Adobe Photoshop Elements 8
Adobe Photoshop Elements is one of the best bargains in the photo-editing market: for a fraction of the cost of Photoshop, you get a full complement of editing tools, guided tutorials for improving your photos, as well as lots of other features aimed at helping you create cards, collages, photo montages and more. With version 8, Adobe hasn't made radical changes: they've added a few new tools, beefed up the Guided Edit and Quick Edit modes, and adopted some of the look of Photoshop CS4. Overall, it's a solid--if light--upgrade to an already good product.
As I noted in my first look, the Mac and Windows versions of Photoshop Elements 8 are identical. The bundled software, however, is not. Whereas the Windows version comes with Organizer, a user-friendly program for managing and tagging images, the Mac version includes Adobe Bridge CS4, a more complex cataloging tool that works with all kinds of files, not just photos. Although not as intuitive as the Organizer for some tasks (adding keyword tags is a bit more cumbersome, for example), Bridge provides solid integration with Elements, includes a very good full-screen review mode, and works satisfactorily as a general photo browser.
There are a few Organizer features that Bridge lacks, most notably online backup of photos to Adobe's Photoshop.com service, and the ability to upload photos from the Organizer to photo-sharing sites like Flickr, Photoshop.com, and SmugMug. Mac users can still get a free Photoshop.com account with 2GB of storage, but photos must be uploaded via a Web browser, and there are no provisions for storing backups of your photos.
If you use iPhoto as your primary photo catalog, you can easily set it up (using iPhoto's General preferences) so that you edit photos in Elements 8. So long as you work only with JPEG or TIFF files, perform only basic editing tasks in Elements, and are careful to save the file without changing the file format, the edited photo automatically shows up in iPhoto. However, if you create a more complex file from your original--or you want to edit Raw files within Elements--and thus have to save it in a different format, you'll need to take the extra step of importing the updated version manually into iPhoto. This isn't a limitation on Adobe's part--it's iPhoto's database and folder structure that gets in the way here. Elements 8 does make one nice improvement to process of exchanging files with iPhoto: the Open dialog box now lets you directly open photos from your iPhoto or Aperture library (version 6 let you see the photos, but not open them).
Elements 8 looks different from version 6, largely because Adobe has updated the program to use Photoshop CS4's panel interface (including the use of tabbed documents, similar to those in Safari or Firefox). I found that the new look was a big improvement over Elements 6, but the changes are largely cosmetic; you'll find that things mostly work as they did before. And, for those people who thought that Elements 6's dark gray look was too dark, you can now set a preference to change it to very light gray--a questionable improvement to my eyes as I generally find the Mac's dark interface more readable than that on the Windows version.
Of the major new features, the Smart Brush and Recompose tools are the most successful in their implementation. Making selections in Photoshop Elements gets easier with each version, and the Smart Brush tool pushes this even further. The Smart Brush lets you create quick selections and then add versatile adjustment-layer effects, such as bluer skies, black-and-white effects, whiter teeth, and other portrait enhancements. For many users, the concept of making selections and masks can be overwhelming (and time-consuming); the Smart Brush tool really helps simplify these tasks and lets you immediately see results without having to go through multiple steps. It's a winning combination.
Likewise, the Recompose tool, which lets you apply a "smart" crop, is a great tool for eliminating (or at least minimizing) unwanted objects while keeping important elements free from distortion. The Recompose tool lets you literally bring the subjects in your photo closer together. Like many tools with seemingly magical abilities, it doesn't work perfectly on every image--you'll get the best results with landscape-oriented photos that have very distinct subjects you can mark to keep or to eliminate. Even then, you'll occasionally need to retouch some blemished seams in a recomposed photo, but I feel that's to be expected. Overall, it's one of the best new features in Elements.
The new Photomerge Exposure feature is less successful. Photomerge Exposure takes a group of over- and under-exposed photos and attempts to create a blended image with a balanced exposure. However, I had a hard time finding a set of photos that created a realistic-looking final photo. The reality is, for Photomerge Exposure to work effectively, you'll need to think ahead, carry a tripod, and remember to take multiple pictures while keeping your foreground and background subjects relatively still.
Adobe has also added quite a few small features and improvements that make it a better application. For example, the new Surface Blur filter, another import from Photoshop, is a great tool for smoothing skin in portraits, thanks to the sophisticated way it preserves edge detail when applying a blur.
The Quick Edit mode has new selection and adjustment tools for whitening teeth, removing red eye and increasing the saturation of skies. They're things you can do on your own in Full Edit mode, but the Quick Edit tools simplify the process for you. Also in Quick Edit mode, there's a helpful new feature for previewing adjustments before you make them. To access it , click on the small grid icon to the left of each slider; as you move the cursor over each preview in the grid, the image on screen will change to preview the result.
A small but long-overdue addition that will make life much easier for scrapbookers (and anyone else building multi-photo collages): you can finally add adjustable guides to a file.
In an attempt to simplify the process of printing photos, Adobe did take one small thing away in Elements 8: you can no longer precisely place a photo on a printed page. Instead, the image is always centered. It's a little thing, but for people who want to save on paper, or for scrapbookers working with precise layouts, it is a pain. (Another downside for people still using PowerPC-based Macs, Elements 8 is unfortunately Intel-only.)
Macworld buying advice
If you measure solely by whiz-bang new features, Photoshop Elements 8 comes across as a minor upgrade from version 6. However, with a the addition of few strong new tools and lots of small improvements, Elements remains a bargain for those people who want much of the power of Photoshop, but don't want to pay the high price.
[Former Macworld editor Rick LePage is editor in chief of Photoshop Elements Techniques ,and runs the photo printer site Printerville.net.]