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Tech tips: Photoshop for the rest of us

PC World
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(IDG) -- Almost anyone interested in digital images has heard of or tried Adobe Photoshop. But unless you're a graphics professional, Photoshop 6.0 (introduced last fall) packs more image editing punch than you probably want or need, not to mention a beyond-hobbyist price tag of more than $600.

Fortunately, there's a new Photoshop in town, called Photoshop Elements. A replacement for Adobe's original affordable image editor, Photoshop LE, Elements isn't just a stripped-down version of Photoshop, a charge critics often leveled against LE. Rather, the $99 Elements takes commonly used Photoshop tools and puts them into an affordable package specifically designed for midrange users: amateur photographers, image hobbyists, and even business users. Nonethless, Photoshop Elements faces a large field of established midrange image editors, such as Jasc PaintShop Pro 6, Microsoft PhotoDraw 2000, Ulead PhotoImpact 5, and Corel Custom Photo.

Many of these competitors rated higher than Photoshop LE in a PC World roundup (see "Image editor roundup," link below). It remains to be seen how Elements will fare in comparison to these competitors.

As expected, the product is limited compared with the full version of Photoshop in several key areas. For example, it does not support CMYK, the common format for professional printing; it lacks the full image-slicing capabilities of Image Ready; and it offers limited support for layer styles.

Adobe expects Elements to be available from retailers during the second quarter of this year. Expect numerous scanner, printer, and camera vendors to bundle the software with their products, as they did with its predecessor, LE.

Digital Design

Adobe designed Photoshop Elements for the growing number of digital camera users, says Mark Dahm, an Adobe product manager. "Photoshop Elements [along with its range of editing features] reflects the increasing sophistication of digital imaging," he adds.

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Elements offers tools to capture, edit, and print images, as well as the ability to post them on the Web and in e-mail messages. Along the way the program offers plenty of help in the form of tips, shortcuts, and templates.

Adobe also reworked Photoshop's pull-down menu to make it more logical and familiar to users of Microsoft Office applications, Dahm says.

When you launch Photoshop Elements, you're immediately greeted with what Adobe calls its quick-start screen. Here you have a list of common commands with rollover explanations, as well as a quick link to tutorials.

Place your cursor over the acquire button, for example, and you see the explanation: "Acquire digital images from camera, scanner, or other devices."

Elements can acquire images using either TWAIN or the Windows Image Acquisition (WIA) interface.

Helpful Hints Along the Way

Photoshop Elements even extends the rollover explanations to its tool palette. So, for example, you don't have to remember which symbol is the sponge and which is the smudge tool.

"We also added a hints palette that offers content-sensitive help for tools and palettes," Dahm says. Once you see the name of the tool, you can find out what you can do with it in the hints palette.

You hit the "more help" button in the hints palette to launch further content-sensitive HTML help from Adobe online, Dahm adds.

Elements also adds several new commands that address common requirements for midrange users with simpler steps than what Photoshop requires, he says.

For instance, the "straighten and crop image" command helps correct the common problem of getting your image lined up straight to scan, he says.

New Tools for Old Tricks

Photoshop Elements adds pull-down palettes to display and explain things such as filters and effects; in the pull-down menu are thumbnail previews of what each filter or effect does to an image. A recipes palette offers template commands for complex Photoshop instructions.

"Recipes are like a wizard that provides quick buttons for certain complex Photoshop actions," Dahm says. "It tells you the step-by-step commands in Photoshop and gives you a one-click button to perform the action."

Elements will ship with 30 to 40 recipes, but you'll be able to download more from the Adobe Web site, Dahm adds.

One handy feature Photoshop Elements has that Photoshop does not is Photomerge, a stitching software that creates panoramas from multiple images. Elements also includes features new to Photoshop 6.0, such as on-canvas text editing. This capability already exists in many competiting tools, including Jasc Paint Shop Pro.

Elements ships with a library of preconfigured shapes as well as a collection of layer styles. But its support for layer styles is limited compared with Photoshop, Dahm admits.

Missing Elements

Because it's a lower-priced product, Photoshop Elements does lack some significant components that make Photoshop a professional print and Web image tool. While you can view CMYK images, you can't edit and output in CMYK, the format used for color separation in the professional print process.

And Photoshop's Web image companion, Image Ready, is also missing from Elements. That means you can't do image slicing, useful for decreasing the download time of a Web image. Still, some Web image support is included.

"Within the 'save for Web' command in Elements are pieces of Image Ready," Dahm says. "You can save GIF and JPEG with preset settings for Web image compression; you can even animate a GIF."

Overall, Photoshop Elements offers a much more solid and nurturing intermediate version of Photoshop than its predecessor LE did. Still, many similarly priced image editors offer more-flexible tools.

In the end, serious image folks working in print or on the Web may still need to invest more than $600 for the full Photoshop package.



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