment. The first is the lack of watched folders to automatically add files as they are created - though Album's importing is pretty speedy for updating your thumbnails. The second is the inability of Photoshop's File Browser to access Photoshop Album tags and vice versa - though with Adobe's ongoing commitment to open embeddable metadata standards I would hope to see this sorted in pretty short order.

Overall, I'd say that Photoshop Album 2 was worth $50 of anyone's money. But before you reach for your wallet there's another alternative that you might want to investigate first. One that offers the vast majority of Photoshop Album 2's functionality and, incredibly, even offers the same credibility and clout as it too comes from Adobe. Best of all, and most surprising - it's completely free! Clearly Adobe hopes that users of Photoshop Album 2.0 Starter Edition (www.adobe.com/products/photoshopalbum/starter.html) will be so won over that they'll want to upgrade, but there's no time or file limit and so, if you can live without features such as the Calendar view and in-built CD-burning, it might well do all that you want.

Photoshop Album 2.0 Starter Edition comes from Adobe, offers plenty of power and is free!

It just goes to show that there are some amazing bargains to be had when it comes to extending your photo-editing power - and from the most unlikely of sources.

Tom Arah

March 2004


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