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Make the most of your digital photos with Photoshop Elements 3

Tom Arah shows you how to take full control of your photo collection with Photoshop Elements 3.

Long-term readers will know that for many years I’ve been dissatisfied with the available solutions for one of the most common computer tasks of all – managing your digital photos. The problem is that the major players such as Adobe and JASC/Corel have concentrated almost their efforts on just one part of the job: editing and enhancing. Other developers such as Microsoft, MGI/ Roxio and Ulead have been more imaginative and integrated essential management features, but their solutions have tended to be proprietary and/or underpowered. The end result is that I’ve not been prepared to commit myself to the time and effort involved in seriously mastering my photo collection, knowing that something better was bound to come along.

The good news is that now it has. Adobe Photoshop Elements 3 (Elements) isn’t perfect - as we’ll see, to make the most of it, you have to understand its occasional weaknesses as well as its many strengths - but it is still the program that I and many others have been waiting for. What makes it so different is that Adobe has finally recognized the importance of photo management and made it as central as editing – in fact even more so. The way it has done this is by integrating the previously standalone Photoshop Album application as Elements’ new Organizer module/window. At the same time Adobe has taken the opportunity to seriously revamp the way that the Organizer works to provide a much more usable, thought-through and complete solution.

Photoshop Elements 3’s new Organizer window offers simple but effective photo management.

This new focus on the total photographic workflow right through from camera to archive CD is immediately apparent when you first connect your camera/card reader and the Adobe Photo Downloader dialog appears. By presenting your images as visual thumbnails this utility lets you select those that are worth copying to your hard disk, takes care of creating a target directory that you specify or that it automatically names after the current date and time and, optionally, lets you rename your files to something more meaningful and memorable such as “ruby wedding 001.jpg” rather than “DSCN4915.jpg”. Click Get Photos and all selected images are transferred and automatically imported to your current catalogue and you are then given the opportunity of deleting them from your card/camera.

In theory the benefits are clear but I have to say that the Downloader is the one area in Elements that really disappoints, and for a host of reasons. To begin with having to wait for every image to display before you can do anything is inherently slow especially if you have a large card and a slow connection. The level of control is disappointing too: you can’t customize the default directory name suggestion (which is so over the top that it includes the time right down to the nearest second) or the basic file renaming scheme (and remember that the actual number of the photo as recorded by the camera can be useful while duplicates of generic names such as “photo 001.jpg” can cause trouble if, say, you want to copy them to the same directory).

My biggest concern is that I really want to be able to copy connected images to their own directories based on when I took them not to one master directory based on when I cleared my camera (separate directories become even more important when you want to handle your images without going through Elements). On top of which it actually makes sense to bring over all your photos to your hard disk as Elements is more than capable of salvaging photos that look beyond redemption. This is especially so as the Downloader doesn’t delete the unwanted/unselected images so that they are left clogging up your camera. And in any case, re-formatting your card is far faster than deleting images.

I still like the idea of visual and integrated handling direct from the camera and hopefully Adobe will work on the Downloader to enable you to begin handling your images as soon as they appear, let you mark them up for separate directories (ideally this would be semi-automatic with suggestions based on time interval) and offer more intelligent file renaming including pattern matching to preserve the original photo number. And on my side I suppose I should get a USB 2 card reader. In the meantime though whenever Adobe Photo Downloader appears my response is to shut it down. The bottom line is that it’s quicker and more flexible to copy over all your files to your hard disk with Explorer and then sort them out from there.

The Adobe Photo Downloader is Elements’ weak point.

Of course this manual approach means that you then have to use the Get Photos>From Files and Folders command ( Shift+Ctrl+G) to add images to your catalogue but that’s hardly a huge hardship (alternatively Elements 3 now offers watched folders though for some reason I couldn’t get this to work on my system and there’s no mention of it in the help file). The Organizer then sensibly isolates all the newly imported images for review. Using the slider in the bottom right corner you can change the size of thumbnails in real time which is excellent for taking control of your images. Shrink them to a comfortable size and then select those images that need rotating (I’d love a camera that automatically stored this info as metadata) and hit the Rotate Left or Right commands ( Ctrl+Left/Right). Critically this rotation is lossless even for JPEGs unlike that offered by some rivals such as Microsoft’s Digital Image.

Alternatively you can now use the new Photo Review command (F11) to quickly work through your imported images full-screen (after all you probably want to see them), rotating and deleting as you go. This is also the best mode in which to use the Organizer workspace’s excellent one-click Auto Smart Fix command ( Ctrl+Shift+I). This can do wonders for under- and over-exposed images and really shows Adobe’s photographic expertise – it’s much better than the similar capability in rival solutions and can give most photos a bit of extra life and bring many back from the dead. In fact for most images this is all the enhancement you’ll need.

Even better, the whole process is kept as simple and seamless as possible without the need to specify new names or compression settings. Crucially this doesn’t meant that Elements overwrites your original image – instead it automatically creates a new copy adding “_edited” to the existing filename. Within the Photo Browser it’s only this enhanced version that is displayed by default which keeps things neat and tidy as well as boosting the general quality of images on show. However the original and any other edits are stored as a “Version Set” meaning that at any time you can drill down to view or restore the previous versions.

Elements 3 takes the same idea of sets into completely new territory with its introduction of “Stacks”. These work like version sets in that multiple images are effectively hidden behind a single master image in the Photo Browser. The difference is that with the Stack command ( Alt+Ctrl+S) you can collapse any number of selected photos. This is perfect for those occasions, such as multiple group shots or bracketed exposures, where you take multiple photos of the same image, all of which you want to keep, but only the best of which you want to see by default (drilling down to see the others when desired).

Version Sets and Stacks are brilliant workflow innovations.

Both version sets and stacks are brilliantly simple and effective systems for keeping on top of your image collection but it’s the former which really stands out. My previous solution to managing original and edited images involved duplicate directories each of which had to be archived - now the use of version sets immediately integrates both into a single, simple, flexible workflow and makes the whole process child’s play. It shows that Adobe has thought about how users currently manage their photos and how this could be done better and to my mind it is reason enough to choose Elements for handling your images.

Version sets also come into their own when you move beyond the Organizer workspace to access Elements’ more advanced editing power with the Quick Fix command (for some reason this doesn’t have a shortcut). The first time you do this in each session takes some time as Elements’ separate Editor module has to load but, once it’s open, future loading is much quicker. The dedicated Quick Fix environment offers both more power and more control as adjustments are broken down into separate factors such as Shadow Lightening, Highlight Darkening, Midtone Contrast, Sharpening and Colour Temperature each with their own slider. You can also compare your changes with the Before and After preview and undo steps that you regret. Best of all, the Quick Fix window provides simple access to the most necessary hands-on editing capabilities with its Red Eye Removal and Crop tools (knowing that the original image is safely stored in the version set really encourages creative cropping).

The Quick Fix window keeps things simple but there’s surprising power too. Using the Crop tool for example you can rotate the crop area and set final size and resolution (the Front Image option is particularly useful for this as it uses the original image values so that you don’t end up with a rag bag of different sizes and shapes). And if you need more control simply hit the large Standard Edit button ( Ctrl+I), which reveals the familiar (though tarted-up) Photoshop Elements interface. This offers access to some serious high-end photo-editing functionality lifted directly from Photoshop including global non-destructive adjustment layer based correction and local hands-on retouching using, amongst others, the near-miraculous new Healing Brush tools.

The new Quick Fix environment makes it simple to pull images back from the grave

Of course the editing power isn’t perfect – the artistic filters are impressive for example but photographic filters for correcting barrel and pincushion distortions would be more regularly useful. And some functionality, such as editable layer styles and channel-based and CMYK handling are reserved for Photoshop CS itself. Having said that, no-one could say that Adobe has been mean with the power it has included. Particularly impressive is the fact that Elements 3 now supports 16-bit images and unprocessed RAW camera data - assuming that you’re rich and lucky enough to own a camera that supports such features. The bottom line is that between the Smart Fix, Quick Fix and Standard Edit modes you have all the power you need to make your photos look their best dependent on the amount of effort that you think each photo deserves and are willing to invest.

OK, back to the Organizer window to see what else it has to offer. Once you’ve rotated, deleted and enhanced your imported “roll” of film, all the images are added to the main Photo Browser. This centralized approach has a lot of advantages compared to trawling through separate folders but it also has a huge disadvantage – trying to find particular images can be like searching for needles in a haystack. That’s why previous versions of Album focused so heavily on tagging your images with keywords. Once you’ve marked-up your images it’s easy to find all those that include a particular tag simply by double-clicking on its name in the Tag palette, by clicking the box next to it or by dragging the tag (or tags) onto the Find Bar at the top of the Photo Browser.

Finding the images is simple enough (though surprisingly there’s no advanced search option say for finding images that contain one tag and not another), but applying them is another matter. Not that Elements doesn’t do everything it can to make the process as simple as possible with its typically visual and intuitive approach where each tag is represented by a customizable sample image. And unlike rivals, such as Digital Image Pro with its awkward Keyword Painter, you can apply your tag(s) to as many photos as you want – or photos to tags - with just one drag of the mouse. The control is impressive too with the ability to add and edit categories and sub-categories, to shift, merge and delete tags and so on.

Keyword-based tags are the ultimate option for mastering your collection.

It’s difficult to see what more Adobe could do, but I have to say that I still always found Album’s focus on tagging a major stumbling block – life is short and busy and I just wasn’t prepared to make the commitment necessary to make the system complete enough to start being useful. On top of which I’ve always been wary about committing to a particular cataloguing system that I would then be tied to, even if a better solution came along. As such it was a major relief to find that in Elements 3 tagging is no longer presented as a prerequisite to benefit from the program. In particular the program now offers a more traditional tree/folder option for displaying your images - though with the massive advantage that all folders are shown at once (make sure that you name your folders starting with year/month/date to ensure that they are ordered correctly).

In fact though it’s rare that you’ll use this folder option for navigating through your catalogue as Elements’ main Date View does it so much better. This picks up the date as stored by the camera in the images’ EXIF data and uses a brilliantly simple monthly wall calendar metaphor to present a single customizable image thumbnail for each day on which you took photos. Double click on the thumbnail and you are taken to the Day view in which you can view all images taken on that date. It’s not perfect (for example you can’t select multiple days to view at once), but the Date View shows the Elements approach at its best – visual, attractive, intuitive and effective. And unique too as I’m pretty sure that Adobe has patented the idea of the wall calendar with image previews – certainly the alternatives offered by JASC/Corel and Microsoft aren’t in the same league.

Thanks to the Date View in particular, tagging becomes an optional extra for managing your images in Elements but, to my surprise, I’ve gradually been won around to the idea. This process began with Elements’ special built-in tags. Let’s face it, not all photos are as good as others and some are really not worth keeping - though most people are superstitious about actually deleting them. By tagging the good photos with the Favourites tag (if you’re keen and/or anal you can do this on a five star rating system with the Ctrl+1-5 shortcuts), you can quickly pull out those photos worth showing to friends and relatives. Even better, with the special Hidden tag, you can quickly remove those photos that don’t make the grade from the Browser, but call them back if desirable.

Elements’ in-built tags are great as far as they go but one obvious option is missing – a tag for marking photos destined for print. But of course it’s simple enough to create one. And that’s so simple, it becomes natural to begin creating and applying tags for family and friends and locations and so on. The secret though is not to get carried away. Remember that the only reason to go to the effort of tagging is if it’s actually going to save you more time later when it comes to locating your images – if you’re not likely to want to find all photos including Aunt Harriet don’t mark them up. And the same time-saving principle applies where you do decide to tag. Rather than tagging for every single relative, for example, have a broader family-based tag. If at some point you then want to pull out a particular individual, you can use the family tag to narrow down the images in the Browser which makes it simple to find and select the photos you’re after - and to then add a new sub-tag if desired.

Alternatively you can take advantage of another of Elements’ workflow innovations: its use of “Collections”. Like tags these enable you to pull out a cross-section of photos from across your entire catalogue but you create them as-and-when you need them. The best way to think of them is as temporary containers or digital lightboxes into which you drop a group of photos whenever you want to work with them. And collections provide the major advantage that you can drag your images to reorder them. This might not sound like much but it makes collections an essential staging post for exploring Elements’ many output options such as its ability to produce emails, slideshows, album pages and so on (all of which can be stored to Adobe’s flexible, efficient and highly accessible Acrobat PDF format) and even Video CDs.

In many ways collections act as a simpler and more flexible version of tags and on a more realistic ad-hoc basis that doesn’t demand that you’ve already tagged every image in your collection to take full advantage of them. Even so, I’m now determined to make the full commitment to tag my images. Strangely it’s the Editor workspace’s little-used File Info dialog ( Alt+Ctrl+I) that finally convinced me. Because all tags now appear listed as Keywords in the File Info dialog’s Description panel, it’s clear that the information is actually being embedded in the file itself. Previously the tags didn’t appear so I was never sure that the tags weren’t just kept in the catalogue – which means that a corrupted master catalogue in Elements 3 wouldn’t be a total disaster (though of course it’s still a good idea to use the Backup command to regularly archive your catalogue and images to CD/ DVD).

Elements’ tags are stored within the image as open XML-based XMP metadata.

Even better, with Elements 3 the tag information is now stored in an open and accessible standard developed by Adobe known as XMP (Extensible Metadata Platform). In fact, if you look at your tagged JPEG (or PSD, PDF, EPS, PNG, GIF, and TIFF) in text display mode, you can see the text-based XML code in which the metadata is stored. More importantly other developers can easily access this information and Adobe even provides a software development kit designed to facilitate the use and exchange of such metadata. Because the XMP format is an open standard, I don’t feel that the major time and effort necessary to master my collection through tagging necessarily ties me to Adobe – after all a better solution could come along again.

On the other hand it’s difficult to imagine what that better solution would be. Apart from Elements 4, of course - or hopefully the next version of Photoshop itself.

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Tom Arah

January 2005

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