All the signs are here that October is nearly upon us: the evenings are getting cooler, the leaves are starting to fall, and Adobe has announced a new edition of Photoshop Elements, version 8. A clutch of new features bolsters the package, allowing for more single-click image adjustments, and automatic identification of the people in your images.
For readers unfamiliar with Photoshop Elements, it essentially comprises a couple of programs designed to make it easy -- and fun -- for home users to organise, correct, enhance and generally get the best out of their digital photo collection. A powerful browser utility, the Elements Organizer, helps you preview and sort out your pictures and other media files, while the main Photoshop Elements program is used for handling the editing work.
Photoshop Elements 8 is available now for around £75. You can also get it bundled with Premiere Elements 8 for about £115. Let's take a look at the new features.
Merge multiple exposures
Imagine you're taking a snap of a friend whose face is in shadow while the background is sun-drenched. With experience and expertise, you could work out how to balance the two with some nifty camera work, but, in the time it takes you to do that, the moment will have passed and your friend will be getting bored.
Instead, take two quick shots: one over-exposed to capture your friend's shadowy face, and the other under-exposed to capture the well-lit background. In Elements 8, the Photomerge Exposure feature combines the two to produce a well-balanced result across the whole picture (see the example above).
Naturally, the best results are obtained if you can persuade your friend to keep as still as possible, while doing the same yourself while holding the camera. The program, however, provides a means to align the multiple shots manually, and you can designate the over- and under-exposed areas manually too, if necessary. Even better results can be achieved if you've taken three or more alternative shots.
If the shots aren't strongly similar in composition, you can get some odd-looking mixes. But the freedom this feature affords is brilliant: all you have to do is rattle off a couple of snaps each time -- one with the flash on, and one without -- in the knowledge that Elements 8 will sort it all out later.
Squeeze out the blank bits
Good photography is all about composition, apparently. In the real world of last-minute holidays and nights in the pub, we just shoot what we can and hope for the best. Elements 8 offers a remedy for poorly composed photos that lets you eliminate the background bits you don't want.
Say you've taken a photo of two people standing apart from each other. Using the Recompose function in Elements 8, you can push them closer together without distorting their appearance. If the program's automatic guesswork proves unsatisfactory, you can manually mark up which parts of the image to preserve and which to eliminate (as shown in the example below). In fact, you can mark up people to remove from the image as you drag on the Recompose handles.
There are limitations, of course, most notably when the subject matter is already fairly close, causing distortion to creep in. We were pleasantly surprised at how seamless the backgrounds were after the Recompose process, but less impressed when we removed parts of the image. For some reason, this always caused the affected part of the background to look slightly skewed or twisted.
Much like modern digital cameras, previous versions of Elements could identify the 'face' areas in images. Elements 8 is supposed to be able to identify whose faces they are (see the example below).
To do this, you start by enabling People Recognition in the Elements Organizer and entering names for faces in several images. The program then analyses your other photos and identifies them accordingly -- in theory, anyway. In practice, this feature works reasonably well for spot-on, full-face photos with perfect clarity and rich colour. If, however, the majority of your photos are rather rough, the People Recognition feature just doesn't have a clue. Most of the time, it prompts you with the question 'who is this?', so you have to select a name yourself. More annoyingly, sometimes it doesn't prompt you at all. The feature's saving grace is that it's certainly no worse than Apple's equivalent in iPhoto.
Much more impressive is the Auto-Analyzer in the Elements Organizer (shown below), which looks through your pictures and tags them automatically within a range of categories. Within a few minutes, it will have tagged your entire library, helping you sort out the high-quality shots from the blurred ones, for example, or those containing several people from those containing just one.
We much prefer this to the annoying Tag Cloud, for assigning tags from one of those silly collections of previously used words shown at different type sizes. These bloody tag clouds just encourage you to use the same words (the big ones) over and over again. Auto-Analyzer, on the other hand, makes a valuable judgement on each picture, thereby making your dumb computer smarter than the average tag-cloud fan.
Preview before commitment
Other worthwhile enhancements in Elements 8 include adjustment previews for Quick Fix tasks (shown below). These comprise a set of alternative 'fixed' versions of your image at full size (not just a thumbnail), allowing you to choose the one closest to your intended result and then make additional tweaks. It's a great time-saver.
The package also includes an updated set of templates for creating photo books, greetings cards and so on. We didn't try them all but they appear to be good-quality tools on the whole. That said, it's slightly irritating to click on the Create button only to be flogged paid-for services from Shutterfly and Kodak Gallery. No doubt this is supposed to be helpful, but it isn't to someone with pre-paid credits at Snapfish or a similar alternative service. Please could we have an ad-free version of Elements, Adobe?
Anyone with a copy of Photoshop Elements prior to last year's version 7 should be delighted with the new release. The latest Elements Organizer is a treat and the main program makes working with your photos extremely easy. Version 7 owners, on the other hand, will probably be very happy with what they've got -- until next year, at least.
There's plenty of competition in this market but Elements 8 holds its own, thanks to its friendly interface and seamless mix of automated and manual tools. You can flick back and forth between Quick Fixes and manual adjustment in the same place, rather than having to hunt through the program. We like that a great deal.
As for free alternatives, there's no comparison, even taking into account the nifty bits in Windows 7. Adobe and Microsoft have very different reputations as regards the effectiveness and reliability of their software. Who would you entrust your entire photo library to?
In case you're wondering whether Elements 8 will work on your machine, the system requirements, as specified by Adobe, are:
- 1.6GHz or faster processor
- Windows XP with Service Pack 2 or 3, Windows Vista, or Windows 7
- 1GB of RAM
- 2GB of available hard-disk space
- Microsoft DirectX 9-compatible display driver
You may also be interested in our Adobe Premiere Elements 8 review.