Fix your digital photos in a flash

Software: Low-cost editing programs offer a great deal of flexibility in sprucing up images for printing or online sharing.

May 29, 2000|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,Sun Staff

Before the personal computer, buffing up an old, tattered photograph of Uncle Harry meant one thing: heading to a quality photo shop and paying anywhere from $50 to $300 to pull out the scratches and brighten up his dull brown shirt.

Now, your PC can buff and wax your photos to perfection with image-editing programs that cost less than touching up a single picture the old way.

More properly referred to as graphics editors, programs that allow you to crop, resize, brighten, darken, sharpen and change the colors of photographs have become easier to use with every new release. Some have drawing components that allow you to stretch your creativity, along with filters and other functions that can add sophisticated text to your compositions, twist your images into whimsical or bizarre shapes and whip up textures for your backgrounds.

So sophisticated are the tools today that if you have two photographs of Uncle George from the picnic, you might be able to take his smiling visage from one shot and substitute it for the gummy yawn he displayed in the other.

Before you can work this magic, however, you'll need some sort of hardware and software to get photographs into your PC and some way to get them out. On the input side, digital cameras transfer photos directly to your computer, but they're pricey, at $500 to $1,000 for a 2-megapixel camera that provides near-photofinisher quality. For a lot less money (starting at $100), a good flatbed scanner will turn your normal photo prints into digital images. Try one with a resolution of 600-by-600 dots per inch, which provides good color saturation and crisp images.

Once you've finished editing your photos, you can turn out excellent reproductions on a color inkjet printer. Even inexpensive printers, starting at $150, will produce superb images on photo-style paper, but not very quickly. More expensive models are generally faster and provide at least marginally better quality.

If you don't have a capable printer at home, photo-sharing Web sites such as Club Photo (www.clubphoto.com) and PhotoIsland.com invite you to upload your photographs and have prints made for a fee -- often using commercial-grade printers that will outperform home inkjets.

Another site, eFrames (www.eframes. com), will take your uploaded photograph, put it in the frame of your choice and mail it to whomever you choose.

That said, we put five Windows-based graphics-editing programs, priced at $40 to $100, through their paces to see which were easiest to use, offered the most options and worked best for home and small-business users. None quite match the king of photo-editing programs, Adobe PhotoShop 5.5, which at $600 is designed and priced for professionals. But some are in the ballpark.

Several of the programs, including Canvas 7 Standard Edition, PhotoImpact 5 and Paint Shop Pro 6, offer not only traditional pixel-by-pixel photo editing, but also vector-based drawing tools that use mathematical equations to render images. The big difference for users is that you can resize a vector drawing without the blurring or degrading that occurs with pixel-based images such as photographs.

If you're working on an older computer, be careful which program you choose, because some of these programs require a lot of horsepower. At the low end, PhotoStudio requires only 16 megabytes of memory and 50 megabytes of hard disk space, but others require upward of 64 megabytes of RAM and 200 megabytes of disk space.

Beginners should stick with programs that provide "automatic fixes" and step-by-step help with exposure, contrast, cropping, color balance and ticklish jobs such as removing flash-induced "red eye." These include Ulead PhotoImpact and Adobe PhotoDeluxe. Those who are a bit more computer- and photo-savvy should consider graphics editors aimed at helping small businesses create Web pages and brochures.

Ulead PhotoImpact 5 ($80) takes honors as our favorite all-around graphics editor under $100. Its simple interface makes it easy to understand, but you'll find features that only more expensive graphics programs perform, such as layering multiple images, cloning one part of a picture to another, warping your photos or adding artistic effects such as watercoloring.

Looking for a light touchup? Select Auto-Process and then choose to have the program enhance or correct every part of the photograph. Or, you can choose specific functions, such as sharpening the focus. A step-by-step wizard will explain each tool before you use it.

PhotoImpact also is a good beginning program for anyone who wants to create graphics for homemade Web pages. It won't build the page itself, but it can prepare graphics by cropping them, reducing their file size and lightening photographs for use on the Web. Almost every program reviewed here performs these tasks, but none as quickly as PhotoImpact.

Information: www.ulead.com.

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