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A lot of photo-editing power for the price - but the overall usability and dedicated PC Photography features could still be improved.

Adobe Photoshop dominates the high-end of the photo-editing market but for most potential users it's simply too expensive to consider. An obvious solution is to produce a cut-down version with a cut-down price and that's exactly what Adobe attempted with Photoshop 5 Limited Edition (LE) - but it's actually not that simple. LE proved overpowered in some areas, underpowered in others and generally too complicated for its target audience. Adobe claims to have learned the lessons of LE and with its all-new Photoshop Elements promises a truly dedicated mid-range solution built on Photoshop's unmatched photo-editing engine.

When the program first loads the Photoshop connection is immediately apparent in the Photoshop Elements interface. The good news is that Photoshop itself has moved on a long way since version 5. In particular the presence of the context-sensitive Options Bar means that all necessary power is always to hand, while the Palette Well ensures that the wide range of floating palettes can be tidily minimized when not in use. In addition Elements adds its own main toolbar providing one-click access to the most common file and editing commands.

Adobe has also worked on improving the help it offers. When you launch the program an opening dialog starts you off in the right direction by offering a choice of options - open, create, acquire. As you work, help is also on hand from the context-sensitive Hint and task-based Recipe palettes. The basic information available from the Hints palette is hardly worth the space it wastes, but the Recipes palette is more useful and it's also "live" allowing you to click on each step's "Do It" button. It's a big step on from LE but when compared to a truly transparent, task-based program such as PhotoSuite it's clear there's still a long way to go.

The help in Photoshop Elements is better but still not ideal.

Of course where Elements has an unfair advantage over the competition is in terms of power. As you would expect Elements shares the same core pixel-based colour handling and layer-based composition handling that makes Photoshop so dominant. But that's only the beginning. In particular since the release of Photoshop 5 LE there have been two releases of Photoshop, with 5.5 adding serious Web capabilities and 6.0 adding impressive vector shape handling - Photoshop Elements includes them both.

Photoshop Elements offers impressive vector and Web handling.

The obvious question is: what power has Adobe missed out? Well to begin with there is the support for high-end image modes, such as CMYK, that are essential for the print-oriented professional. In the same way the Web-oriented professional would miss ImageReady and the ability to automate workflows through the use of the Actions palette. Other omissions are the Channels and Paths palettes. Otherwise though, from the range of filters and adjustment layers through to the History palette and Liquify commands, the vast majority of Photoshop's power is all here.

Look more closely though and you'll see that that's not quite the full story. Yes Photoshop's Save for Web command is here, for example, but the most advanced features, such as lossy GIF and variable JPEG compression, have been cut. Likewise with Photoshop Elements' vector handling where free transformations and style-based formatting are possible, but you can't edit nodes or create your own styles. Of course this helps Adobe by ensuring that Photoshop Elements doesn't compete with Photoshop itself, but it also helps users by keep things simple. The History Palette, for example, offers a multiple undo but doesn't confuse matters with snapshots and history brushes - instead the most useful Art History tool is brought out as a dedicated Impressionist brush.

The range of cut-down power on offer in Photoshop Elements is much better thought through than it was in Photoshop LE but Adobe has also recognized the need to add new power. In particular while Photoshop concentrates on providing professional functionality for intensive work on single projects, the typical Photoshop Elements user is more likely to be dealing with multiple digital camera images. In other words Photoshop Elements must tackle the whole area of PC Photography.

The first crucial need for the PC photographer is to be able to see their multiple images and Photoshop Elements enables this with its File Browser palette. This lets you move through your hard disk to select any directory at the top of the palette and automatically generates thumbnails of all the images that it finds. It's certainly a lot easier than dealing with images via their filenames, but it's hardly state-of-the-art. In particular the generation is slow and there are no file management or cataloguing capabilities let alone more advanced album-based features such as slide shows.

The File Browser is limited but still makes it easier to deal with multiple images.

When you've opened your image, your first job will almost certainly be to make it look its best. In Photoshop this involves some serious digging, but in Photoshop Elements all functionality has been brought together under the dedicated Enhance menu. For serious control you've still got access to the histogram-based Levels command, but occasional users will feel more comfortable with the AutoLevels, AutoContrast and Variations commands. Two simple options have also been added that photographers will welcome: Back Light helps correct under-exposure while Fill Flash lightens shadows.

Two other common photo-editing tasks are also catered for with new functionality. Correcting red eye is simple thanks to the new Red Eye tool. All you need to do is choose a brush size and a tolerance level and then click on the offending colour. Creating a panorama should also be largely automatic thanks to the new Photomerge command. Ideally all you should have to do is to select a directory containing the images and Photoshop Elements will automatically sort the images resizing, skewing and blending where necessary. In practice I found it necessary to position the images manually and, even then, the fact that Photo Merge makes no attempt to colour-correct the results means that the joins are very clear.

The Red Eye removal brush will please photographers.

Once you've enhanced your photo, you can make it really stand out with the full range of almost a hundred filters. As Photoshop users know only to well the problem with such a wide selection is that it's difficult to know which to choose - is it the Reticulation or Mezzotint you're after? Photoshop Elements addresses this with its Filters palette which shows thumbnails of a yacht image with each effect applied. It must have taken an afternoon for the Adobe programmers to knock-up, but being able to choose an effect visually makes a huge difference.

Another example of making the most of existing power is the Effects palette. This offers around fifty effects, such as Drop Shadow, Soft Focus and Sandpaper, divided into four main categories - Frames, Image Effects, Text Effects and Textures. Each effect is actually built up of a combination of existing commands so that the Wood Frame effect, for example, is built by increasing the canvas size, creating a new layer and selection, filling it, and then applying noise, motion blur, bevelling and shadowing. This can undoubtedly be useful but the problem is that each effect is fixed - if you like it great, but there's no way of customizing it.

Each effect in the Effects palette is actually an uneditable action-based macro.

Once your masterwork is complete you're ready to output it. Photoshop Elements offers a basic print preview for outputting your current image, but to save expensive photo paper you need to be able to output multiple copies on the same sheet. To do this you have to resort to the File>Automate>Picture Package command which lets you choose between various standard layouts and resolutions. Once you click OK, Photoshop Elements creates a new image and proceeds to paste, rotate and resize the desired number of copies onto it! It's exactly the same command as you get in Photoshop itself but frankly it's embarrassing - and it doesn't let you print more than one image on each sheet.

These days print-outs are by no means the only way of letting others see your photos and the universal accessibility of the Internet makes Web output just as important. The File>Automate>Web Photo Gallery lets you turn a set of snaps into a fully functioning Web site complete with thumbnailed home page. Again though Adobe's automated approach means that the images are awkwardly opened and resized before your eyes, and that the level of customization is limited.

You can create a thumbnailed image site with the Web Gallery command.

To let others see a Web gallery that you've created you'll need to have your own Web space. An alternative is to use one of the increasing number of free photographic storage providers online. Photoshop Elements offers an Online Services command where you should be able to choose from a range of providers though in the late release reviewed this was limited to the US-oriented Shutterfly. Once you've signed up, it's simple enough to upload files as resized JPEGs and you can then view and share your images online.

Compared to Photoshop LE there's no question that Photoshop Elements is a huge improvement not just in terms of all-round functionality but in terms of usability and dedicated PC photography features. Even so I'm not totally convinced. I still think that many occasional users and beginners will end up hopelessly confused. To take just one example many users will draw a shape onscreen and then select a brush to begin painting only to be told that the "layer needs to be simplified" whatever that means. To the professional the way that Photoshop handles vectors as clipping masks on styled layers leads to creativity but for the occasional user it just leads to confusion.

While Adobe has done a much better job tailoring Photoshop to its new duties than it has in the past, it's still not ideal. The beginner would be better off with a truly dedicated solution, such as MGI PhotoSuite, built from the ground up rather than cut down and retrofitted. The exception is for those enthusiasts keen to learn how Photoshop works, but unable to justify its cost. For these users Photoshop Elements offers 80% of Photoshop's functionality at 20% of the price.

Features
5
Ease of Use
4
Value for Money
5
Overall
4

ratings out of 6

Photoshop Elements
Software / Upgrade
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Books / Reference
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System Requirements :  Pentium II or higher, 64MB RAM, 130MB disk space, VGA, Windows 98/Me/2000 or NT 4 with SP 4, 5 or 6a.

Tom Arah

April 2001


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