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Make the most of your digital cameraTom Arah looks at the full range of photo editing software available to help you make the best choice for you.
So you're the proud owner of a digital camera. Now you're going to want the right software to make the most of it. No problem you might think - after all, everyone knows that the professionals' choice for photo editing is Adobe Photoshop. But hold on. Yes Photoshop dominates the professional market, but not everyone can justify its price tag. More to the point, if you don't need Photoshop's high-end features, there are other packages that cost a fraction of the price and actually provide more usable functionality!
So what should you look for? Obviously the editing capabilities for making your photos look their best are central - the colour and tone adjustments for general enhancement and the retouching tools for removing imperfections. But alongside this core editing power you need a whole range of other functionality specific to handling digital photos. To begin with, when dealing with hundreds of images, file management is a major issue, from initial retrieval from your camera (or scanner for legacy prints), through viewing and organising on your hard disk, to final archiving to CD.
You also need to think about what you want to do with your images. This might be creating professional photocompositions, or eye-catching works of art - or it might be producing a jokey card or poster. And you also need to think about how you intend to let others see your photos and projects. Print remains central here, whether commercial or local, but these days onscreen presentation is just as important either directly on your own system or via email, web galleries or even DVD.
Now we know what to look for let's see how the applications deliver.
Adobe Photoshop Album 2 Starter Edition
Verdict: Rudimentary editing but impressive management - and you can't argue with the price.
This might seem a strange place to begin the roundup as direct photo editing is actually only a small part of what Photoshop Album is all about. But it's a useful starting point to think seriously about just what functionality you need to make the most of your camera.
So what exactly is Album? Adobe Photoshop Album is designed with one goal in mind: to help you take control of your digital photos. You can import new images directly from your camera and existing images from anywhere on your hard disk or removable media and these are automatically added as thumbnails to a single central catalogue. You can then quickly locate any file or files by date using the timeline at the top of the screen (this is based on the EXIF data embedded in your JPEGs). You can also quickly add your own keyword tags through simple drag-and-drop and then filter your catalogue based on these.
Image management is the heart of Album, but the program does offer some basic photo-editing capabilities too. Click on the Fix button and you are taken to a large dialog where you can apply four "single click fixes" - auto colour, auto levels, auto contrast and sharpen to enhance your image. You can also crop your image and remove the red eye effect caused by flash. Two nice touches are the large before-and-after previews and the fact that your original image is automatically kept so that you can always restore it.
Once you've edited your photos, you're ready to share them. When it comes to print, the ability to quickly output contact sheets and multiple prints per page puts Photoshop itself to shame. And you can also quickly email multiple images with Album taking care of the necessary resizing and address lists. You can even send the images as a PDF-based slideshow.
At the price it's difficult to complain about the functionality on offer, but of course there are limitations and Adobe is betting that the more you use the free version, the more likely you are to upgrade. And with good reason as the full version (which costs £35 exc VAT) adds a whole host of functionality such as an attractive calendar view for viewing your photos, greater photo-editing control including corrections for fixing lighting and colour and the ability to automatically enhance multiple images (see Automatic for the People boxout) and a much wider range of output options including cards, photo albums, web galleries and even video CD so that you can display slide shows via a DVD player on your TV.
That said, there are no time-based limitations or restrictions on the number of photos that the Starter Edition can handle so it could well prove a useful tool in your armoury - or just possibly all you need.
ratings out of 6
Verdict: Impressive photo editing power designed with the keen photographer in mind.
Photo-Brush stands out from the crowd and not just for its budget price. The program is unique in that it's produced by a single developer - Roman Voska, the man behind the excellent RealDRAW Pro - who is himself a keen photographer and uses his own practical experience to great effect.
This is apparent in a whole host of features such as the ability to remove the barrel and pincushion distortions common when working with wide angles and high levels of zoom and a perspective correction command to produce a face-on version of an image that you had to shoot at an angle. Then there's little things like the ability to reset the date of the file to when the photo was taken rather than when it was edited. Most obviously there's the unique Camera Info palette which shows you the embedded EXIF-based data on how the photo was taken - flash, exposure and so on - which can help you decide on the best enhancement strategy.
So what enhancement power is on offer? For the price it's pretty extraordinary. There are effective automatic commands for adjusting levels and colour and an impressive one-click overall enhancement alongside the most important dialogs for managing the photo's tone-map as levels and curves. There are also a number of options designed to simulate traditional ways of working such as the Exposure Compensation command which works in time-honoured EV (Exposure Value) units and the Filter-SIM command which simulates Kodak Wratten lens filters.
It's with its local retouching that Photo-Brush really lives up to its name. The program provides a whole host of brushes for changing contrast, brightness, saturation, hue and so on. It's even better for removing imperfections with separate brushes for removing red eye, spots, lines and skin blemishes and of course there's a cloning tool. Nice touches include the ability to convert any section of the image into a seamless texture that you can then apply elsewhere and an Original brush for locally undoing changes. And if you want to get creative with your photos, Photo-Brush again provides a wide range of interactive brushes, including images hoses and distortion effects, along with a range of creative filters and full support for third-party Photoshop plug-ins.
It's important not to get carried away. In particular, without a layering system, Photo-Brush isn't the right program to create photocompositions and, apart from the very crude thumbnailed browser, there are no capabilities for handling multiple images - archiving, emailing and so on. And you can forget about output options other than basic print.
Ultimately, while Photo-Brush provides amazing editing power for the price, it's unlikely to fill all your requirements.
ratings out of 6
Roxio PhotoSuite 7 Platinum
Verdict: PhotoSuite 7's hands-on photo editing is comparatively basic, but it makes up for it with a host of other functionality.
As its name suggests, Roxio PhotoSuite isn't a single standalone package but a collection of applications and utilities designed to help you make the most of your digital camera. The easiest way to load the various modules is from version 7's new Home Page panel which lets you choose from a whole host of common tasks such as creating a new canvas, editing, printing, emailing and so on.
Roxio rightly recognizes that just managing your photos is a major task in itself and offers two applications to help bring your images under your immediate control. The first is Capture which lets you import photos from any connected camera or scanner. The second is Media Manager which offers thumbnail-based viewing of both hard disk folders and of themed "collections" that you create through simple drag-and-drop. You can further organize your collections through keywords. Particularly impressive features are the ability to play video files within their thumbnails and to archive your files to CD or DVD, and the integration of collections into the main PhotoSuite application.
So just what photo editing power does this main PhotoSuite module offer? At first sight the answer seems to be virtually none. The main Guide Panel that runs down the left of the screen provides just five main options: a single-click PhotoDoctor image enhancement, the ability to Crop and Rotate images, to remove Red Eye and, bizarrely, to Add or Edit text. Clearly the emphasis is on keeping things simple but this is taking things much too far.
But don't give up on PhotoSuite just yet. To begin with, the program's emphasis on automatic enhancement has a major advantage - you can apply it to multiple images at once via the Multi Photo Enhance capability (see BOXOUT). More importantly, PhotoSuite offers quite a bit more editing power than appears at first, if you click the Show All Features option at the bottom of the Guide Panel. Now you can independently control exposure, saturation, sharpness, tint and contrast and brightness. Retouching options also become available including three "Facial Flaws" options for removing red eye, wrinkles and blemishes and three "Damaged Photos" options for removing dust, scratches and for general cloning. And hidden away in the Paint and Draw option there's a Touchup brush which has variants for colorizing, tinting, lightening, darkening, saturating, desaturating, softening and sharpening. It's still not state-of-the-art power but it's as much as many users will need.
The same is true of PhotoSuite's creative options. You can select separate areas of the image by freehand tracing, edge tracing (particularly effective) or picking colours. And once you've made your selection you can either use it as a mask, say to work with PhotoSuite's many filters, or turn it into a "cutout" which allows the creation of basic photomontages. PhotoSuite also comes with a range of "props" to help produce fun montages and a selection of pre-prepared projects for creating greeting cards, calendars, posters and so on. I particularly liked the Collage option which randomly shuffles, sizes and rotates multiple images and then allows you to fine-tune the effect.
Once you've finished working on your photos and projects, you'll want to share them. PhotoSuite's print capabilities are particularly good enabling you to produce individual prints, contact sheets and multiple photos per page with no fuss. Alternatively, you can email images or post them to the Roxio Photo Centre website.
Where PhotoSuite 7 really shines is in turning your photos into eye-catching presentations. The Media Manager offers a simple QuickShow option, but if you want to control transitions and add advanced animated titles, overlays and sound then you need to use the new StoryBoard module. And when you're happy with your presentation, you can output it directly to a connected TV/VCR or DV camcorder or to a host of formats such as WMV for efficient emailing. Most impressive of all, if you select the Burn Production to Disk command, your slideshow is automatically imported into a cut-down version of Roxio's DVD Builder program. Here you can produce a menu-driven front-end for your multimedia extravaganza and burn it to CD in the VCD (Video CD) format which is readable in most modern DVD drives and players.
The suite's real power lies in its additional modules.
PhotoSuite has one final and very impressive trick up its sleeve - its panorama capabilities. Click on the Photo Stitch option and you can load multiple images and PhotoSuite 7 will automatically detect the images' focal length from the embedded EXIF data and use this to automatically warp and align the images before seamlessly stitching them together. The results are excellent - far better than those from Photoshop's photo merge and even from expensive dedicated stitching software.
PhotoSuite isn't the right choice if you're primarily interested in a program for intensive photo editing, but if you're looking for more general functionality to make the most of your camera it's hard to beat. And impossible to beat at the price.
ratings out of 6
Microsoft Digital Image Suite 9
Verdict: Microsoft knows what the average consumer wants to do with their digital camera and enables them to do it.
As you'd expect with Microsoft, the emphasis in its Digital Image Suite is on usability so, as with PhotoSuite, all functionality is primarily accessed through the drill-down Common Tasks panel. This offers access to dozens of commands divided into major categories - Format, Touchup and so on - and, when you select one, the panel provides plenty of help as to how to use it.
In terms of global colour correction the range of adjustments is limited but with a one-click AutoFix, an Adjust Lighting option to add in the effect of flash or to reduce the effect of backlighting, and a Levels command to manage shadows, highlights and midtones there's most of the power most users will need. There's also a Restore Old Picture command to bring out the focus and contrast of faded scans. Using the Mini Lab you can also apply Levels, Contrast and Tint autofixes to multiple images at a time.
When it comes to retouching, the main Digital Image Pro application provides simple-to-use tools for removing red eye, blemishes, dust, scratches and wrinkles. There's also a cloning tool so that you can interactively paint over unwanted objects and a blending brush which works like an intelligent cloner. There are also dodge and burn options for lightening and darkening areas of your photo though no options for locally changing saturation or sharpness. Most impressive is the Smart Erase command which uses the surrounding areas to intelligently remove unwanted objects and usually works like magic.
In terms of creative options, there are hundreds of easy-to-apply filters on offer along with some more surprising features such as Art Strokes and Photo Strokes which drag out eye-catching bitmaps along the length of the line that you draw. There's also a basic stack-based approach to creating photomontages which includes the ability to paint on transparency. And, as you'd expect from Microsoft, there is no shortage of clip art and templates to help create projects such as cards and posters.
Also included in the Suite is the separate Digital Image Library which is used for photo management. This lets you view your photos as thumbnails either on a folder basis or en masse. To take further control, you can add keywords with the keyword painter but this is surprisingly awkward and the associated search capabilities are limited. Printing of multiple images is excellent and you can also easily email photos and archive them to disk. You can also use the bundled Plus Photo Story Lite to create a slideshow presentation complete with narration and panning. It's a useful little utility but its functionality is limited as are its output options (to Microsoft's own WMV video format) especially compared to PhotoSuite's advanced multimedia capabilities and VCD output.
That's typical. The Digital Image Suite is a useful all-rounder for the non-expert user but PhotoSuite currently offers more all-round power for less money.
ratings out of 6
Ulead PhotoImpact XL
Verdict: An emphasis on producing eye-catching images and having fun, but at the cost of core photo editing and handling power.
As its name suggests, what makes PhotoImpact different is its emphasis on producing eye-catching images that really stand out from the crowd. This is mainly handled through the large EasyPalette which by default fills half the screen and provides access to hundreds of thumbnailed effects that you quickly apply to your image with a simple double-click (with further control available via right-clicking). Options range from recolouring and artistic effects, through distortions and warps, to special effects such as paper curls and the ability to add bitmap and vector-based props. Particular favourites include PhotoImpact's ability to add particle-based fireworks, rain and smoke.
Using these filters you can quickly turn an ordinary photo into a high impact extravaganza, say by adding lightning to a glowering cloud or a realistic moon to a night sky - but what about the more everyday staples of photo editing? In terms of image enhancement, the Format menu provides eight auto processing commands for one-click colour, focus and contrast enhancement. And for more hands-on control there are further options for handling tone maps, colour adjustment, levels and so on. There's even a unique High Dynamic Range command that lets you combine shots bracketed with different exposures to extend the perceivable tonal range.
Frankly though the range of power on offer is a bit of a dog's dinner as are the individual dialogs, most of which are ugly and confusing and built around preview thumbnails that are too small to be useful. PhotoImpact's retouching power is disappointing too. Most of the usual suspects are there with dodge, burn, blur, sharpen, smudge and so on and options for removing red eye and scratches. However the control over these tools in the Attributes toolbar is limited and confusing. Generally you get the feeling that PhotoImpact finds enhancing and tidying up an image a bit too dull to be bothered with.
So what other functionality is on offer for the digital camera user? There are awkward options for printing multiple photos per page and outputting web galleries which largely get the job done; and a truly dreadful stitching option for producing panoramas which doesn't. A feather in PhotoImpact's cap is its inclusion of the separate Album program for handling photo sets - an innovation Ulead pioneered. Disappointingly though PhotoImpact Album has hardly changed since it was introduced, apart from the ability to archive images to CD/DVD.
This is typical of PhotoImpact generally. While it used to lead the pack for innovation, it has now fallen behind its rivals and looks increasingly old-fashioned and out of step.
ratings out of 6
Adobe Photoshop Elements 2
Verdict: Most of the functionality of Photoshop that the average user would use, and at a fraction of the price.
Photoshop is the undisputed leader when it comes to professional photo-editing (see page ) but it's expensive and overkill for most users so a cut-down version at a cut-down price is bound to be attractive. That's the thinking behind Photoshop Elements.
To be a real success though Photoshop Elements has to make the shift from the high-end expert user to the average digital camera owner. And that means making the program more friendly and transparent. This is immediately apparent in Elements' retouching tools where the main dodge, burn, sponge, smudge, sharpen, blur and rubber stamp tools have all been promoted and given their own slot in the toolbox while the Colour Replacement brush has been renamed as the Red Eye Brush. The power is more accessible as a result but with no Healing, Patch or History tools there's less of it.
The same is true when it comes to global processing. The main adjustment commands have sensibly been brought together under a new Enhance menu and they have been rationalized with the main one-click automatic options foregrounded and the other adjustments grouped into categories dealing with lighting, colour and contrast/brightness. There's also a Quick Fix command which acts as a convenient front end to the main corrections. It's certainly simpler but a lot of useful power has again been lost.
When it comes to taking your photos in new directions, Elements offers the same 100 creative filters as Photoshop and is also able to take advantage of third-party plug-ins. Most importantly, it offers the same layer-based approach to photo-compositing complete with support for opacity and blend modes, vector-based shape and text layers, adjustment layers, layer masks and layer effects (though not layer sets or layer comps). You can certainly create impressive montages with the power on offer but compared to Photoshop itself there are limitations - layer masks are limited to adjustment layers for example, which are themselves restricted to the major colour corrections.
So much for hands-on editing power, what about other functionality designed to make the most of your photos and camera? This is where Photoshop Elements is most disappointing as it shares the same failings as Photoshop itself with generally poor image management and output options. Remember though that these can both be improved greatly by working in conjunction with Photoshop Album (see page ), especially if you're willing to shell out for the full-price version which was specifically designed to act as a natural companion to Elements.
Overall, Photoshop Elements is a mixed bag. If you'd really like to be using Photoshop itself but can't currently justify price tag, this is an excellent way to get on the ladder. On the other hand, most digital camera users would actually get more practical benefit from a more up-to-date all-rounder like Roxio PhotoSuite 7.
ratings out of 6
JASC Paint Shop Pro 8
Verdict: Extensive photo editing power but too technical for the average user and no competition for Photoshop for the professional.
Despite its humble shareware origins, Paint Shop Pro's photo editing feature set has grown over time to challenge Photoshop head-on. This is immediately evident with the various options for preparing your photo with special tools for straightening and perspective correction and commands for removing barrel and pincushion distortion. When it comes to colour correction the most common options are available from a dropdown list on the dedicated Photo toolbar including a One Step Photo Fix. If you need more control, there's plenty to choose from with almost 50 filters on offer from the Adjust menu. The problem is that the sheer range can be confusing - there are no less than 11 options just for managing Brightness/Contrast - as can each individual filter - especially as the dialogs are cramped and unhelpful.
It's a similar story when it comes to local retouching. There's no doubting the power on offer with separate dodge, burn, smudge, push, soften, sharpen, lighten/darken, saturation, hue and change-to-target brushes. There's also a scratch remover and cloning tool for removing unwanted artifacts. And in each case there's plenty of control available over factors such as hardness, density, thickness and so on. There's a danger though that the control becomes too technical and intimidating. This is most obvious with Paint Shop Pro's over-the-top Red Eye Removal command which actually draws a new eye - human or animal - complete with control over pupil lightness, iris size and glint!
When you want to produce montages using elements from multiple original photos, Paint Shop Pro offers good selection handling and an effective clone of Photoshop's excellent layer-based compositing system. This not only includes control over blend mode and opacity but support for layer groups, layer masks, vector shapes and text and even non-destructive adjustment layers (though not layer effects or layer comps). And for non-realistic work, Paint Shop Pro offers an impressive range of filters for applying creative effects.
When it comes to outputting your photos or compositions (there's no support for projects such as greeting cards) Paint Shop Pro offers a dedicated print module that makes it simple to handle multiple prints per page in regular or customizable layouts - and puts Photoshop's equivalent capabilities to shame. But that's about it apart from a link to Shutterfly for online web sharing. For direct emailing, burning to CD and advanced VCD output, along with superior image management generally, you'll need to shell out again for Paint Shop Pro Album (£26 exc VAT).
Ultimately Paint Shop Pro 8 provides plenty of intensive hands-on photo-editing power, but disappoints when it comes to the other functionality that brings the most out of your digital camera. And with its technical approach and old-fashioned interface, it's all rather joyless compared to the more rounded and cheaper consumer applications.
ratings out of 6
Adobe Photoshop CS
Verdict: Unrivalled editing and compositing power - but not the right choice for all users.
Photoshop so dominates the professional photo editing market that effectively there is no competition. And somehow it manages to do this while costing five times as much as its nearest rivals! Clearly it's doing something right - but what?
The answer certainly isn't immediately apparent when you first look at Photoshop's global adjustments. These are divided into two main sections. In the first are three automatic commands - Auto Levels, Auto Contrast and Auto Colour - alongside the main three interactive tone-map corrections - Levels, Curves and Colour Balance. Below these are a range of around a dozen adjustments such as the new Photo Filter command which simulates the effects of traditional photographic lens filters and the Channel Mixer which is excellent for producing rich black and white versions of colour images.
All the main bases are covered but, when compared say to Paint Shop Pro 8 with its almost 50 adjustments, what makes Photoshop's control stand out? The difference is in the handling. To begin with, the options for controlling each command are comprehensive. Then there's the excellent feedback with Photoshop CS's new Histogram palette showing live before-and-after tone maps for each adjustment. The biggest difference though is in the sheer speed of Photoshop's number-crunching. This is especially essential for high-resolution images and also enables Photoshop CS to fully support 16-bit images which boosts quality by maintaining a wider tonal range. Best of all, it enables Photoshop to provide all its main image adjustments as non-destructive and fine-tunable adjustment layers.
High-end features such as its support for CMYK, 16-bit handling and non-destructive adjustments set Photoshop apart.
It's a similar story when it comes to local retouching. All the main bases are covered with dedicated dodge, burn, sponge (saturation), blur, sharpen and smudge tools, however there are no dedicated dust, scratch or red eye removal tools. Using the Colour Replacement tool though you can remove red eye or indeed any other unwanted colour, while the Clone Stamp tool and the amazing Healing and Patch tools are excellent for blending imperfections away into their background. And with Photoshop's unique History Brush you can store various snapshots of an image to use as the source for painting, say to partially restore the original image or to locally and interactively apply a global filter.
Apart from its image enhancement capabilities, what makes Photoshop stand out is its ability to create seamless photocompositions from multiple images. Its selection capabilities are excellent including the dedicated Extract dialog for isolating complex elements from their background while Photoshop CS's new Match Colour adjustment is ideal for blending added elements into their new background. The real secret of Photoshop's success though is its layer-based compositing. This not only includes support for bitmap layers complete with control over global transparency and blend mode, but vector-based shape and text layers, layer masks to manage local transparency, layer styles to manage formatting effects, adjustment layers to apply non-destructive corrections and layer sets to organize your composition. And now the latest Photoshop CS offers another exciting new option, Layer Comps, which enable you to freely experiment with different layer-based layouts and setups.
Photoshop also excels when it comes to layer-based photo-compositing.
Using this power it's possible to create compositions that are indistinguishable from an original photograph, but Photoshop is also very capable of producing eye-catching creative artwork. The comprehensive Brush palette lets you control every aspect of your brush (or retouching tool for that matter) from its size and shape to its texture and colour dynamics. There are also a hundred creative filters included in the package and these are almost infinitely extensible through third-party Photoshop plug-ins. In short, Photoshop can take your photograph wherever you want to.
Photoshop excels at hands-on intensive photo-editing but, as we've seen, that's actually only a part of the general functionality that the digital camera owner is looking for. So how does Photoshop score here? In terms of file management Photoshop does now offer an on-the-fly File Browser palette for handling multiple photos as thumbnails but it's generally awkward - you can rotate thumbnails, for example, but have to actually open the photo to rotate the image itself. Likewise with Photoshop CS's new improved Photo Merge command which lets you stitch images together to create panoramas - but still not as effectively as the budget PhotoSuite.
And what about output? Apart from Photoshop's excellent file export capabilities this is the most disappointing area of all. The only way to print multiple photos per page, for example, is by creating a new page-sized image with the awkward Picture Package command. The script-based Web Gallery output is just as clumsy. And you can forget about emailing, producing slideshow presentations, archiving to CD and creating VCDs unless you buy the separately available Photoshop Album (see page ).
In a way though this is missing the point. Photoshop CS just isn't aimed at the average digital camera user - it's a high-end tool for professionals targeting their output to commercial print. Here Photoshop's advanced features, such as its profile-based colour management, monitor calibration, onscreen CMYK proofing, colour-separated output and tight integration with Adobe's other design applications really come into play. Alongside Photoshop's unrivalled pixel processing engine and layer-based compositing it's a winning combination.
ratings out of 6
BOXOUT: Automatic for the People?
Automatic enhancement intelligently manipulates the image histogram.
Photo editing can often seem like a dark art with its reliance on technical concepts such as "channels", "histograms", "midtones", and "white balance". It's intimidating for the average user who just wants a simple way of making their photos look as good as possible as quickly as possible - which is why the idea of single-click automatic enhancement is so appealing. And it's not just attractive to the average user. When you're regularly dealing with hundreds of digital camera images, even experts need as much help as they can get.
The appeal is clear, so which program offers the best automatic image enhancement? Before we get onto that, we need to answer another question: how on earth does it work? After all, as far as the computer program is concerned, each photo is just a collection of coloured pixels so how can it make aesthetic judgements about what adjustments are needed to bring out the best in an image? The answer involves a basic understanding of those intimidating technical concepts - but don't worry: when you get down to it, they really aren't that difficult.
Ultimately each photo is indeed just a grid of pixels whose colours are made up of three separate red, green and blue brightness values (known collectively as "channels") And the main secret behind automatic correction comes from mapping these values, with brightness value along the x axis and the number of pixels along the y, to produce a tone map or "histogram". The results are very revealing. In an over-exposed image for example there are far more pixels in the lighter highlight values as shown by a clear bump in the histogram. For an under-exposed image the opposite is true with a clear bump in the darker shadows.
The ideal for any image is to have a good (though not even) spread throughout the tonal range and so, by statistically analyzing the histogram, the program's automatic enhancement engine can make intelligent decisions on how best to manipulate the pixel values to achieve this. Essentially this involves spreading the values to ensure that the darkest pixels are black and the lightest white to maximize the tonal range and then shifting the "midtones" to gain a more equal distribution. The end result is greater detail in the highlights and shadows and better overall contrast. At the same time another common problem can be solved, that of undesirable "colour cast" where the colour of the whole image is too red or too blue. This effect is most noticeable on those colours that should be white so by retrieving the values of an image's lightest pixels it's possible to discern any colour bias and, if there is one, to restore the "white balance" accordingly.
As well as examining and then manipulating how an image's pixel values are distributed within its histogram, automatic enhancement can do the same within the bitmap grid itself. Single white pixels, for example, are almost certainly "hot pixels" caused by charge leakage during long exposures and can be easily averaged out. PhotoSuite 7's Photo Doctor even goes so far as to automatically remove redeye which works by isolating regions of bright red and desaturating them. Most effective of all, by identifying areas of rapid change in tonal values, automatic adjustment can exaggerate these further to crisp up edges and generally sharpen the image.
Working together, the results of these various automatic adjustments can be jaw-dropping, instantly converting a disappointing photo that would probably have been thrown away as a traditional print into a treasured image. But it's important to understand the limitations. Yes the program can make intelligent guesses, but they are just guesses. This has two important consequences. First no matter how good the underlying algorithms, not all photos will benefit. In fact some will suffer - if you've taken a photo of a blue glacier, for example, you don't want an automatic "enhancement" treating it as an overexposed image with an unfortunate colour cast. Second, and following on from this, no single program's automatic enhancement is always going to be better than another's - it depends on the photos involved.
Rather than asking which program offers the best automatic enhancement then it's actually more a question of which offers the best handling. My favourite approach is that taken by Adobe Photoshop Album 2 (the full-price version sadly rather than the free Starter Edition). This lets you select multiple images to enhance from the thumbnail-based catalogue that you can then quickly move through using the full-screen Fix Photo dialog's Next and Previous buttons. Just three simple but effective enhancements are provided - Fix Lighting, Fix Colour and Sharpen - and, while you usually apply these automatically with a single-click, slider-based control is also available if you want to override Album's best guess. Crucially, you can easily compare linked before and after versions and remove red eye which is the most common retouching requirement. And, because all changes are automatically made to a copy of the original image, you don't have to resort to keeping duplicate directories for original and edited versions.
Photoshop Album offers particularly good handling of automatic correction.
Perhaps most important of all: it couldn't be easier to load the image from Album into your dedicated editor of choice. Ultimately, while automatic adjustment is an excellent tool in your armoury and the option most users will turn to first, it will never be a replacement to hands-on editing guided by the human eye.
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