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Photoshop Elements 4 for the Mac: Worth the Wait?

by Giles Turnbull

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.

Over the Bridge

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).

Thumbnails view
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).

Using the Find command to create a saved search
Figure 2. The Find command.

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