Photoshop Elements 3 Review

Photoshop Elements 3
by Rick Hyman

Adobe provided us with a copy of Photoshop Elements version 3 for review purposes. Version 4 is now out, and some of the differences will be mentioned at the end of this review.

I began by loading PE3 on an 800 MHz Titanium G4 Powerbook having 1 GBi of RAMi, and running OSi X 10.4.4. The installer ran smoothly and the installation location defaulted to the main Application folder. The installation requires about 150 MB of storage.

Happily, PS Elements comes with a rudimentary booklet that helps you understand available features. Adobe seems to be one of the last software companies providing any printed materials. The printed book is very rudimentary, and often reads more like an advertising brochure than an instruction manual. It just touches on the various features provided in Photoshop Elements 3 (hereafter referred to as PE3), but it pointed me in the right direction.

Adobe advertises several features in PE3 in addition to the photo editing capabilities. PE3 can help you to organize photos, attach photos to emails and save photos for use in web sites.

Photo organization is performed using a built-in utility called the Filei Browser. The File Browser presents photo thumbnails of all images it finds in a given folder along with the names of folders at the same level, allowing you to drill down to lower levels. The Browser can best be described as a large sheet containing an array of these thumbnails with few additional controls for quickly getting to various locations on your hard drive. The Browser can also be used to attach key words to files for later search and sorting, but you are limited to key words displayed in a special list. This indicates to me that Adobe has not taken any advantage of the metadata capabilities in OS X Tiger, and the assigned keywords may only be associated with a selected photo when using PE3.

Attaching photos to an email is easy. A small email icon button beside the Print button causes the current photo to be attached to an email automatically opened in Mail. It does not seem to be possible to do this with multiple files selected in the File Browser. The Save for Web feature is handy for those building web sites. A large dialog is displayed showing before and after versions of your image, the after image showing the effect of saving the image in various quality JPEGi, GIF or PNGi files. The purpose of this dialog is to allow the saving of a file as small as possible to save web rendering time.

I do find the Save for Web feature to be useful, as it shows the size of a file in a potential format. The other features so far mentioned were less useful. The File Browser has a poor user interface, and seems to be based on clumsy interface paradigms typically found in Windows. I will continue to use Apple's iPhoto to organize images, and so the ability in PE3 to attach a single photo to an email is of limited value. Unfortunately, PE3 has no integration with Apple's iApplications, so transfer of photos to or from iPhoto must be performed manually.

But, PE3's reason d'etre is the creation and editing of images. And, Adobe has designed PE3 for the non-professional photo enthusiast. So, Photoshop elements does not have as many tools as the full-featured Photoshop, but it still has plenty of tools for most users. In fact there are so many tools, PE3 has two modes for editing images, Quick Fix and Standard Edit.

Quick Fix limits the tools facing the user to those needed to touch up family photos and vacation snapshots. In the upper right corner of the PE toolbar is a button labeled "Quick Fix". Clicking this button causes any open image to appear in large dialog style window with a pop-up menu allowing you to see before and after versions of the image you are editing. The only tools that show up in the left hand toolbar are the zoom, hand, crop and red eye removal tools. The more important tools in the Quick Fix mode show up in windows on the far right. The first window area is labeled General Fixes, and contains a couple of buttons to rotate your image, along with an Auto button labeled Smart Fix and a slider labeled Amount. By adjusting the Amount slider, you can press the Auto button and PE3 analyzes your image and applies fixes to the photo representing all of the other fixes available on the far right, including lighting, color and sharpening. The before and after image versions show you how much change has been made. If you don't like what you see, just use the Undo menu item.

The next Quick Fix area on the far right is for Lighting. This window area contains Auto buttons for Levels and Contrast, along with sliders for Lighten Shadows, Darken Highlights, and Midtone Contrast. The third window area is for Color, in which a Color Auto button is accompanied by sliders for Saturation, Hue, Temperature and Tint. The last Quick Fix window area is for Sharpen in which the Sharpen Auto button has a slider for Amount.

So, the Quick Fix editing mode has sufficient tools for editing pictures you take with point and shoot digital cameras. And this mode allows you to see the before and after versions of the image as you click various buttons. The only problem I had in this mode came when switching between pictures. I made some edits of a photo, shown by a clear difference in the before and after image versions. I then switched to a second photo, and later back to the original photo. The before and after versions no longer looked different; the before image version showed the changes made by my edits rather than the untouched picture saved on the hard drive. I had to close the photo's window and revert to the version on the hard drive to regain control. I hope this has been fixed in PE4.

The Standard Edit mode will be familiar to all users of Photoshop. Photos appear in individual windows, and many tools appear in the left hand tool bar with many more in menu items. Small windows on the right provide access to Styles and Effects, as well as Layers and other tools. While Photoshop Elements does not have all of the tools of its big brother Photoshop, it has the important ones, and Layers is one of the most important. The toolbar contains the standard pointer, selectors, text, magic wand, healing brush, clone stamp, paint brush, paint bucket, gradient, and color selector tools, along with others. The menu items contain many of the tools for image enhancement, layer control and image filters. For someone who is not an every day user of the current Photoshop, it's difficult to determine which items from Photoshop are not found in Photoshop Elements.

It is only obvious that the programming capabilities have been drastically reduced in PE3. You can not create automated scripts in Photoshop elements, but you can execute automated scripts created in Photoshop. More careful examination reveals the more detailed controls of Photoshop are not included in PE3. For example, the threshold tool is available, but not the bezier tool that allows you to adjust thresholds. Another example is the ability to read a Digimarc watermark imbedded in a photo, but not add a watermark.

So, I think most users will find the capabilities of PE3 to be extremely good for the price. But, I have reservations due to the awkward interface. Adobe ignores Apple's standards in OS X; for example, the short cut for the Hide command is command-control-H, rather than command-H as it is for all other OS X applications. This is an old complaint, but I must also mention poor Windows interface elements, cluttered windows, strange short cuts and more. Perhaps these problems are (currently) due to Adobe's philosophy of designing the interface for Windows first, and porting to the Mac rather than designing the interface from the ground up for the Mac.

A sufficient warning is most users will find the interface clumsy. Even if Adobe will not make the interface better, it is my hope they might help us beginners understand commands applied to images. I still find it difficult to make portions of images transparent, a task often needed for web pages. Perhaps this is because I do not understand masks from the artist's point of view rather than the engineer's. Similarly, the beginner is not told why the Unsharp Mask makes images sharper.

The bottom line --> is Photoshop elements a good buy? I know of no other application on the market that has this many tools for the price. Can you use PE3? Certainly anyone can use the Quick Fix mode, but the many tools of the Standard Edit mode will require books and classes to use to their full potential.

What are the changes from Photoshop Elements version 3 to version 4? One change is the inclusion of Bridge, an integrated utility replacing the File Browser. Based on its inclusion with Photoshop, it seems no better than the File Browser. Other new features come from Photoshop, including the Magic Selection Brush used to select a contrasting object from its background. Another similar tool is the Magic Extractor. Other additions are the Skin Tone Adjustment, and an improved Red-Eye Fix.

PE 4 is about $70 from Amazon; a $20 rebate for owners of previous versions of PE is available through October 2006. Photoshop Elements 4 still does not have a Universal Binary for running natively on Intel powered Macs.

Info on PSE 4.0 to follow

Doug Brown (dougmbrown@mac.com)

Adobe apologizes for sending us "dated" software (PSE 3.Innocent and will send us a copy of "PSE 4.0 for the Mac" - hopefully for incremental review in June.

PSE 4.0 is said to have the following changes.

New features:
- magic selection brush
- magic extractor with defringe
- skin tone color adjustments
- WYSIWYGi font menus
- revisedstraighten tool
- revised one-click red-eye removal
- nondestructive Camera RAw including DNG export
- find by metadata & saved searches
- online printing & creations

Features that have been enhanced:
- quick fix tools
- file browser
- advanced noise reduction
- improved embedded color profile support
- healing brushes
- crop tool
- advanced Camera Raw
- photo captions
- full screen slide show