Photo editors and photo managers group test review

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Photoshop is the best known photo editing application in the world and it was a bit of inspired thinking by Adobe to introduce a cut-down version of the software at something like a tenth of Photoshop’s price. Now in version 4, Photoshop Elements introduces some useful extras into what is already a strong mix of photo editing goodies.

Before you start work with your photos, you’ll need to download and organise them on your PC. The Photo Downloader is an album tool, which enables you to organise your photos by date, type or other metadata. If you have a series of similar photos of a subject, you can ‘stack’ them on the screen, so you can get more, different shots displayed at once. You can compare shots side by side quickly and easily, too, to decide which is the best in a sequence.

Simple fixes like zapping red-eye are now quicker, as you don’t have to target the eyes in question. The red-eye tool can find eyes for itself and is pretty accurate. It’s not even easily fooled by a red polka-dot dress.

Selecting parts of an image is much easier, with the magic brush tool. Run this through the areas you’re after and Elements uses built-in intelligence to work out where the limits of that object lie. Although it occasionally gets confused, you can modify the marquee created to zone in on the exact part you’re after. The magic extractor tool makes it easier to pull objects out of their backgrounds, too.

Other useful tools include skin tone adjustment and the ability to straighten a photo by drawing a straight line though it where you want the horizontal. Two healing brushes make it very easy to remove spots from faces and objects from photos, replacing them with material derived from the background. They’re like supercharged clone tools.

Finally, if you have a camera which can take photos in RAW mode, chances are you can edit them directly in Photoshop Elements 4, giving you more scope to adjust exposures and colours than with JPEG.

Corel is a past master at acquiring software companies and bringing their products into its stable through osmosis. Its most recent acquisition, JASC, is the creator of the much-loved Paint Shop Pro. It’s now reached version 10, or ‘X’ as Corel names it, with some useful updates to its feature set.

Paint Shop Pro X tries hard to be as useful to beginners as to old hands and the interface now includes The Paint Shop Pro Learning Centre, which provides advice and instruction in a panel down the left-hand side of the screen. There are still a lot of tool icons attached to the editing window, though; a total of 20, with half of them offering alternative, related tools in fly-outs. This can be daunting.

The new functions are aimed at easy photo touch-up and the triple set of make-over tools is particularly welcome. The most useful is the blemish remover, which is a sort of targeted clone tool. A pair of concentric circles shows the area that will be replaced (centre circle) and the area that will be averaged to produce the replacement colour (outer ring). Aim it at a spot or pimple and it’s quicker than a drop of Zovirax.

The suntan tool changes the most pasty-faced into veritable David Dickensons and the toothbrush can give us all teeth like Kylie’s. A copy of Photo Album 6 is bundled with Paint Shop Pro X and this separate application provides photo management with strong search facilities through metadata like date and keyword. It also provides a variety of print templates to save on glossy photo sheets, and can handle both e-mailing and slideshows.

The Paint Shop Pro X package is a good combination of powerful utilities and the assistance which enables even beginners to use them effectively.

Ulead has chosen to offer a number of different ‘workspaces’ – sets of menus and toolbars – geared to particular ways of using the program. There are workspaces for beginner and advanced photo editors, as well as those geared towards graphic and Web designers. The layout of the editing screen changes to reflect the editing mode you’ve chosen.

It’s perhaps just as well the company has taken this approach, as the Advanced workspace, which shows everything that is available, is now very crowded and certainly takes some practice to work your way around. Some of the automated tools of the other products aren’t duplicated in PhotoImpact 11 and others are there, but not in obvious places.

Take the Object Extraction Wizard, which aims to make the business of cutting a photo object from its background that much easier. You simply trace around the outside of the object you want to extract, but since there’s no line detection to drag the marquee tightly around the edge of the object, it’s hard to see what real advantage it offers over a lasso tool.

An interesting technique offered by PhotoImpact 11 is to combine photos of the same scene with different exposures. An obvious use for this is taking a night scene through an internally lit window. By setting up and taking a couple of exposures, one for the external and one for the internal view, you can use the program to combine the two into one, composite shot.

The program comes with a lot of extras, including Photo Explorer 8.6, which offers many different ways of viewing your photos and of tying them to dates and other metadata. There’s the Cool 360 Panorama Creator, too, which can take a series of photos and turn them into a wraparound vista, the kind you used to find in many electronic encyclopaedias.

This must be one of the few software markets where Microsoft is not a well known name. Although Digital Image Suite 2006 is the latest in a line of editing products stretching back to Picture It!, it has suffered from its early life as a bundle with Works. This is a shame, as the new application is certainly worthy of consideration.

As the name implies, this is a suite of programs, comprising the Editor, Library and a separate application called Photo Story. Photo Story is aimed at people who like to do creative things with their images and it acts like a rostrum camera, so you can pan around them and add backing music and narrations for a slide show.

Many of the same features are highlighted in the helpful, English-accent videos supplied with the product, though the program doesn’t have all the easy-to-use, purpose-made tools of Microsoft’s competitors. You need to use Gaussian blur, for example, rather than the blemish tool of Photoshop Elements or Paint Shop Pro, and adjust colour saturation to whiten teeth. You can achieve most of the same effects as with the best editors here, but paradoxically for a product obviously aimed at the less experienced photo buff, you need to be a bit more technically savvy.

Where Digital Image Suite 2006 excels is in its organisation. The screen layout uses a replaceable tool strip down the left-hand side which offers first menus of tools and then sliders and instructions as you come to use specific ones.

This simplicity is carried through to the Library organiser, which makes it very easy to file and categorise your images so you can retrieve them easily. You can create custom labels to attach to images, so you can pull out, for example, all images taken on holiday this year that include your partner or children.

One of the most interesting aspects of PhotoSuite 7 is its price. It’s always been a widely-bundled product, but to get a suite of graphics tools of this calibre for under £20 has to be a bargain. And with a few exceptions, the feature set is not that different from those of the more expensive products.

PhotoSuite 7 starts with a panel offering a series of different tasks, from editing photos to setting up slide shows to designing CD labels. Make your choice and the associated component is loaded. The main one is the photo editor itself and this is designed so categories like Overall Quality, Facial Flaws and Damaged Photos are on buttons down the left-hand side. Each of these buttons leads to new panels for tools like the red-eye fixer, blemish remover and dust and speckle erasers.

These tools are easy to apply and generally pretty effective, though the blemish tool is better on single spots than on a rash. The blemish and wrinkle removal tools and the ones for despeckling old photos are all based on combinations of clone and Gaussian blur, painting over the flaws with copies of material from close around them and blending in the colours so you can’t see the joins.

Roxio includes more creative tools for doing things with your photos than several of the other products. For example, you can create a VideoCD, complete with front-end menu, and design your own CD label to stick on it. If you like to file your photos or short video clips on CDs, PhotoSuite 7 provides all the tools to do a neat job.

While not having the depth of adjustment of some tools in the more expensive photo editors, many people will find the range and quality here more than enough for their needs.

The number of companies in most sections of the software market continues to decline as mergers and buyouts reduce your effective choice. This isn’t true of the burgeoning market for photo editing software, though. With more and more people switching to digital photography, the requirement for software to touch-up and organise your photos grows.

The latest round of new photo editors sees all the major players building extra features into their products, most aimed at improving the look of your photos with the minimum effort. The number of ‘one-click’ corrections for exposure, colour and common problems like red-eye continues to increase, which is ideal for those who simply want to tidy up the snaps they take on holiday and days out.

These applications, which come in at around £50, try to be all things to all customers. Most of the new applications introduce more sophisticated correction and filter effects and support for RAW camera formats, where you can virtually re-take a photo digitally on your PC.

As well as being able to retouch your photos to get the best out of them, most people want to organise them into albums and find specific shots quickly and easily through sophisticated searches. The idea of metadata, which tags your photos with useful information such as date and time, subject, camera settings or your personal star ratings, is becoming increasingly important. Searching on categories of metadata provides quicker and more precise results.

Printing out your digital photos is only one way of displaying them and most of these products offer albums, collages, greetings cards and other paper-based output. Additionally, many can produce slide shows for displaying on your domestic TV and all can arrange to send your favourite shots to friends and relations via e-mail.

So here are the six main players in the sub-£100 photo editing market, highlighting their new features and comparing them, so you can pick the product with the best fit to your requirements.

Click on the ‘NEXT’ link below to find out more

It’s interesting that four out of the six editors reviewed here contain tools for removing wrinkles and spots and five of them have ways of straightening pictures taken at odd angles. If you were cynical, you might think they’d all met in a bar somewhere and agreed on their feature sets.

The best implemented features are in Photoshop Elements, though there’s not a lot in it and you should be able to tidy up your spotty or tired friends with any of the main packages.

It’s easy to see where the key development work is going with each new version of these photo editors. The standard editing functions have probably reached a plateau and the improvements are now going into ease of use, in particular the level of automation.

It’s a lot easier, for example, to click a photo with a red-eye tool and let it find the troublesome eyes, than to have to highlight each eye individually. Image extraction is continuing to improve and with sophisticated line detection, accurately removing a photo object requires less and less hard work.

A special word of praise must go to Roxio’s PhotoSuite 7, which is no way a market leader but offers much of what the others do for less than half their price. Unless you really need RAW editing or metadata tagging, you should really give this a try.

Of the leading contenders, we’d put our money down for either Photoshop Elements or Paint Shop Pro X. Both have a vast range of useful tools and your choice really comes down to which tools you think you’ll make most use of. Adobe’s strength lies in editing, functions such as the Magic Extractor and the Cookie Cutter, while Corel offers the better image management in Photo Album 6.

Serif has really done its own thing with its PhotoPlus editor over the last few years, which means that some of the common features of other packages aren’t available here. Instead it majors on batch editing, PDF export and a filter gallery where you can experiment with a wide range of filters, using a decent sized preview window.

We’re sure Serif would claim it’s responding to customer requests, but it’s hard to see that converting a group of files from JPEGs to TIFFs, for instance, is really more popular than a tool for removing acne or straightening out a crooked shot.

The layer handling in PhotoPlus 10 is a cut above most others, as you can group layers together and apply filters and other tools to a whole group in one go. If you like to collage your photos, you may well find this a useful feature.

PhotoPlus has strengths in what are traditionally painting functions, too. It includes sophisticated warping tools, to distort images for special effects, and has support for pressure-sensitive graphics tablets. There’s a high level of control over brush tips and the ability to introduce Bezier curves for outline drawing.

In the box with PhotoPlus 10 Studio is AlbumPlus 4 which, as you might imagine, organises your photos into albums. It has good tagging facilities which enable you to build up the metadata attached to your photos, so you can search them quickly and efficiently. You can produce a simple slide show from this application, too, but there’s little control over transitions or display times.

Overall, PhotoPlus 10 is a bit short on the kind of automated tools which make tidying up photos enjoyable, rather than a chore. It’s still playing catch up with the leading contenders.

Company: Microsoft

Contact: 0870 601 0100