Ulead PhotoImpact 4

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Striking new creative effects and top-of-the-range web features allied to  existing usability mean that PhotoImpact is the best choice for office-based  bitmap editing.

Ulead PhotoImpact 4

Back in issue 25, PhotoImpact won an excellence award for the fresh and modern approach it took to bitmap editing. Features such as context-sensitive property bars, simple object management, comprehensive right-click control and multiple levels of undo all helped to bring bitmap editing into the mainstream of office use. While other programs seemed slow, complex and intimidating, PhotoImpact was fast, intuitive and fun. Essentially it offered professional levels of power, quality and control for the non-professional user.

The major factor behind the program's success then and now is its Easy Palette floating window. While other applications throw users in at the deep end expecting them to get to grips with histograms, pixel values and tone maps, the Easy Palette instead offers a range of pre-defined effects presented as easily intelligible thumbnail previews. These can be applied by simply dragging and dropping them onto the image. If you like the effect, great, if you don't you can simply hit undo and if you think it needs customising, then right-clicking allows the controlling dialog to be called up. Other bitmap editors discourage creative experimentation, but PhotoImpact actively encourages it producing more striking images with more impact as a result.

In the latest PhotoImpact the use of the Easy Palette has been expanded greatly. To begin with, the viewing options have been enhanced to make it easier to find effects, to change thumbnail size, to use the current image as the thumbnail image and to automatically view variations on the current effect to help you hone in on exactly the effect you want. It's also easier to add your own customised effects as thumbnails for future use and to organise them into your own tabbed groups. Even so, more could have been done. In particular it's irritating to constantly have to select the command to tile images with the palette. With Corel's docker windows this is taken care of automatically.

The real change to the Easy Palette is the introduction of six major new galleries offering a huge range of new effects. Some of these are relatively straightforward. The Painting Gallery, for example, is used as an alternative and visual method of accessing the existing retouching and cloning tools together with the new artistic style brushes such as oil brush and chalks. The Frame Gallery, meanwhile, is used to give your image a finishing flourish by offering a range of different borders. Some of these such as the classic art-style picture frames cannot be customised at all while others, such as the various paper edge effects, can be given a different colour, texture or gradient.

Another border effect can be created with the effects in the TurnPage tab in the new Magic gallery which make it look as if the corner of the photo has curled over on itself. The Lighting tab offers a number of pre-set lighting effects, but it's much more likely that you'll have to customise these to suit your image. This is a relatively simple process with options to control the exposure and ambience and light brightness and also an interactive method of positioning the light to control its distance, spread and elevation. Generally the control is impressive, but only one light can be positioned at a time. The final Magic Gallery tab offers a range of Kaleidoscope effects that turn your image into a repeating pattern. Again pre-sets are provided but you'll have to interactively experiment with the dialog to get the best results.

The Material Gallery works slightly differently in that it must be used in conjunction with either the path or text tool. Objects created with these tools can automatically be swapped between five 3D modes - round, chisel, trim, pipe and custom - with their border and depth settings controlled on the property bar. Now with the Material Gallery it's also possible to drag and drop on a range of textures, bump maps, reflection maps and shading settings to create some amazingly realistic 3D effects. The obvious use is for the creation of eye-catching web effects with the great advantage that you can store your own customised settings to ensure consistency. Even more impressive is the ability to transform objects rotating them in 3D space with a virtual trackball. Unfortunately the method to achieve this is needlessly convoluted involving much swapping between tools and modes.

Far simpler and just as striking text effects are available from the Type Effect tab of the new Creative Gallery. This offers 14 major options ranging from adding neon outlines to realistic flame and ice effects as if the text was on fire or dripping icicles. The pre-sets have been well chosen but it's possible to fine-tune them, for example, to change the colour and strength of the flames. Even greater control is offered over the eight new Particle Effects. These are used to create naturalistic effects such as rain, snow and cloud that are actually built up of a number of separate objects. These particles are generated automatically by PhotoImpact with the intensity of the cloud effect, for example, depending on settings such as density, size, variance, opacity and frequency. Incredibly, PhotoImpact also offers control over each particle so that it's possible to select, reposition and recolour each wisp of cloud before finally applying.

The third and final tab in the Creative Gallery gives access to the new Painting Effects. These allow a huge range of different natural media style effects to be applied to an image to give it an artistic feel. There are over 40 different core templates ranging from etching through to oil colours and within the dialog there are further controls over the brush size, density, variation together with over 40 brush shapes to choose from. Essentially the range of options and end results is infinite which, while creatively powerful, can easily lead to complexity and confusion - especially as the online help is less than informative. This is where PhotoImpact's ability to automatically and quickly generate initial preview thumbnails and then further variations to choose between becomes essential. Sadly, the size of thumbnails in the Variations dialog is simply too small to make subtle distinctions, a problem that is shared in almost all of PhotoImpact's dialogs.

The final new gallery is the Web Gallery which offers a range of pre-designed backgrounds and button effects that can be dragged onto the image or selected object. As always, these can be customised with the Background Designer combining various schemas, patterns, types and palettes to create an infinite range of attractive and tileable textures. The Button Designer initially looks more limited in that it only offers four main button types, but again the control is extraordinary so that it's possible to boost the red or lower the contrast in the underlying image individually for each button edge! For those who prefer to rely on ready-made building blocks, the new Web Library - also available from the Easy Palette - provides drag and drop access to hundreds of tabs, dividers, buttons, bullets and so on. Even better it's now a simple matter to give each object a URL from the Object Properties dialog for the creation of image maps.

For saving graphics for use in web pages, PhotoImpact offers its SmartSaver technology. This provides comprehensive control with an onscreen preview of the effect of settings together with a file size reading. This allows the user to quickly and reliably hone on the best trade-off between image size and image quality and in the case of GIF format files to see the effect of different palettes. The latest version has added support for the increasingly popular, lossless, PNG format and allows swapping between each of the three main web formats GIF, JPEG and PNG. It's even possible to batch produce versions within a range of settings and then choose the most appropriate.

There is no support within PhotoImpact itself for web animations, but this is taken care of by the inclusion of two separate utilities. GIF Animator is a dedicated environment that allows existing files to be imported from a number of formats including AVI and 16-bit QuickTime. It offers not just control over frame ordering and positioning but also offers its own basic pixel editing and a number of transition effects to make creating your own animations simple. When saving, the program automatically checks that the image size and palettes are optimized to cut down on file size and bandwidth requirements. The separate Animation SmartSaver takes things even further allowing all redundant data to be removed from individual files or an entire web directory.

As well as its web utilities, PhotoImpact also offers its own image management program, Album. This enables up to 65,000 image thumbnails to be stored in each of its album files from where they can be catalogued, browsed and searched. Again the amount of power on offer is impressive with the ability to quickly view files at full size, to drag and drop them into any OLE supporting program, to convert them from one format to another, to print contact sheets and to create slide shows. However there is one major disappointment - the process of adding files to an Album is slow enough to make it off-putting when simply trying to track down an image on your hard disk. This is particularly annoying as PhotoImpact 3 included a separate and much faster utility, PhotoImpact Explorer, which was ideal for this, together with a dedicated PhotoCD browser and fast image viewer. At least the latest version doesn't remove these utilities when installing, but new users will be missing out.

The loss of these programs - and the excellent Capture screen grabber - is definitely disappointing, but there's still no question that you're getting a lot of image processing power for your money. The obvious comparison is to the similarly priced Picture Publisher. This has improved greatly recently (see issue ) and is now a serious mid-range contender that also offers some advanced professional print-orientated features - such as colour management and CMYK support - that PhotoImpact lacks. However in the final analysis Picture Publisher still doesn't have the power needed to compete as a serious studio-based bitmap editor, while PhotoImpact's concentration on office and web-based imaging gives it greater focus and more exciting images as a result. While Picture Publisher would like to be Photoshop but isn't, PhotoImpact has happily gone its own way to carve out a successful - and attractive - niche as the leading office-based bitmap editor.



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System Requirements: 486 or higher, 8Mb of RAM, 30Mb of disk space, Windows 95 or NT 3.51, CD-ROM.

Tom Arah

December 1998

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