Corel Paint Shop Pro 9

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New photo filters, drawing and art media tools, and selective undo successfully boost PSP’s creative power.

Paint Shop Pro (PSP) began life as a simple shareware bitmap editor, but has transformed itself into a professional photo editor that gives even Photoshop a run for its money.

This move upstream continues in this latest release with a number of features aimed at the high-end digital camera user. To begin with PSP’s image browser window now offers an Info palette to show the EXIF data, such as aperture and exposure, that modern cameras automatically store with their images. PSP 9 also now supports the unprocessed RAW sensor data captured by professional cameras and lets you set customized white balance, exposure and sharpening settings for import.

Once you’ve opened your photos, the latest PSP also offers a number of new enhancement filters: Digital Camera Noise Removal intelligently removes image noise introduced at the sensor; Chromatic Aberration Removal eliminates the occasional undesirable coloured glow around objects that digital cameras can introduce; Fill Flash corrects underexposed shadows; and Backlighting corrects over-exposed highlights. Two new special effect filters have also been added in the form of Displacement Map for creating 2D and 3D surface distortions based on an underlying image and Radial Blur for creating spin, twist and zoom blur effects. And when it comes to outputting your photos with PSP’s excellent Print Layout dialog, you can now add freeform text captions to your printouts.

Handling and enhancing existing photos is certainly PSP’s most common role but the program is also capable of originating images from scratch. And it isn’t limited to bitmaps either as PSP pioneered the use of vector layers to provide integrated drawing capabilities. With version 9 these are enhanced with new Rectangle and Oval tools (previously these were available as presets), and simpler handling for the Pen tool. Completely new are the Symmetric Shape tool, designed for adding customizable polygon and star shapes, and new Text tool options for producing vertical text and improving the rendering of smaller font sizes.

Alongside its surprisingly impressive drawing capabilities, PSP 9 adds completely new art-based painting functionality clearly inspired by the market leader, Corel Painter. This comes in the form of new Art Media layers on which you can paint with a range of new natural media tools – Oil, Chalk, Palette Knife, Pastel, Crayon, Colored Pencil, and Marker - each designed to closely mimic its real world counterpart. Using the Oil Brush tool, for example, as you drag onscreen the multi-bristled brush lays down multiple pigments that interact with both the underlying paint and canvas texture until the brush stroke realistically runs out of paint.

The aim is to make working with the Art Media tools feel like working with traditional artist’s tools, an idea reinforced by PSP 9’s new traditional-style Mixer. Like a real artist’s palette this new dockable palette provides an off-canvas area in which you can add, mix and then sample your paint ready to apply. Alternatively you can set the colour that your art media tool applies to Trace which means that the underlying colour is automatically sampled when you first begin painting – ideal for producing an artistic version of an existing photograph.

With its new Art Media tools, Paint Shop Pro begins to live up to its name.

The results can be impressive but there’s a major downside as the amount of processing involved leads to a serious time lag as your strokes are laid down. Because of this, painting in PSP lacks the spontaneity of working with traditional art media, but it makes up for it with the unbeatable advantage that working in a computer environment offers - the ability to immediately undo any stroke that you regret. And the latest PSP drives home this advantage with its new History palette. This lists all commands as they are applied to an image and you can simply choose an earlier stage in your work and undo all changes since then. Far more powerful is PSP 9’s ability to undo individual steps without affecting subsequent actions, say deleting a single earlier brush stroke! You can also select multiple steps and then save these as a script that you can then apply to any other image.

With its intuitive drawing and art media tools, selective undo and advanced but friendly scripting, the major new features in Paint Shop Pro 9 combine well together to help release users’ creativity and should go a long way towards changing the program’s overly-technical reputation. And in the process they manage to show the market-dominating Photoshop a trick or two. However it’s important to keep things in perspective. There are still plenty of areas in which Photoshop leaves PSP trailing (16-bit quality, layer styling, layer comps, colour management, channel handling and so on). Most importantly, PSP’s core pixel processing engine just isn’t fast enough to tempt professional Photoshop users to jump ship. And that’s just as true of those computer artists who currently use Corel Painter.

Features such as new filters and selective undo put the user in total control.

Ultimately Paint Shop Pro 9 doesn’t challenge either Photoshop or Painter for their high-end crowns but, by providing much of both programs’ functionality at an excellent price, it’s a very capable and increasingly attractive all-rounder. However if you don't need the new creative capabilities and would prefer better photo management then you might well be better served by the cut-down PSP Studio or another alternative such as the recent release of Adobe Photoshop Elements.

Ease of Use
Value for Money

ratings out of 6

System Requirements: Pentium III 300MHz, 256MB of RAM, 500MB of hard disk space, Windows 98SE, 2000 (SP4), ME or XP, SVGA, Internet Explorer

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Tom Arah

October 2004

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