Review: Adobe Photoshop & Organizer Elements 12

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Provides: A hobbyist version of Photoshop providing a lot of digital power with a simple interface
Developer: Adobe
Requirements: Mac OS X v10.6.8 or anything newer, Intel Mac, 4 GB storage space, 1 GB RAM (2 GB for HD video functions), Quicktime 7.2 or greater.
Retail Price: $99.99. Upgrade for $79.99 (for one). Add another $49.99 per year for the "Plus" account.

I almost wish Photoshop Elements didn't have "Photoshop" in its name. Yes, it has mostly the same engine as Photoshop, and yes, it also manipulates and enhances images, but the issue is that Photoshop Elements serves a completely different audience than Photoshop—different demands, wishes, and goals. If you mention Photoshop Elements to a Photoshop user, you might get a sneer and a comment of "I use the real Photoshop!" These are people who probably have never taken the time to use Photoshop Elements or they do not understand that much of the power of Photoshop is right there in PSE, albeit with fewer features and curious limitations. Nonetheless, since the elimination of perpetual licenses for Photoshop, a new question does arise: "Would people accept having fewer features and curious limitations but a perpetual license?" This should be asked because PSE, according to Adobe, will always have a Perpetual license.

The reality is that much of the core engine of Photoshop and Photoshop Elements is the same core engine. It's very typical for features that initially show up in Photoshop to show up sometime later in Elements and occasionally are done a bit slicker. For example, any seasoned Photoshop pro can take several shots of a group, select the best faces and clone them onto the best bodies to achieve a great group shot. PS Elements has done this considerably easier by requiring that the user only "check" what part of the image they want and let PSE do the rest.

The other paradigm about PSE is that it can be used by an absolute rank beginner, or someone who is somewhat comfortable with messing around, or by someone who, for the most part, is ready and willing to work away on an image. This is done by having three different interfaces within PSE.

[One side comment before I begin: years ago, when Adobe adopted the "elemental" icons for their CS3 (and subsequent) software, I was amused when I first reviewed Photoshop Elements, the icon was not an "element." The next release of PSE was an "elemental" icon, but the next version and this release is once again not an "elemental" icon. And, for what it's worth, I find the newest icons for both PSE and Organizer (a wagon wheel inside a tipping square) to be the least communicative icons I've seen since CS2, when Adobe had flowers, starfish, and other completely irrelevant icons.]

Adobe Elements Organizer

Before you encounter PSE though, you have to get past Adobe Elements Organizer. The AEO is a variety of things: first and foremost, it's an organizer and database. Every image and movie you bring into the Organizer is cataloged with it's name, any keywords you have associated or with that file, and, if you've started up the face recognition technology, it will check identities and log that person into the database. As I commented in my earlier review, this "face" feature is both fascinating, and somewhat scary in how well, once you've taught it who's who within your photographs, it can identify these people in subsequent photos. If this is consumer technology, you wonder what the fancy-dancy level of this technology can do.

The key point is that brining images into Organizer is not any different than bringing images into Lightroom. You can't just open a folder to see what images are there as you can in Bridge. Rather you have to Import the images so they can be cataloged within Organizer. If you are used to Bridge, you will find this very frustrating but the dynamics of the database capabilities within Organizer will help you with your image organization. And like any database, the more time you spend adding keywords, recognizing faces, setting locations and events, the better your abilities to find images in the future.

The other thing about Organizer is that it can also do some of the basic image correction that can be done with the Basic mode of PSE. From Organizer you can Crop, set Auto Contrast, correct Red Eye, Auto Color, Auto Sharpen, Auto Levels, and Smart Fix. Sadly, I wasn't always impressed with the results of these choices as there is no way to fine-tune or adjust the results. It's a take-it or leave-it proposition. Besides the complete mystery that this ability is there within Organizer. However, if you want it, it's there.

As stated, one of the areas where the Organizer is excellent is helping you find your images. Notice that across the top is a tab for Media which will help you locate EVERYTHING you have in your collection and a tab for People, Places, and Events. The People option I've mentioned above, but the way it works is that you can go into people, select a person, and all of the images that that person is in will pop up. This will span time and place (you can feel like a time lord!) Similarly for the Places. If you take photos with a camera with a GPS device (such as you have with a smart phone), you'll get complete benefit. Most of the time I take photos with my Canon 30D which does not have a GPS and there will be no automatic location setting. But, when I take photos with my phone, I'm set. However, even if you do not have a GPS linked camera, you can (at a minimum) identify the city or general location of an image manually within Explorer. Later, you can click on the map at any of these location pins and all of the images from that location will pop up.

By clicking on the Tag/Info button, you can add any appropriate tag or info to help you identify and locate any image(s) in your collection. If you set any events, a wedding, party, whatever; you can click on that event and all of the photos from that event will pop up.

All in all, excellent image location control potential.

Photoshop Express

As stated, the basic core engine of Photoshop Elements is the same as Photoshop. If you are coming from Photoshop to PSE, the biggest hurdle you will have is that the UI is radically different in just about every way. Doing things that should take a few moments will take longer simply because you can't find what you are looking for. The only solace I can provide is that probably the first time you walked up to Photoshop you were equally baffled. Just get ready to be baffled all over again.

The first thing you will be greeted with is that there are three modes to use PSE: Quick, Guided, and Expert.

The Quick Mode

The basic beginning mode of PSE, the Quick mode, is suitable for the technically challenged, those who are delighted they could turn their computer on. This is good for those who are "afraid they will break something," and provide the confidence that they can do more. The limitation of using this mode is that fewer features are available as well as less capabilities for the tools that are there. However, the features that are there are more than enough to keep the beginner satisfied. And most of all, they will help the beginner make their images better.

In the Basic Mode, on the left you have a few limited tools, on the bottom right you have four options to select the kind of operation you want to perform, and on the right side you have the sub-categories for manipulation. If you go up to the Enhance menu (the menus for PSE are not shown in this review), enhancement options are shown there that otherwise are not available in the Quick mode.

To give you an idea of what kind of correction you can do and how it's done within the Quick mode, the image below shows the Exposure Adjustments. What you see is a grid of 9 options that you click on and your done. Alternatively, you can click and drag on the slider and obtain some subtle differences in exposure. [Note, this nine-grid approach for selecting variations is no different than a very similar feature that PS had years ago.]

All of these adjustments have similar type of grid and slider control. New with PSE 12 is a feature called "Auto Smart Tone..." This option can only be accessed via the Enhance Menu (there's no button for this) and is only available to the Quick and Expert Mode. It's not in the Guided Mode because that mode is more for teaching you better Photoshoping techniques.

As seen in the image below, just to the bottom-left of Taffy's nose, there is a small "handle" that you can drag around within a smaller grid within the image. If you drag to the upper left or lower right the image becomes darker/lighter and if you drag to the lower left and upper right the image has more/less contrast.

If you look at the bottom left in the image above, you can see a drop-down menu that provides two options: "Learn from this correction" and "Show corner thumbnails." The latter is fairly obvious: in the image above you can see these corner images. The former selection though is very ingenious: do you want PSE to learn from what you are doing? There might be several reasons to let PSE do this such as your personal desire to have (say) greater contrast in your images or you were in an area with cloud cover and all the images are rather flat so you want to boost the contrast for that series of images. Once you are completed, you can tap the Reset button to undo all of the "learning" you've had PSE do.

The Guided Mode

The "Guided" mode adds an interesting "teach me" option to PSE. Here is a chance for those who do not know how to do the things they see in various images, the step-by-step process to create that look. Below is a montage of the various options that are available to be guided through. Some are very straightforward with essentially one step, others, like the Restore Old Photos (new feature is PSE12), has eleven different steps that you are guided through.

As one example, the Zoom Burst Effect (also a new feature is PSE12) shows both the value and the frustration of this tool: There are three or four steps provided and only two: the Crop Tool and the Add Focus Area actually provide any user interaction. The Crop Tool pretty much works as any Crop Tool, no problem there. But when you click on the "Add Zoom Burst button, you get zoom from the middle of the image out. Want a bit more? Click again, Want more? Click again. Too much? Command-z as needed (but nothing in between each click). Now set the focus area. Drag out a region. Not enough? Command-z. Repeat as needed until you have what you like. Want to add a vignette? Click away. Not enough? Click again. Not enough? Click again, tool much? Command-z. But wait, you now want to reset the ZoomBurst? Undo everything you've done and start from scratch.

In other words, you could potentially spend a lot of time in this because your are often left to setting the options by clicking on buttons as opposed to seeing some kind of sliding tool with numbers to fall back on so you can repeat later with a quantifiable numbers.

What I appreciate about the Guided mode is that it does present the proper order one needs to get something done on an image. What isn't there are the mechanisms to both fine-tune and the ability to return to any step so as to adjust as needed. Sort of surgery with welding gloves on. But, at least you are doing it in the correct order.

The Expert Mode

As you move over to the Expert mode, the interface changes again. Now, the left side is filled with a wide variety of tools and the region underneath the image has similar functionality as the Option Panel in Photoshop (located above the image).

Probably the biggest difference with the tools is that there are no drop-down tool selections. That is, in PS, the user can mouse-down on the Marquee tool and select from either the Rectangular, Elliptical, or single pixel marquee selections. In PSE, you select the Marquee Tool and down in the option area you can select the kind of marquee tool you want, whether subsequent marquees are subtractive or cumulative, the feather you want, and even the ability to Refine the Edge.

PSE can work with Layers, but only in the Expert Tab. Keep in mind though that if you work with the Guided mode, you may be creating layers there, just that you are not working with them.

The Layers do have Layer Adjustments, but these also are not very deep. These are also found in the Windows menu. From the Flyout menu shows the various options available to the user. Note that in the bottom left corner is a small icon that when clicked, will make that Adjustment a Clipping layer. Also note that each of these Adjustments will have a Layer Mask Thumbnail that you can paint with the brush (with Black or White) to reveal and/or conceal the layer underneath.

Adobe Camera RAW

PSE comes with Adobe Camera Raw (ACR). While the range of cameras supported is just as deep as is with PS, the available features within the PSE ACR is not strong.

As shown below, the available tools within ACR is not extensive. (Due to the resultant size of the ACR window after resizing to fit into this column, I've screenshot the two main work regions and placed them above the ACR screenshot.) As you can see, you can do your white balancing, leveling, red-eye correction as well as your primary image adjustments, sharpening, noise reduction, and that's about it.

Just as with Photoshop's ACR, you can work with just about every camera's raw images. In addition, you can work with TIFF, PSD, and even JPG images within ACR. However, to access these other image formats is an extra challenge: You cannot click on the other image formats from within Organizer and have it open into ACR. Rather, you need to work from within PSE, and from the File menu, select "Open in Camera Raw" and find your image from a standard Open dialog window.

Finding your images is not difficult but there is an easy trick: one would think that one could simply right-click on an image in the Organizer and it would say something like "reveal in Finder," but no, that would be too easy. Rather, with the image selected in the Organizer, click on the tab on the right hand side called "Information." There, toward the bottom you'll see the underlined "Location." If you click on that, the file will display itself in the Finder. From there you can see where it is on your hard drive (if you didn't know) and step your way to that file to open in ACR.

[Side comment: even with the limited features found in ACR on PSE, the abilities of ACR to make so many adjustments on any image make it a first stop for anyone who wants to make their images look the best.]

One warning though for those who may not be aware: if you open a jpg image in ACR, make a bunch of adjustments and have it looking WONDERFUL, and then email that jpg to someone who does not have PSE, PS, Lightroom, or any Adobe application that also provides ACR, your friend will only see the jpg prior to all your work. If you wish to send someone an image you worked on within ACR, after you're done in ACR, you need to open the image, and save it with a different name (so as to not overwrite your original), and then send this new version to your friends.

Additionally, some of the new things...

For a number of years Photoshop and ACR has had a "Red Eye Removal Tool." Go figure, now PSE has a Pet Eye Removal Tool, something that PS has yet to present. As shown below, William was caught with a chronic case of Pet Eye. Zooming in, selecting the Pet Eye option from the Red Eye removal Tool and a few clicks later, he looks, well, normal.

Also included is an option when straightening a building that inadvertently would have left some of the image with white regions along the edge, you can have PSE fill in those "blank" regions.

Note in the image below the new features (for PSE12) on the bottom of the screenshot, Adjustments, Effects, Textures, and Frames (for the Quick mode) and Layers, Effect, Graphics, Favorites, and More. These provide easy and quick access to some pre-made effects, textures, and frames. These are not necessarily new but are easier to implement and access.

Below you see the Frames option from the Quick mode. Simply select the frame you want, click on it, your done. Textures provides a large collection of textures that, once selected, will provide a texture on the photograph.

Similarly, for the Expert mode, I've two screenshots below showing the options for Effects and for Graphics. [Also note the Layers option on the bottom left, this is where you can see/interact with your layers.] Consider sitting down to PSE and playing for some time to see all of the options available here.

The "More" option on the far right of these controls on the bottom brings up some Panels with more options. PSE does not have the same formal Panels that PS and other applications from Adobe have, but they are some extra panels. You can also access these Panels by selecting them from the Windows menu. [If you are in the Basic mode, these options are grayed out in the Windows menu.] Just as in the rest of the Adobe applications, you can pull any of these tabs off to make a single Panel or you can just leave them as is. One limitation: while you can lengthen this Panels, you cannot make them wider.

I will leave discovery of these Panels (Info, Navigation, History, Histogram, Color Swatches, and Actions to the user but I will comment that for, the biggest disappointment with the Actions Panel is that you cannot create your own Actions. In addition, the available Actions are very limited.

Creating and Sharing

While you can always save your images in a variety of standard graphic formats, like many you'll probably want to share them in a more formal manner. Found in the upper right corner of both PSE and Organizer, from these menus you can export to Create or Share very easily. Below are the options for Photoshop Express:

And the options for Organizer. Notice that since you can see your movies within Organizer, you can send them out to Vimeo and YouTube (unless you also have Premier Elements, you are unable to edit your videos):

One example that I appreciate very much is part of the process of using the "Email Attachments" option, you can dial in the size (resolution) of the outgoing image. With at least one phone camera (Nokia) creating 41 MP images, it's all to easy for someone to send these mega-images to their friends via email. At least here, the user can select a smaller size (like 800 pixels across) for email purposes.

The one area that I had a complete meltdown with was with Adobe Revel. This is a separate part of the package that provide you the ability to upload up to 50 images a month to a free Revel account. You can download, for free, the Adobe Revel app for your mobile device from which you can show off these images. While setting this up I specifically clicked on the option to manage what images I wished to upload as opposed to uploading my entire library. I was ignored and a bunch of images that I have no interest in having uploaded to Revel were uploaded. If you want to upload more images than 50 per month you have to pay for that option ($5.99/month). Now I'm in a state where I cannot remove these image from my Revel account nor can I upload other images because I've used up my 50 images for this month and I'm stuck. I found that I cannot control this feature in any way.

In Short

So, to fairly "rate" Photoshop Elements, one needs to look at both expectations and planned purposes the users expects to do with the software. For the person who has never worked with Photoshop before and is looking for some easy quick ways to both improve the overall quality of their images and perhaps take advantage of some of the special tricks and embellishments that one can do with Photoshop Elements, they will love PSE. PSE is a wonderful program for these users as it provides extensive Photoshop capabilities within a program that does much of the heavy lifting for them. I can personally think of a bunch of my friends and acquaintances who would do well to use PSE.

But, is it a viable alternative for the person who has used Photoshop a lot and is not interested in paying monthly rates to use software? Possibly but depending on their expectations and ability, they will probably be frustrated. Consider the removal of all 3D capabilities, as well as no video or animation. No Smart Objects, limited curves, no Layer Styles, a very limited ACR, the list goes on and on.

Overall though, this software is not intended for the professional, it's intended for the home user. One of the constant surprises I found as I dug through the program is that I'd be saying "well, PSE doesn't have such-n-such only to find that it did have such-n-such, just not the way I expected to find it, the location, or the interface. It was there, just under a different paradigm.

So how do I grade this? I grade it for the intended user. And for that I grade it with a "4." This is a balance for the great things that you can do but often limited ways to fine-tune your results. For example, you have (almost) the same type of selection tools available in PSE as you do with PS. If you have a relatively easy selection, great, you're mostly done. But if there are edges and regions that didn't select well, your options to fine tune and enhance as needed are extremely limited. Likewise, the home user has just as much of a need for the ability to create their own actions as anyone else, but not in PSE.

Just watch out for Adobe Revel, you are warned!

Despite these limitations, there's a lot to like in Photoshop Elements.

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___________ Gary Coyne has been a scientific glassblower for over 30 years. He's been using Macs since 1985 (his first was a fat Mac) and has been writing reviews of Mac software and hardware since 1995.



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