Ulead PhotoImpact 5

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With its intuitive environment and excellent vector, Web and digital photography features, PhotoImpact comes into its own where it really counts - quickly producing images that impress. .

PhotoImpact's Easy Palette

Things are certainly hotting up in the office-based image editing  market. No sooner has Paint Shop Pro 6 arrived (see page ) than Ulead  releases a new version of its PhotoImpact package claiming it does  everything that Paint Shop Pro does and more. So which is the better  buy?

On first sight the PhotoImpact interface looks pretty similar to Paint Shop Pro's with its main toolbar down the left and colour bar down the right. Closer inspection shows that the PhotoImpact environment is much more dynamic and proactive with features such as its context-sensitive property bar for setting tool options and the colour bar's TV-style controls for quickly adjusting the colour, brightness and contrast of your image. Enhancements in this release include a redesigned colour picker and Fill tool, a Quick Command Panel for recording and replaying simple actions and the ability to view images at any size from 1%-1600%.

However there's one interface feature where PhotoImpact is still only catching up with Paint Shop Pro: its image browser. PhotoImpact 5 now provides a Visual Open dialog which offers a browsable directory tree and automatically generates preview thumbnails of all supported file formats in the selected directory. This is a huge advance on working only with filenames or single previews but, with no file management or image selection commands, no drag-and-drop support and without the ability to leave the browser open, it's a pale imitation of Paint Shop Pro's browser. This is all the more irritating as PhotoImpact used to set the pace in visual file management with its excellent but now discontinued Explorer utility.

At least there's the compensation of PhotoImpact's excellent image cataloguing program, Album. This also works by generating image thumbnails but these are stored permanently in album files - ideal for managing digital photos. Field-based text descriptions can also be stored with the thumbnails and used as the basis for advanced searches. Full file management is provided and, crucially, albums can be archived to removable media. Advanced slide shows can be set up complete with transitions and music and these can be exported to HTML either as Java-driven presentations or as navigable Web sites. This latest version of Album is relatively unchanged but it does offer the one command that I have been praying for - the ability to instantly rotate digital photographs directly from the thumbnail view.

PhotoImpact Album 5

The bundled Album 5 is an excellent cataloguing program for digital photographs.

Album is certainly a great help when dealing with multiple images and for digital photographers is invaluable, but the one interface feature that really sets PhotoImpact apart from the pack is its EasyPalette. This single dockable window provides access to an unbelievable range of power via no fewer than fourteen galleries of effects, seven libraries of draggable objects and a layer manager for controlling the objects in your current image. In the past it was easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer range of options available, but version 5 has brought things back under control with a browsable tree interface so that you can quickly hone in on the functionality you need.

The range of power is awesome but the real beauty of the EasyPalette is the way in which it presents this power visually and intuitively. If you want to apply a fill or artistic effect, for example, you simply select the appropriate gallery and are then presented with a choice of preset thumbnails each giving a clear indication of the effect that will be applied. All you have to do is pick the option that most appeals. You can even use your current image as the source of all thumbnails or, with the Variations command, generate nine variations on the current theme. For precise control you can also always call up the controlling dialog but it's generally much easier, and certainly a lot more fun, to just explore and experiment. More importantly you are far more likely to end up with creative and impactful end results than you would be with more traditional technically-oriented packages.

PhotoImpact's Easy Palette

The central EasyPalette offers a huge choice of pick-and-mix image effects.

Of course the most intuitive and creative interface in the world isn't much use without real power behind it and so the latest PhotoImpact has seriously overhauled its core colour correction capabilities with new Tone, Histogram, Equalize and Calculation commands. A lot of work has also been put into handling masks and selections for those occasions when you don't want to apply your changes globally across the image as a whole. The Magic Wand tool can now make selections based on HSB as well as RGB similarity while the smart Lasso tool has improved edge seeking. Alternatively you can select the new Mask mode in which you can build up or fine-tune a mask or selection by interactively painting over the image. Using the new Fadeout command you can also apply a linear or radial gradient to your mask, ideal for creating vignette effects.

These are all big steps forward but PhotoImpact is still lagging behind when it comes to colour correcting. Select the Histogram command, for example, and you are presented with the tone map of pixel values in the current image but without any way to change it. It looks like the Level command might offer this essential power but instead provides simple posterization. The Tone Map command does offer greater control but again it's not impressive compared to other packages. Likewise with masks. Apart from through the new Fadeout control there is no way of setting up grayscale masks to vary the effect of changes across a selection. Compared to the precise and non-destructive control offered through the use of adjustment layers and layer masks, PhotoImpact's handling is relatively crude.

Ultimately PhotoImpact's visual pick-and-apply approach just isn't suited to the subtleties of intensive professional colour correction, but it does comes into its own for applying special effects. The EasyPalette offers access to a whole host of these from basic blurring and sharpening through artistic painterly effects to its unique "particle" effects which allow you to add rain, snow and cloud elements to your image. The new Lighting gallery takes a similar approach allowing you to drag and drop various lighting-based preset effects from fireworks to lens flare onto your image. Alternatively you can call up the Lighting dialog and, for example, interactively reposition the stroke of lightning and change everything from the colour to the number of forks! If you've ever wanted to brighten up a dull photo here's your ideal opportunity.

Another area in which PhotoImpact outshines its more traditional rivals is in its brush-based editing. The Brush Gallery offers access to over 150 painting, cloning and retouching brushes with new options designed to remove red-eye, scratches, and noise and options to transform individual colors. Each brush can be customised using the property bar while advanced settings, such as colour variability and response to tablet pressure, can be set with the Brush palette. A new tab on the Brush palette allows one of 38 pre-supplied textures to be selected which gives the impression of painting on textured canvas - though disappointingly there is no control over the size of the effect. You can also now set the brush cursor to show the actual shape and size of the current brush.

The biggest change when it comes to brushwork is the new ability to paint in Object mode. Initially selecting this seems to make little difference as paint and retouching strokes seem to have exactly the same effect as before. In fact you are now painting on a new object floating above the underlying image as you can see if you open the EasyPalette's Object Manager. This is a huge step forward as it means that if you later regret your changes you can always delete the layer or soften its effect by changing its opacity. In many ways this means that PhotoImpact's local object-based system is becoming more like Photoshop and Paint Shop Pro's global layer-based system, a feeling reinforced by the new list style view of objects where you can lock or temporarily hide objects. It's a big step forward but without layer blend modes, masks or adjustment layers there's still a long way to go.

PhotoImpact's object-based approach might not offer as much as layers for advanced compositing effects, but it excels when it comes to dealing with discrete, clearly defined objects. This is especially true of its vector object handling. Paint Shop Pro 6 quite rightly prides itself for introducing the concept of vector handling in a layer-based environment, but in fact PhotoImpact 4 already offered similar functionality through its Path Drawing tools. In PhotoImpact 5 this system has been extended with new Outline Drawing and Lines and Arrows tools. Essentially these allow vector defined lines and shapes of all descriptions to be added to an image just like any other floating object except that, when these path objects are resized, rotated or edited with the new Path Edit tool, there is no loss of quality.

PhotoImpact vector handling

PhotoImpact's vector-based drawing is extremely impressive for a paint program.

Such flexible vector handling is ideal for managing shapes and PhotoImpact offers drag-and-drop access to hundreds of these ranging from rectangles and circles through to apples and leaves. It's even more useful for handling text but here, to begin with at least, PhotoImpact looks underpowered with an incredibly basic Text Entry dialog. It's true that there are no options for controlling character level formatting or leading or kerning but it is possible to set typeface, point size and alignment. More importantly thanks to its vector nature, it's possible edit any of these settings or the text itself at any time.

What really sets PhotoImpact's text and shape handling apart is what you can do with them once they've been added to an image. To begin with the basic level of control is impressive with the ability to arrange multiple objects by aligning, distributing and grouping. More power is offered through the new Deform and Wrap galleries which make it simple to apply hundreds of preset effects such as text on a curve. Sadly there's no interactive control but you should be able to quickly find an eye-catching effect. If not, you could always use one of the dedicated effects from the Type gallery. Of the many styles on offer perhaps the most striking are those that make your text look like it's on fire or dripping with icicles.

Applying a Type Gallery effect immediately turns your editable vectors into permanent pixels but such loss of editability usually won't be necessary as the vector formatting options on offer are themselves impressive. Using the Object Properties dialog you can add any flat, gradient, magic or texture fill while still retaining complete editability. Even better, using the Property bar you can change the object mode from 2D to one of five 3D options - round, chisel, trim, pipe and custom. These all work to give a 3D effect by giving your shape or text a bevel edge complete with control over the border, depth and lighting. Incredibly this level of control is only the beginning. Click on the Material command and an enhanced dialog appears with no less than nine tabs for controlling everything from shading through to bump-map based reflection! Best of all, once you've created just the effect you're after, you can save it to apply to any other object at any time in future.

The obvious use for such object-based power is in the creation and editing of consistent graphic effects for Web buttons and other devices. In fact PhotoImpact 5 goes much further than this with its new Component Designer. This is effectively an in-built utility that builds elements such as banners, bullets, icons, separators and buttons bars out of pre-designed PhotoImpact objects. All you have to do is select a category, choose an option that appeals from the presets provided and then customise the formatting and the text. The range of presets is itself impressive but, when you take into account the range of formatting options on offer, the range is effectively infinite.

PhotoImpact Component Designer

The new Component Designer creates Web images from customisable preset objects.

With its vector handling and dedicated features like the Component Designer, there's no question that PhotoImpact provides the best Web origination features of any bitmap editor including the dedicated ImageReady. It falls behind slightly, however, when it comes to output; which is surprising as PhotoImpact was actually the first program to realise the importance of preview-based image optimisation with its GIF and JPEG SmartSavers back in version 3. Sadly, apart from the introduction of PNG support, these have been allowed to stagnate and, like the similar export dialogs in Paint Shop Pro, fail to offer individual GIF colour controls, image comparisons or a big enough preview.

Where PhotoImpact's Web output leaves Paint Shop Pro behind is with its ability to export HTML. In particular this opens up two important features. Using the new Image Slicer you can mark up your image to be exported as sections each with its own optimisation settings and separate URL links. Using the HTML-based table PhotoImpact creates, the elements of the image are then seamlessly recombined in your Web browser. PhotoImpact even allows you to create the popular rollover effect with its Java Rollover Assistant. Simply by swapping between selected objects for mouseover and mousedown events you can give your site a dynamic edge - at least for version 4 browsers.

For fully animated Web graphics, PhotoImpact even offers its separate GIF Animator 3 program. This is very crude in terms of frame-based editing with a pixel editor environment that seems more suited to handling icons than the full 24-bit AVIs that GIF Animator now supports. In fact the program isn't really intended for such editing as frames can now be opened directly within PhotoImpact. Much more commonly you won't do any hands-on editing at all, but will instead take advantage of the program's wizard-based effects and transitions to automatically create your animation.

PhotoImpact GIF animator

GIF Animator 3 offers rudimentary pixel editing but advanced effects and transitions.

Generally GIF Animator isn't the right program for you if you are looking for absolute professional control over your animation but if you are looking to produce high impact effects quickly and efficiently then it's ideal. The same is true for the PhotoImpact package as a whole. If you need to feel in complete technical control of every pixel in your image, you will be better served by a traditional layer-based editor such as Photoshop or the latest Paint Shop Pro. If you're more concerned with producing creative end results, especially if you're interested in either Web graphics or digital photography, then PhotoImpact is the better choice. It's also a lot more fun.

Tom Arah



Ease Of Use 


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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

October 1999

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