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Photoshop Elements 4 for the Mac: Worth the Wait?
Pages: 1, 2, 3, 4

Magic Selection Brush

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.

Magic Selection Brush at work
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.

Softer Skin

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).

Adjusting color for skin tone
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.

Performance

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.

Final Thoughts

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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