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Photoshop Elements 4.0’s Improvements and Complexities

Last week, Adobe released the latest version of its consumer-oriented digital-photo editing and management tool, Photoshop Elements 4.0. I've been using the fledgling product for a few weeks now, and although it's a definite step up from previous versions, I'm not convinced that Adobe is adequately addressing the consumer market with a simple and obvious solution.

Still Complex
As you probably know, Adobe's Photoshop is the de facto standard in the professional photography and graphic arts markets, so it's only natural that the company would want to parlay its professional success into the larger and potentially more lucrative consumer/digital photography market. Photoshop Elements is the result, and it’s a mixed bag. Here's the problem: The original Photoshop is a frighteningly complex application, and the Elements version is only barely less complex than its more expensive cousin. In version 3.0, Adobe prettied up the UI and added a separate "Quick Fix" workspace (or mode) that even further limits the complexity by simply hiding many tools. But this change, which remains in Photoshop Elements 4.0, doesn't hide the fact that much of the power bristling beneath its attractive exterior remains painfully hard to use.

So, Photoshop Elements 4.0 continues both the good and bad aspects of previous versions. For the price—less than $100—-it offers a stellar collection of powerful tools, including most of the functionality of Photoshop CS2. That means you can cut your teeth on Photoshop Elements, then easily move into the professional product if you want to—although I firmly believe such a move won't be necessary for most people, as Photoshop Elements already includes virtually every feature you'll ever need.

Two Applications in One
Photoshop Elements 4.0 is really two applications: the editor, which you can view in Standard Edit or Quick Fix modes; and the Photo Browser (also called Photoshop Elements Organizer), which presents a library-like view of your digital photos, much like Google Picasa (which is free) or Microsoft Digital Image Suite 2006 Library (which you can acquire only as part of Microsoft Digital Image Suite 2006). Photo Browser also provides several other features, such as online print and photo-book ordering, email and Web sharing, and so on. Photo Browser appears to be a very basic version of Adobe Photo Album 2.0, a $50 solution that adds the types of truly simple quick fixes that PhotoShop Elements 4.0 sorely lacks.

New Features
Adobe boasts a wide range of changes in this release, but as is usually the case with Adobe products, many of these features are harder to use than advertised. A new dynamic slide-show feature finally adds a Ken Burns-style animation capability to Photoshop Elements-created photo slide shows, but this feature first debuted in Microsoft's free Photo Story tool years ago (and was copied by Apple Computer in its excellent iMovie product for the Macintosh). However, give Adobe credit for at least supporting this functionality, and the company even provides a way to output slide shows as WMV files, which you can view on your TV with Windows XP Media Center Edition. Very nice.

A new Straighten Tool finally lets you easily straighten pictures, a la Microsoft Digital Image Suite 2006. In Photoshop Elements 3.0, you could only automatically straighten pictures, and the results were often still somewhat skewed. Now, the functionality actually works.

Sadly, the most potentially useful new feature, the Magic Extractor, highlights Photoshop Elements 4.0’s problems most clearly. Designed to separate objects from the background so that you can superimpose them on other photos or edit them discretely, the Magic Extractor is both hidden in the UI and difficult to use. Adobe's examples of this feature use high-contrast objects on simple backgrounds—for example, airplanes over a blue sky—and fail to mention that the brush requires a painfully long calculation time each time you press the mouse button to select or deselect an area. The end result is that it's still too difficult and time-consuming to easily and seamlessly cut objects out of photos. Yes, the functionality is easier than with Photoshop Elements 3.0, but not by much.

Other new tools are more successful. Once you do isolate objects and paste them into other photos, a new Defringe Layer tool effectively removes the awful dark outline that usually accompanies such cut-and-paste jobs, making the resulting photo more seamless and realistic. The new Auto Red Eye tool finally erases (ahem) my biggest complaint about previous Elements versions: Those earlier Red Eye Removal tools were horribly broken, which is embarrassing considering that this problem was technically solved years ago. In my tests, Auto Red Eye removal worked quite well.

There are some gimmicky features, of course. A largely unsuccessful Face Tagging feature seeks to automatically sense people's faces, providing you with automatic photo grouping. And the Smart Fix option in Quick Fix continues to ruin about eight out of every ten photos I attempt to fix, forcing me to manually try Levels, Contrast, and Color quick fixes for each picture. Programs such as Google Picasa do a much better job at this functionality.

Not for the Squeamish
Ultimately, Photoshop Elements 4.0 is frustrating but powerful—just like its predecessors. If you're willing to take the time to learn its ways and master the application, you can't do better, and power users will want to upgrade. But if you're just a typical vacationer looking for a tool that will automatically color correct your digital snapshots—and believe me, virtually every digital photo you take needs to be corrected—then Photoshop Elements 4.0 isn't a great choice. Instead, I recommend looking at Google Picasa first, which is free, and Microsoft's Digital Image Suite 2006, which offers a friendlier UI that often provides better results than Photoshop Elements.

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