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Adobe Photoshop Elements
Finally, Adobe releases a low-end graphics package that doesn't alienate newbies or experienced users
Photoshop Elements
Adobe
Windows, Macintosh
Adobe Photoshop is generally held to be the pinnacle of image-editing software, and not without good reason: it packs in almost every conceivable feature for manipulating raster images, imports and exports most file formats, and supports plug-ins for all kinds of expanded functionality. Unfortunately, excellence has its price--literally, as it can cost a cool grand to pick up Photoshop at your local computer store. It's a no-brainer if you're a graphics professional, but intermediate-level users and smaller companies who need only a fraction of Photoshop's power will likely balk at a price tag almost equal to that of a new computer.

That gap in the low-to-medium range has mostly been filled by programs like Jasc's Paint Shop Pro, which has most of Photoshop's features at a much lower price (about $150). It's not that Adobe hasn't tried, goodness knows; they've just never quite hit the mark. Adobe PhotoDeluxe, which for a while seemed to be bundled with every digital camera or frame grabber on the market, is perfect for novices, but with its welded-on training wheels it's easy to outgrow. Photoshop LE, a stripped-down version of its namesake, stripped out a little too much. A big mistake was leaving out the automation features; at least Paint Shop Pro could do batch image conversions. And then there was ImageReady, another scaled-down Photoshop, this time optimized for Web work. It lasted about a year as a stand-alone product before being folded into the Photoshop 5.5 package.

All of which to say that Adobe has been its own worst enemy at capturing the mid-level market. That is, until the recent arrival of Photoshop Elements.

I decided to put Photoshop Elements to the test by using it as my exclusive graphics program for at least a month, resorting to Photoshop or ImageReady only if I absolutely had to. Much to my surprise, I barely missed my two stalwarts. I only needed Photoshop once for a particularly complex batch processing operation (Photoshop Elements' batch operations are limited to format conversion, resizing, and file naming) and ImageReady another time for its Trim function (which quickly gets rid of any extraneous background-color pixels).

Photoshop Elements derives its power from something that is often a weakness: it tries to be all things to all people. But instead of just cramming in features willy-nilly, Adobe took the best of what came before it and made sensible decisions about what to leave out. For the most part, the missing features are scripts (actions, in Photoshop parlance) and color modes like CMYK and Lab--features generally reserved for hardcore image-manipulating wizards. (Photoshop Elements can, however, import these images by converting them to RGB.) If there were a software cookbook, the recipe would be something like this: Take most of Photoshop 5.5, add some of ImageReady, sprinkle a dash of PhotoDeluxe, and wrap the whole thing in the Photoshop 6 interface. Simmer, and you've got effortless power and simplicity.

When you first start the program, a Hints palette appears in the upper right corner; its job is to explain what selected functions and palettes are for, with a large, clear graphic to grab your attention. The curious can click the More Help button for more detailed information; the knowledgeable can ignore it and move on. If you really need the screen space, you can close the palette or store it in the palette well, a docking area near the top of the screen. Similarly, people new to image editing can try out the Recipes palette, which provides step-by-step instructions for such things as drop shadows, color correction, and colorizing grayscale images.

Most of ImageReady's functionality is included as well, much of it improved. The "Save for Web" function lets you tweak GIF, JPEG, or PNG settings with side-by-side comparisons of the original and the adjusted image; hexadecimal triplets are available in the color picker, as well as a one-click option to find the nearest Web-safe color; matte colors for transparent graphics can be created quickly and painlessly. The most notable difference is in GIF animation, which uses layers rather than ImageReady's inbetweening of opacity and translation. This makes hand-drawn animation a bit easier, but simple object animation and dissolves are now much harder. Image maps, too, are absent.

It's taken Adobe a long time, but with Photoshop Elements it looks like they finally got it just about right. Here, at last, is their inexpensive graphics package that eases the learning curve for beginners while letting more advanced users get right to work, all the while remaining flexible enough for most Web work.

Originally printed in The Computer Paper August 2001)