Picture perfect Photo editing software makes it easy

December 07, 1998|By Sean Gallagher | Sean Gallagher,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The holiday season is here, and that can mean only one thing - lots of really bad photographs. Thanks to the latest scanners and digital cameras, it's almost inevitable that those bad pictures will be posted on the World Wide Web for the entire world to gawk at.

Digital photo software gives those bad pictures a second chance. Using your PC, you can get rid of that red eye, crop out Aunt Ruth's bunny slippers or even put your middle-aged face on your (or someone else's) slim teen-aged torso. It doesn't take a degree in graphic arts.

Armed with my digital and conventional cameras, a flatbed scanner and absolutely no sense of composition, I set out to turn lead into gold with a couple of the latest photo editing programs.

With these products, reality is no longer the limiting factor in getting a good picture. But if you want to pull off really stunning effects, you'll need to invest in extra memory, and have plenty of hard disk space to hold those images while you work your magic.

If you own a digital camera, scanner or color printer, you probably got a basic image editing program in the package. One of the most common is Adobe's PhotoDeluxe, which came bundled with the Epson Stylus 600 color printer I recently bought.

You'll also find a variety of shareware image editing programs on the Internet, the most popular being Paint Shop Pro (www.jasc.com). The feature sets of all these packages can vary widely.

At the top of the heap is Adobe's PhotoShop 5.0, a favorite of professional graphic artists and photographers for its superb control and fantastic effects. In fact, the odds are good that any photo you see in this newspaper was processed with PhotoShop.

As you would expect, PhotoShop has a steeper learning curve than bundled software packages - and at $649, it's definitely not free. But simplified sets of PhotoShop tools are included or can be added into the generic PhotoDeluxe, as well as two new enhanced versions - PhotoDeluxe Home Edition 3.0 for home use and PhotoDeluxe Business Edition for the office.

Fortunately for those of us with limited software budgets, Adobe has included a good selection of basic PhotoShop functions in the PhotoDeluxe line.

Microsoft has begun to make its foray into the image editing market as well. While Windows has included basic image editing software for years (Windows Paint), Microsoft went full-force into the market last year when it acquired Image Composer, a package that combines the basic elements of PhotoShop with rudimentary versions of the drawing and text formatting features you'll find in high-end illustration packages such as Adobe Illustrator or Freehand.

Early next year, Microsoft will release PhotoDraw 2000, an even more powerful tool that can be used both for photo editing and creating graphics for documents and the Web.

With all these choices, it helps to get an grip on the basics first before wandering into the deep end of Salvador Dali-like photosurrealism. There are a couple of things you can do with almost any image editor to improve sub-par photos.

The first is cropping - trimming the image to focus on a specific part of the photo and get rid the extraneous stuff that finds its way into your pictures. Most image editing tools let you select a part of the photo and remove everything outside it with one or two easy steps.

Next on the list are adjustments to contrast, brightness and color balance. If you're taking pictures with a small flash or in a marginally lighted room, these features will save many images from the digital trash can.

Some packages, such as Sierra Imaging's Image Expert, have a single mouse-click "auto fix" feature that corrects common problems, as well as interactive tools for all three common adjustments.

Many image editors bundled with hardware include a set of elementary special effects. For example, the Image Expert packed with my Epson PhotoPC 600 digital camera includes distorting effects like "fish-eye" and "glass block," and a color inverting feature to create digital "negatives." Use these sparingly, unless you want to induce seasickness or faux acid flashbacks.

PhotoDeluxe Home Edition, which retails for $99, includes EasyPhoto, a basic image editor. But the PhotoDeluxe add-ons include special effects such as image repair, which automatically removes scratches from scanned photos and red-eye from flash pictures.

You can apply artistic touches, such as "colorizing" an old black-and-white picture, adding textures or creating effects such simulated motion. There's even a step-by-step menu that takes you through more complicated tasks, such as grafting your head onto someone else's body.

Once you've mastered techniques using Adobe's "guided activities," you can strike out on your own to create new effects with PhotoDeluxe's advanced menus.

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