Add a Consumer Element to Your Business Arsenal

To make the most of the digital photos you shoot for catalogs, brochures, flyers, newsletters and Web pages, you need a software tool that will help fix, edit and enhance pictures. Among professionals, Photoshop from Adobe Systems Inc. is the tool of choice, but the current version of Photoshop sells for at least $500 and is much more complex than most small businesses need. Luckily, Adobe also offers a stripped-down, easy-to-use version, Photoshop Elements, which sells for $99.99 on CD or $89.99 as a download only.

Adobe recently launched Photoshop Elements 4.0, which adds several useful new features that simplify image editing. And while Adobe targets PE primarily at consumers, it makes good sense for many small businesses as well.

Always a strong competitor in the consumer photo editor market, PE offers virtually all the editing functions most people will ever need — and makes most of them very easy to use. Elements lets you:

  • crop, straighten, rotate, resize and flip images
  • adjust brightness, contrast and levels
  • adjust color balance, hue and saturation
  • select objects in a picture to adjust or enhance separately
  • add text and drawn objects
  • delete objects in a picture by copying other part of the image over them (cloning)
  • apply special effects filters to sharpen, blur or distort images, or make them look like paintings or other kinds of art work

Elements helps you organize and view images by theme, date and subject. It also lets you create photo projects but mostly the consumer-oriented variety such as slide shows, greeting cards, photo albums and Web photo galleries.

The real core of the program is its photo editor, and Elements’ strength as an editor lies in its simplicity. The Auto Smart Fix function, for example, automatically corrects color, levels and contrast. It may be all that a poorly taken picture needs to make it useable. There are separate automatic adjustments for each of these attributes as well or you can adjust them manually.

Photoshop Elements also uses adjustment layers. Rather than making adjustments directly to an image, you create a layer in which you make the changes. Layers can be saved with the image. It means you don’t have to worry about making permanent changes to an image that you later regret. You can also fine tune adjustments without starting over. To see the difference an adjustment has made, just toggle it from visible to invisible.

New to You
Many of the new features in Elements 4.0 relate to managing, sharing and viewing pictures, but others make it easier to edit pictures. These include:

Photo Elements 4.0 Selection Tool
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Magic Selection Brush Tool — makes selecting objects it a lot easier — at least in some circumstances. In most image-editing programs, you select an object either by tracing around its perimeter using the lasso tool or by using the magic wand tool to select parts of the picture with the same or similar color. Either method can be tedious and time consuming. With the new tool you simply scribble on the object that you want to select, click the mouse and Elements automatically selects it.

In our tests, the Magic Selection brush tool only worked well with objects that were clearly differentiated from the background — a face in a portrait taken against a plain backdrop, for example. In those circumstances, it saved quite a bit of time. Small-businesses that photograph products for print or online catalogs, usually against a plain background, could find this tool very handy.

Photo Elements 4.0 Extractor Tool
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Magic Extractor — performs a similar function for more complex images. This tool lets you extract an object from its setting — e.g., erase the background leaving only the object — without using the lasso or magic wand tools, even when object and background are not very clearly differentiated. You can then copy the object into a different image to create photo collage effects.

Choosing Magic Extractor from the Image menu launches a dialog in which you use two pen tools to identify the background and the foreground. With one pen, you click several times in the background, leaving colored dots on the image. Then you use the other pen to click several times in the object to be extracted, leaving a different colored dot.

It takes a little more practice and tinkering to get a good result with the Magic Extractor — sometimes it doesn’t get all of the object, or it leaves some of the background. Where you click in the image makes a difference. But once you get the hang of it, this feature can save even more time than the Magic Selection brush.

Adjust Color for Skin Tone — makes it easier to get skin tones right. When you photograph people in certain lighting conditions, especially under artificial lights, skin tones don’t always come out looking natural. You can correct them the way you would any other color problem, by using the traditional color adjustment tools, but skin tones are especially tricky.

With the new tool, located in the Enhance/Adjust Color submenu, you simply click on a person’s skin, and the tool automatically optimizes skin tone and adjusts other colors in the image accordingly. The tool’s dialog lets you fine tune by adjusting the color temperature of the ambient light — making it warmer or cooler — or the amount of tan or blush (pinkness) in the skin tones.

The automatic adjustment made at least some improvement to all the test pictures we tried it on, including ones taken by fluorescent and neon light. But it usually required further fine tuning to get it just right.

Defringing — eliminates the fringe around objects when you select them and then copy them onto a different background. The fringe is caused by stray pixels from the original background.

Better Yet
Along with the new features, the software also includes a few notable improvements or enhancements.

Red Eye Removal — Already better at red-eye removal than most competing programs, PE 4.0 improves on its own ability. In earlier versions, you removed red eye by selecting the tool in the main tool panel and then clicking in the middle of the eye. You could adjust the pupil size or change the area of the eye that it darkens, but for the most part the default settings worked fine. The result was instantaneous and quite realistic.

You can still do it this way, but now you can also just click the Auto button in the red-eye removal dialog, and Elements finds, and automatically corrects, the eyes all by itself. We found red eyes and corrected them easily — even in situations where more than one person in the image had red eye issues.

Face Tagging —Adobe enhanced PE’s picture tagging capability by adding face tagging. In the Organizer module, tagging lets you add a descriptive or thematic phrase to a picture to help identify it. You can search on tags to find all the pictures of France, for example.

Photo Elements 4.0 Face Tagging
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Face tagging goes even further. Elements examines a group of photographs, finds the faces in them and displays thumbnail-size images of just the faces. You can then add a tag to the picture based on the identity of the person shown. This could be very useful for small businesses that take photographs of employees, customers or events.

Crop and Color — PE’s improved the crop tool so that you can adjust the size of the crop after you initially draw the box. And Elements has also improved support for color-matching technology, making it easier to get color prints that look (on paper) exactly like the image you see on your computer screen.

Most of the other changes relate to sharing and viewing images and are probably of most interest to consumer users. For example, you can now order prints online from within the program and create slide shows that display on a TV.

Bottom Line
Photoshop Elements is arguably the best of the consumer-grade photo editors. Its main competition is Microsoft’s Digital Image Suite. Both products are very good, but we prefer Elements because of its support of layers. Other products, such as Corel’s Paint Shop Pro may not cost much more and offer more photo editing features, but they’re not not nearly as easy to use.

If you’re in the market for a first photo editor, Elements 4.0 is an excellent choice. If you own Elements 3.0, should you upgrade? If you or your employees spend a lot of time working with photographs, it’s worth the investment. If photo editing is a very occasional task, stick with what you’ve got.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here’s How, a spiffy Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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