Photo editing made elemental

Pictures: Novice photo editors will find Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0 a joy to use.

August 22, 2002|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,SUN STAFF

Most digital cameras and scanners come bundled with software that enables you to rotate, brighten and even remove red-eye from your photos.

But if you've caught the digital-imaging bug, you might soon outgrow the popular entry-level programs from Arc Soft or Microsoft.

That's when you'll want to pick up a copy of Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0.

The second edition of Elements - with its easy-to-follow recipes, well-designed interface, and ultra-basic Web-publishing tools - is an impressive, intermediate-level image-editor for $99, a fraction of the cost of its big brother and the industry's gold standard, Adobe Photoshop 7.0 ($609).

Adobe Systems has added a number of touches - small and large - to Elements 2.0 to aid photo enthusiasts who want to do more than crop and rotate an image. The program even has a new glossary of digital-editing terms, in addition to the original version's recipes for sophisticated retouching and tutorials that explain how it works.

Fast starters need only open the program and click on Enhance in the toolbar to reach the Quick Fix Dialogue box, which provides step-by-step instructions for basic image correction with side-by-side, before-and-after images to track your work as you go along.

One of my favorite fixes involves adding "fill flash" to bring out details in the shadows of a photograph. But the sweetest addition to Elements 2.0 is the "Frame From Video" tool, which makes instant still photographs from any video you can play in the Windows Media or QuickTime player.

While Elements 2.0 beats the competition soundly as image-editing software, other programs in the $100 range - such as Jasc Paint Shop Pro 7 or Ulead Photo Impact 7 - offer more creative Web tools. Elements is limited to simple, straightforward Web-publishing effects, such as shrinking a photograph to the right size for e-mailing. If you're not interested in creative Web page-building, Elements is more than adequate.

The program's user-friendly approach also applies to its Help tools. A "quick search" field appears in the toolbar at the top of the screen, cutting the number of mouse clicks to get help. Type in a general topic and you'll frequently get a half-dozen relevant help subjects.

Little of importance to home users is missing from Elements when compared with Photoshop 7 - except for the more-expensive program's "healing" brush tool, a near-magical incarnation of the clone brush that makes touching up skin textures a snap. Adobe kept that one for folks willing to pay the big bucks.

For serious photographers, the healing tool and other features of PhotoShop 7 are worth the money. In older versions, the most popular method for removing wrinkles around a person's eyes required carefully covering the wrinkles with smooth skin cloned from the forehead or some other unblemished area.

The clone brush demands experience and skill - without both, the subject can wind up with repeated patterns in the skin or blotchy patches that don't match the surrounding area.

The healing brush makes this much easier by blending the lighting and tone of the old skin (the wrinkles) with the texture from the new skin (the smooth forehead swath). It was not a panacea for every touchup problem, but it worked on most of the images we tried.

PS 7 has a handful of additional improvements that make it worth the $150 upgrade price if you have a previous version. One of the best is the new Auto Color button that removes color casts and enhances colors. It worked particularly well in pictures without people, such as landscapes. Correcting flesh tones was more problematic - Auto Color did the job properly on only a quarter of our test images. The best addition to PS 7 is the file browser, a feature found in most other image-editing programs. The browser displays all of the photographs in a folder as thumbnails.

Both Elements 2.0 and PS 7's browsers display Exchangeable Image File data, which is recorded as part of each digital photo file by many digital cameras. The information includes when and how a photograph was shot, the color profile and other data. The browser also enables batch processing of images by renaming them, ranking them or rotating them, among other things.

Given its price and depth, PS 7 has more layers than any novice would want to peel away to learn its secrets. Serious dedication to the art of image-editing and deep pockets are hallmarks of PS 7 buyers. Most are professional photographers and graphic artists.

But if you have more than a passing interest in taking snapshots and fiddling with them, Elements 2.0 has just the right number of layers to keep a photo hobbyist interested without heavy doses of frustration.

Elements 2.0 requires a Pentium PC running Windows 98 or later with 150 megabytes of hard drive space and 128 MB of RAM. PS 7 has slightly higher requirements to operate: a Pentium III with 320 MB of hard drive space. Macintosh users will need a PowerMac running Mac OS 9.1 or later for both programs, which are compatible with Mac OS X as well.

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