Ulead PhotoImpact 6

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Recommended

PhotoImpact turns itself into a full Web authoring package - with maximum creativity.

The first version of PhotoImpact that I came across was version 3 and it was a revelation. Up until then photo-editing had always seemed a very serious and technical affair based on histograms, layer masks, channel editing and so on. With PhotoImpact the emphasis was instead placed on creativity with plenty of exciting filters and multiple levels of undo all designed to encourage experimentation and to help produce end results which packed a punch. Version 3 changed the way I looked at photo-editing, version 6 has changed the way I look at Web imaging.

PhotoImpact has always gone its own way and this is immediately clear in its interface. The modern context-sensitive toolbar aims to provide tool options quickly to hand, while you can now customize the standard toolbar. The main innovation though is the large floating EasyPalette. This is the real centre of work in PhotoImpact providing three main modes with sixteen galleries offering hundreds of effects, seven libraries offering hundreds of component objects and a layer view offering compositional management of the current image. In all cases this is kept as visual and intuitive as possible. With the Painting Gallery, for example, while you can call up a dedicated dialog for fine control, you'll usually just click on any preview thumbnail that catches your eye to apply the effect and, if it hasn't improved your image, undo it and apply another.

The new Stamp tool is a good example of the use of the EasyPalette with its new Stamp gallery showing inviting preview thumbnails of all available object sets ranging from animals through to turnips (don't ask). The tool works much like a traditional image hose for spraying bitmap objects onto your image but typically PhotoImpact throws in a couple of surprises. To begin with the level of control is surprisingly advanced with options for specifying random, sequential or angular placement, transparency and blend mode and even for automatically varying object colour. More powerful is the fact that, by default, each object is added on its own layer and so can be easily repositioned.

The new Stamp and Eraser tools are useful for building up photomontages.

This is particularly useful with the two cloud stamp sets, letting you quickly paint on a rough effect and then fine tune individual cloud placement. The new Eraser tool also comes in very handy here, letting you erase sections of the cloud object or interactively paint on transparency. Alternatively with the new Magic Eraser you can click on a colour to make it transparent throughout the floating object. This ability to interactively control object transparency is a big step forward when managing compositions and much simpler to get your head around than layer masks, but it can't be undone and so offers less absolute control. It's also disappointing that the Eraser tools can't be used with either vector shapes or text objects.

Text handling generally has been improved with new control over alignment, line spacing, character spacing and even kerning. Compared to rival packages though it's still disappointing with no on-canvas editing and no ability to manage longer sections of justified text. Where PhotoImpact really shines, though, is in making its text stand out. Text can be deformed as if in a drawing program and there are new options in the Wrap gallery and dedicated Bend dialog that let you automatically repeat, space and stretch text to produce text-on-a-curve effects.

Even more eye-catching results can be created if you are happy for your vector text to be turned into a bitmap though this loses scalability and editability. There are now a hundred different striking effects available from the Type Gallery ranging from chiselling and embossing through to fire and snow effects. In each case if you call up the Type Effect dialog you can also now animate your effect. This works by automatically changing effect parameters over time and you can stop the animation on any frame to apply it to your current image or you can save the entire effect as an animated GIF. This is also the case with the new Animation Gallery which offers an impressive range of distortion and lighting effects. For banner adverts quickly adding some blazing text, a fireworks explosion or a stroke of lightning is almost guaranteed to grab your browser's attention.

The new Animation Gallery lets you quickly create stunning animated effects.

PhotoImpact also lets you take full control over the resulting animated GIF with the standalone GIF Animator 4. This has seen a serious overhaul with a new tabbed interface that lets you quickly move between Compose, Edit, Optimize and Preview modes. The Edit mode also now offers improved selection tools and onion-skinning for setting up frame-by-frame animations though this is still second choice to automatically generated production based on the wide range of pre-supplied transitions, filters and video-style effects. Once you're happy with your work, GIF Animator offers impressive filesize reduction with a new optimization algorithm - though you'll have to accept that PhotoImpact's visual fireworks are inevitably download-heavy.

The standalone GIF Animator offers automated effects, frame editing and optimization.

By its nature, GIF Animator is only likely to be turned to occasionally but the third module in the PhotoImpact Suite is regularly and seriously useful. PhotoImpact Album 6 is used for visually managing photo sets providing thumbnail viewing and management, slideshows, keyword searching and so on. Little has changed in Album over the last three releases but there's now a Visual Insert command to let you see preview thumbnails of photos when adding them to an album and there are new frame-based templates that can be used when you are outputting albums as Web pages. There's also a new option to save Web slideshows as self-extracting EXE files that can be sent as an email attachment.

Album 6 now offers frame and slide based Web output.

So far so good, but what really makes PhotoImpact 6 different are the improvements to its Web handling. In fact Ulead is now promoting the program as "the best image editor for the Web". So what's changed? Well to begin with it's important to recognise that PhotoImpact has always had its eye on the Web, long before the likes of Paint Shop Pro and Photoshop. Web-oriented features have included vector-based shape handling complete with pseudo-3D formatting for buttons that stretches to light source control and bump and reflection mapping! Other options include dedicated Background and Button designers, object-based URLs, SmartSavers for GIF and JPEG output and advanced rollover support.

What really makes the difference is that where in the past these features seemed like semi-detached add-ons, they are now completely integrated. This is especially true of the revamped Component Designer. This lets you choose from no less than 1790 Web components, ranging from simple banners and buttons through to navigation bars, with full customizable control over text, link and appearance. The beauty is that the resulting components are now re-editable objects. To change the spacing or formatting of you navigation bar or to add a new button, for example, all you need to do is double-click on it and work your way through the tabbed settings in the Component Designer.

The Component Designer makes it simple to set up and control banners, buttons, rollovers and navigation bars.

One of the categories of pre-built templates that the Component Designer offers is rollovers, but PhotoImpact recognizes that this is an area over which you are likely to want complete control. Using the dedicated Rollover command you can select any three floating objects and these are automatically converted into normal, over and down button states. You can also set a URL link, ALT text, target frame and status bar message and can now change these at any time again by double-clicking.

Another area of Web functionality that has been overhauled is PhotoImpact's Image Optimizer which can be applied either to the entire image or to individual objects. The command still only lets you compare one GIF, JPEG or PNG option against the original but at least the dialog can now be maximized to take up the full screen. The level of control has also been greatly improved with the ability to weight GIF palettes, to control overall softness and lossiness and also to lock, delete, change, or Web-shift individual colours.

These days just outputting GIF and JPEG bitmaps is only the beginning, you also have to be able to output the HTML code for image maps, tables and rollovers. That's no problem for PhotoImpact 6 with its revamped Image Map and Slicer commands. These offer a full range of creation tools but thanks to the program's object-based approach there's rarely little that you have to do as components, linked objects, rollovers and so on are automatically treated independently either as map regions or as table slices. To make things even easier all objects and slices are now listed at the bottom of the dialog allowing you to set up and manage links from a single central location.

PhotoImpact's Web control is so comprehensive that it has taken things to the logical conclusion. Rather than just producing page elements, PhotoImpact 6 has stepped up to producing full Web pages. It is able to do this thanks to two new capabilities. The first is the ability to specify page-based features, such as title, keywords, background texture or colour, with the new HTML Properties command. The second is the ability to add sections of HTML text complete with HTML-based control of paragraph tag, font size, bulleting, numbering and even hypertext linking. When the page is output, this text isn't bitmapped which means it is selectable, searchable and, crucially, more download-efficient.

With its HTML text support, PhotoImpact is now capable of full Web page authoring.

Having said this, it's important not to get carried away. PhotoImpact's Web control covers all the main points but there's still no CSS or form support, or direct HTML editing, or any site management capabilities. And while the program's HTML text handling helps makes its pages more efficient this is largely undone by the inevitable code bloating involved in automatic table slicing and by PhotoImpact's intrinsically graphics-heavy approach. As it stands then PhotoImpact certainly can't replace dedicated Web authoring packages, such as DreamWeaver and FrontPage, or workflow-oriented Web imaging programs, such as Fireworks and Photoshop.

But then it isn't intended to. PhotoImpact isn't a package designed for professionals who need complete control and efficiency and for whom every byte counts. Instead it's designed for occasional users who want to be able to produce stunning Web page layouts quickly - and enjoy themselves in the process. For PhotoImpact photo editing has always been about creativity, fun and impressive end results. With version 6 that's now just as true of Web imaging and Web authoring.

Tom Arah

Features
5
Ease of Use
5
Value for Money
6
Overall
5

ratings out of 6

PhotoImpact
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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 2000


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