With the introduction of Photoshop Elements, a pared-down version of Photoshop, in July 2001, Adobe paved the way for a new wave of consumer-level digital photography software. It was another seven months before Apple's own iPhoto was first released, and for that short period, Elements was something of a novelty.
It was also very successful, mainly because it appeared to be such a great value. Users were given many of the features of the full Photoshop package (at least, all the features they needed to edit digital photos), but at a fraction of its price.
Photoshop Elements is for ordinary people, not graphics and photo-editing professionals. It's aimed at exactly the sort of person who uses iPhoto--the typical digital camera owner. But it is a very different beast from iPhoto. Elements and its big brother Photoshop have always been considered "editors" of images, while iPhoto and its ilk are more like "organizers" (despite including various editing functions).
But as digital imaging becomes the norm and digital camera prices continue to plummet, the number of people looking for sensible, simple photo-editing software increases. iPhoto, and its nearest Windows counterpart Picasa, have mass appeal because they offer the essential functions in a simple, easy-to-understand package. To increase its appeal, Photoshop Elements has had to tread a very careful line--offering users the simplest interface possible, without losing any of the power hidden among the menu items.
With the recent release of version 4, Adobe has taken a big step to this end and added many new features that make the process of photo management considerably easier than before. The interface is much more reminiscent of Photoshop than it is of iPhoto, which for some people is a good thing and for others is not. Suffice it to say, if all you've ever used before is iPhoto, you will have some learning to do in order to successfully switch to Photoshop Elements.
But nobody ever said learning was a bad thing.
First among the new additions to Elements 4.0 is Bridge, which is an image browser, and a very fast and capable one at that (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Adobe Bridge.
Bridge offers many of the functions you might use while organizing images within iPhoto. You can rate your images with an iTunes-like star system, rotate, rename, and label them, and bunch them together in folders. What Bridge doesn't offer is an albums system, or anything analogous to iTunes' playlists. A picture exists within a single folder (unless you duplicate it to another) and cannot be in both your main images library and an arbitrary album. Except for Saved Searches, which we'll come to in a moment.
Much of Bridge's functions can be applied from the Slideshow mode, which offers a nice heads-up display of all the key commands available while reviewing images this way. Once you've taken the commands onboard, you can glide through large numbers of photos, adding ratings with ease. Labels can also be applied with a simple keystroke (although you are limited to five). Bridge happily browses through a variety of file formats, including RAW, JPEG and PDF.
Smart albums are also present in Bridge; they just appear under a different name.
The Find command (good old Command+F) brings up a standard-looking find dialog, but within it lurks plenty of power. You can effectively search any metadata, whether it's added to images by the camera or whether you've added it yourself during the sorting and editing phase. Better yet, searches can be named and saved for later use. They are placed by default in the Collections folder of the navigation panel, but you can drag them anywhere. Saved searches work just like smart albums, and will update themselves every time they are selected for display (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. The Find command.
There's also a selection of built-in filters that make it easy to sort your images. You can choose to see only images of a certain rating or higher, or you could view them by label (see Figure 3). Assigning labels and ratings is very easy, thanks to sensible keyboard commands. Slideshow mode also has a superb set of simple commands for sorting images on the fly (see Figure 4).
Figure 3. Filtering in Bridge.
Figure 4. Slideshow commands.
Bridge has a number of workspaces you can make use of, depending on the task at hand and your previous habits as a digital photographer (see Figure 5).
Figure 5. Workspace menu.
The filmstrip view and lightroom view will be most familiar to iPhoto users. The Metadata focus view broadens out the metadata panel for easier data entry (see Figure 6). Bridge also has a Compact Mode, where it shrinks into a corner of your screen (see Figure 7). Cinema Display users will enjoy using this alongside a large image editing window.
Figure 6. Metadata view.
Figure 7. Compact mode.
The most exciting changes in Photoshop Elements 4 are some of the new tools that have been added.
Most of these tools concentrate on automating previously laborious tasks. They can be very helpful in this respect, but remember that a computer is never going to be as good at interpreting a photo's content as a human would be. While many of the "magic" tools offered do an impressive job, they are not infallible.
Users of previous versions of Elements will already be familiar with the two major editing "modes" offered. One is Standard Edit, which feels most like the stripped-down Photoshop that Elements is supposed to be (see Figure 8); the other is Quick Fix, which takes some inspiration from iPhoto and perhaps Lightroom. In Quick Fix mode, you have single-button access to commands such as "Remove Red Eye" and "Auto Smart Fix"; results from the former were generally good in my test; from the latter, they were somewhat more patchy.
Figure 8. Standard edit mode.
The Enhance menu, available regardless of the mode you're in, provides swift access to all these controls and several more.
Designed to make scrapbooking easy or for swift production of composite images, the Magic Extractor lets you pull out elements of an image--a person, object, or animal--for use elsewhere.
Your original image is opened in a new window with clear instructions (see Figure 9). With one tool (the Foreground Brush), click as many times as you like on the object to extract. With another (you guessed it--the Background Brush), you click on everything else (see Figure 10). Then, you're shown a preview of what Elements thinks you're trying to extract. You can then use the Selection Eraser and Smoothing Brush tools to fine-tune your extracted object (see Figure 11).
Figure 9. The original image in the Magic Extractor.
Figure 10. Selecting content for extraction.
Figure 11. Fine-tuning the extracted element.
Another spot of magic comes in the form of the Magic Selection Brush, which behaves pretty much as you'd expect. Available from the Tools bar in either Standard Edit or Quick Fix mode, it lets you scribble quickly over an object (or person, animal, etc.) in order to select it and then manipulate it (see Figure 12). Again, my results in general use were a little mixed. When it worked, it worked very well--so well that it prompted a little chuckle of delight.
Figure 12. Magic Selection Brush.
But when it didn't work, it was disappointing because it meant a painful trip back to manual object selection. Inevitably, the quality and nature of the source photo is going to make a large difference here.
Under Enhance -> Adjust Color, you'll find the Adjust Color for Skin Tone command, which is another new addition in Elements 4.0 (see Figure 13).
Figure 13. Adjusting color for skin tone.
Here, you are guided through the steps to amend color settings to best bring out human skin tones in any image. Once this command is activated, you're asked to click on any area of skin, and Elements will recolor the image accordingly. Three sliders (Tan, Blush, and Ambient Light) let you fine-tune the autofix. I didn't expect to find this particularly useful, but in practice it's a very handy fix for many photos where the people are poorly lit but their surroundings are just fine.
On the whole, this new version of Elements 4.0 performs very well. Most common transformations and edits are swift enough that you don't notice them. A handful of more complex commands (such as the Magic Extractor) can take a while on older hardware. I did most of my testing on a G4 Mac mini with 1GB RAM, and that machine, even with its limited graphics abilities, was perfectly good enough for all but the most challenging tasks. Even then, it wasn't defeated; it just slowed down a bit.
One of the main drawbacks of Elements 4.0 is that it is not a Universal Binary--a surprising decision by Adobe and one that might affect its sales as the Intel Macs are rolled out. Despite this, I also installed Elements 4.0 on a passing MacBook Pro, simply to see how it would get along running in Rosetta. Not bad, but not great either. If you've just switched to Intel architecture on your Mac, I'd suggest you wait a little longer before investing. If a future Universal Binary is as good on the Intel machines as this one is on the PowerPCs, you're in for a treat.
Bridge is probably the most important new thing in Elements 4.0, and the one that people could most easily overlook.
While it lacks the UI pizzaz of iPhoto, Aperture, or Lightroom, it offers a flexible and powerful space for managing, sorting, finding, and comparing photos. But the problem is that Bridge is completely separate from Elements--an independent app in its own right. My fear is that some users might find the thought of using two different apps daunting, and avoid using Bridge altogether. If they do, they'll be missing out on all the wonderful tools it has to offer.
Bridge is one of those applications that almost fades from your thoughts once you have learned how to use it. By investing some time in learning the shortcuts and tools available, you will reach a point where using Bridge becomes second nature. Almost everything can be controlled from the keyboard, allowing you to zip through a collection of images--assigning labels, ratings, and keywords as you go. Bridge really is something that a lot of people have spent years waiting for: a fast, dependable photo-management app.
It's true that with version 6, iPhoto has reached a point where it could be described in the same terms. But iPhoto is never going to offer the same kind of flexibility. Bridge will display your photos in pretty much any way you can think of. iPhoto is more limited, and forces you to work its way. Bridge is more willing to bend to your will and to put you in charge.
It's a pity, then, that there are niggling things that make using Bridge and Photoshop Elements 4 together even harder than it ought to be.
For example, by default, Bridge uses your Finder setting for opening image files. For most people, that means that any image opened or double-clicked in Bridge will open in Preview. That's logical behavior, but there should at least be a simple, easy-to-learn keystroke that opens images directly in Elements. There isn't. To correct this, you must delve into the Preferences panel and change the default behavior, under "File Type Associations" for every image format you wish to work with in this way.
It's a minor thing, I know, but it gets in the way and may be difficult for non-technically-minded users. And that's the larger pity, because it would be great to see this powerful tool put in the hands of more users; as it is, I think many will be put off by the apparent complexity, and will decide that iPhoto is the simpler option for them.
Even so, Photoshop Elements 4.0 is a bargain. For a very reasonable price, you get not only high-quality, user-friendly image editing, but now you also get Adobe Bridge, which is more than a match for any other image-management application on the market right now.
Giles Turnbull is a freelance writer and editor. He has been writing on and about the Internet since 1997. He has a web site at http://gilest.org.
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