Photoshop without the pain or price

Overdue: Adobe's new `Elements' gives photographers a useful option.

April 09, 2001|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,SUN STAFF

For years, software publishing giant Adobe has pushed Photoshop Limited Edition as a mid-level image editing program aimed at those who wanted a few professional features without Photoshop 6.0's $600 price tag.

Adobe was partially successful: Photoshop LE provided enough sophisticated editing features for serious hobbyists, but the price was a steep deterrent that discouraged all but the most dogged digital photographers.

Now, Adobe (www.adobe. com) has dropped that baggage with a powerful, "See Spot Run" version of Photoshop. And it's about time.

Photoshop Elements takes the place of the retiring Limited Edition and replaces its predecessor's obscure terminology - which did little to explain what's actually happening to your photo -with easily understood icons, tutorials and hints for successful editing. Targeting photographers who want good results but don't have time to dig out Photoshop's secrets through expensive how-to books or take a course at a community college, Elements turns those poorly lighted, blue-tinted, red-eye-filled digital shots into images you'd be proud to hang on the wall.

Unlike Adobe Photo Deluxe Home Edition 4.0, a baseline, giveaway release that limits your creativity, Elements provides you with superb control over your image, even as it holds your hand through every step.

At $99 - with $30 rebates for registered users of Limited Edition and some competitors - Elements compares favorably with two leaders in this price range, Ulead PhotoImpact and Jasc's Paint Shop Pro. It edges both in usability, thanks to its icons and concise explanations of basic editing tasks.

Elements' on-screen "recipes" cut down on time spent thumbing through the manual or trying to figure out electronic help files. More than two dozen recipes ship with the program and more are available to download from Adobe's Web site.

You can use recipes to take advantage of the program's automatic straightening and cropping feature, or create composite montages of relatives with layers of separate photos.

Or consider the six-step recipe for removing dust and scratches from scans of old photographs. I scanned in a photograph with dozens of tiny white specks of dust. If I had been using Photoshop Limited Edition, I would have clicked on the Filter menu at the top of the screen, chosen Noise, then selected Dust & Scratches. A dialogue box would pop up with two options: Radius and Threshold. Figuring out what to do next would have required looking through the help files.

In Elements, you click on a recipe tab at the top of the screen, selecting Image Cleanup and then Dust & Scratches. My first step was to select the area of the photo that needed attention. Next, following the instructions, I hit a button that chose a selection tool and allowed me to begin using it.

Once I selected the area of the photograph with a bunch of scratches, Elements told me to click the button on the right to bring up the Dust & Scratches function - without having to figure out which menu to open. Moreover, when the Dust & Scratches tool opened, the recipe instructions explained Radius and Threshold and how to use sliders attached to each option to remove the dust.

The hints box, with a tab at the top of the screen, augmented the recipes by offering an explanation of each tool or function's use. The Hints box also has a More Help button that takes you directly to an electronic manual page with additional information.

Elements even beats its big brother, Photoshop 6, in a couple of areas. Icons show you what each of the 95 filters - for blurring or sharpening photographs or turning them into watercolors - will do. You can drag an icon (or several icons) onto your photograph to call up a dialogue box for controlling the effect. Moving the watercolor icon onto your picture brings up a slider that helps determine how real the photograph will look when you print it out.

A function called Photomerge, also absent from Photoshop 6, can take a series of adjacent photographs and stitch them together for a panoramic view while correcting the overall tone of each picture to make the composite appear seamless. Although the function isn't perfect, our test with four photographs compared favorably to one that took twice as long using Photoshop's professional version.

One thing that any "newbie" to photo editing should understand is that digital manipulation is not science, but art. Although Elements does a good job of opening up tools and providing step-by-step instructions, it still requires experimentation to get the right effect.

If all you do is crop, brighten and print a few pictures every couple of months, Photo Deluxe is better because it costs half as much and takes less time to master.

What you won't get with Elements is the precise control over digital images that Photoshop 6 offers, including the ability to create four-color separations for professional printing and slice up Web graphics to help them load faster on the Internet. Unless you're a pro, you're not likely to miss these.

Photoshop Elements will run on a Pentium PC with 150 megabytes of hard drive space and 64 megabytes of RAM with Windows 98, 2000, ME and NT. Elements also will run on a Mac with a PowerPC processor using OS 8.6 or higher (excluding OS X).

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