First Look at Photoshop Elements 8

Mac users could be forgiven for doubting the future of Photoshop Elements for Mac, Adobe's low-cost image editor. In the two years since Elements 6 ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ) appeared to wide acclaim, Mac users have watched as their Windows compatriots progressed to Version 7. At the same time competition has heated up from an ever-growing crop of inexpensive image editors for the Mac, such as Acorn ( Macworld rated 3.5 out of 5 mice ) and Pixelmator ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ).

With Photoshop Elements 8--released simultaneously on Mac and Windows--Adobe is once again staking its claim in the consumer image-editing market. The new version (which cost $100, and comes with a $20 mail-in rebate) offers new tools for quickly applying editing effects and merging information from multiple photos, sports an updated interface, and includes technology from its much larger sibling, Photoshop CS4. While Elements 8 doesn't offer as many groundbreaking tools as previous versions, it does look to be a well-rounded update to an already good product.

The basics

The Photoshop Elements package contains two components: an editor and an image-management application. The new editor (Photoshop Elements) is virtually identical for both the Mac and Windows. This is great news for people looking for help and tutorials. The tools, commands, editing modes, and overall functionality (with some keyboard differences) are the same on both platforms throughout the editor.

The real difference between platforms is that the Mac version comes with Bridge CS4, the same full-scale document manager that ships with the Creative Suite. Windows users, on the other hand, get the Organizer, which uses an approach similar to iPhoto for managing (and lightly editing) your photos.

 The Organizer is definitely a friendlier application--Bridge CS4 was designed to manage all types of documents, not just photos. Still, you can accomplish most of what the Organizer offers from within Bridge. You can import photos directly from your camera using Adobe's Photo Downloader program (also included as part of the package), and then catalog, tag, rate, stack and view your images. You can also easily move back and forth between Bridge and Elements. There's even a slick full-screen Review mode for quickly viewing and rating your images. The only missing item is version control; unlike the Organizer-Editor combo on the Windows side, the Mac tools can't save subsequent edited versions of a photo as part of the image's Version Set, which lets you view different edited versions of a photo.

Of course, you can bypass Bridge entirely and manage your photos manually. You can even store your images in iPhoto and use Elements as the external editor for photos. However, iPhoto's database structure means that you might have to go through some hoops to save updated files back into iPhoto. (Much of the problem here stems from the way iPhoto manages images; Elements works much more fluidly with programs like Apple's Aperture and Adobe Lightroom, which provide better version-control mechanisms.)

Updated look

People coming from an older version of Elements might find themselves a bit disconcerted by the update's new look. Borrowing liberally from Photoshop CS4, the entire Elements workspace--documents, panels, toolbars, and so forth--now sits inside a floating, resizable window, which Adobe calls the Application Frame. Only the menu bar remains outside this space. This approach takes a little getting used to, but I find it preferable to the fixed-window setup Elements 6 used.

Elements 8's palettes are now called panels, and while they tend to work the same way, Adobe has moved some of the options from the top to the bottom of the respective panels, which can be disconcerting at first. One benefit to this change is that most adjustment-layer controls are now presented in an Adjustment panel below the Layers palette; this means you no longer have to open a dialog box to make changes. This is one of those little productivity enhancements that may not seem like much as first, but having used the Elements 8 beta for a while now, I can't imagine going back to the old approach.

The other big interface change is support for tabbed documents. You now have the option of opening multiple files in a single window with tabs (much like the ones in Safari). This makes tasks like dragging layers between documents much easier--you just drag the layer to the tab of the target document. You can use Command-tilde (~) to cycle through your open documents.

For me, these cosmetic changes add real usability improvements to Photoshop Elements. But if you don't like change, many of the new options can be overridden with a preference setting or menu option. (You can revert to the fixed-window workspace, for instance, by turning off the Application Frame setting in the Window menu.)

Cool new tools

The best improvements in Elements 8 are in the new editing tools--most notably the Recompose and Smart Brush tools, as well as two new Photomerge options for combining multiple flawed photos into one stellar image. These new features make quick work of enhancing and fixing your photos, often performing complex edits and masking tasks with just a few click of the mouse.

Recompose The Recompose tool is a friendlier version of Photoshop's Content-Aware Scale feature, first introduced in CS4. I think of it as a "smart cropping" feature: it alters the orientation and size of a photo while preserving the parts that are important, such as specific people and objects.

Adobe has done a great job of simplifying this for Elements users. When you select the Recompose tool from the toolbox (it shares a spot with the Crop tool), you get a bounding box with handles just like you would get when cropping. You then use the Protect brush to paint strokes on the image where you want objects preserved; use the Remove brush for areas you want eliminated. Now when you resize the photo using the handles, Elements attempts to recompose the image without distorting those objects you selected.

There are plenty of situations where this feature can be used effectively; a good place to start is with photos where your subjects are separated by dead space such as trees or ocean surf. I found that the Recompose tool worked like magic to close the gaps while still faithfully preserving the people in my photos.

Smart Brush The other new tool in Elements 8 is the Smart Brush, which lets you quickly select an area in a photo and apply any one of more than 50 effects to just that area, including increasing the blue in skies, adjusting contrast, whitening teeth, and more.

The Smart Brush works much like the existing Quick Selection tool; it selects areas of an image based on the contrast between edges. But Smart Brush takes that tool one step further by adding an adjustment layer and a mask (containing the selection) to your document. Once you have your masked selection, you then choose the look you want from a pop-up window (effects categories include General Purpose, Photographic, Landscape, Portrait and Special Effects), and the effect is automatically applied to the selection. You can easily adjust the intensity of the effect, or change it to another one altogether.

The Smart Brush is a good example of Adobe's efforts to make Elements easier to use and more intuitive than Photoshop. Sure, I could manually create many of the Smart Brush's effects by making a selection, adding my own adjustment layers, and tweaking settings, but I find that it's a lot easier to do it with one tool. And I can still manually tweak the effect or the selection if I desire.

More automated actions

Adobe has also added more than 10 new entries to the Guided Edit mode in Elements 8. This mode lets you choose from a list of common tasks, and then walks you through the editing process with a series of simplified sliders. Two of the most notable changes here are the Exposure and Scene Cleaner Photomerge options.

Merge Exposures The new Photomerge Exposure tool is designed for those times when you have multiple photos of a scene taken at different exposures. For example, in some photos, the highlights--like the clouds in a sky--may have no detail. In others, the sky may be perfectly exposed, but the foreground is too dark. Photomerge Exposure can take those different shots (it can use as many as 10 photos) and automatically blend the well-exposed parts of each image into a single, properly exposed photo. (Many cameras make it easy to take multiple bracketed exposures for these types of high-contrast scenes.)

The feature also offers controls for aligning the different versions of a scene (in case you didn't use a tripod), and simple brushes that let you fine-tune your final image by selecting parts of an image that you specifically want to keep (or erase). It's not a panacea for poorly exposed shots--especially if you didn't use a tripod--but it's a great tool to have in your editing arsenal.

Clean the Scene The other addition to Elements' Photomerge section is Scene Cleaner. Similar to the Exposure function, Scene Cleaner uses multiple photos of the same scene to generate a final composite image. In Scene Cleaner's case, the goal is to remove unwanted objects in a scene--for example, an unknown person who walked in front of your camera as you were taking a picture--and replace them with the background from another image of the same scene.

More to explore Elements 8's Guided Edit also includes a few other additions that are worth playing with, including automated tools that produce a line drawing from a photo, or mimic the look of a saturated slide film. And in case the effect you want isn't offered, Adobe also added an Action Player, which lets you run Photoshop actions--little automated scripts that perform a set of commands--that have been written specifically for Elements. (There are hundreds of free and low-cost actions on the Web for doing everything from creating special effects, layer masks, and other tasks.)

First impressions

There are lots of other small changes in Photoshop Elements 8, as well (the new Smart Blur filter is great for smoothing skin, for example). When you add these up with the big changes--including the Recompose and Smart Brush tools, and the new Guided Edit features--you end up with a worthwhile update to a product that was already fairly strong. Although the adoption of the CS4 look might put a few people off, I've found it ultimately to be an improvement over version 6. I'll share my final impressions and verdict in the full review, coming soon.

[Rick LePage is editor in chief of Photoshop Elements Techniques, and runs the printer site Printerville.]

Subscribe to the Daily Downloads Newsletter