Adobe Photoshop Elements 10: Facebook-friendly, but the Organizer Slows Things Down
At a Glance
Adobe has been producing its Photoshop Elements image-editing and -organizing software for a full decade now. Each successive version acquires more tools, additional features, and greater refinement; and Elements 10 ($100, or $80 as an upgrade as of September 20, 2011) remains the best consumer-level image editor you can buy. But the organizer in Photoshop Elements 10--an increasingly important component of Elements--suffers from performance shortcomings that drag the entire product down.
Waiting on the Final Analysis
Image organization and management are more important than ever these days, what with digital SLRs firing off five or more shots a second, writing massive images to memory cards holding as much as 128GB, and online storage sites offering to host as much data as you're willing to pay for. When I can capture a thousand images in an hour, I'm most concerned with downloading them to my computer quickly, weeding out bad shots and duplicates quickly, and uploading the keepers somewhere for friends, family, and others to view.
Photoshop Elements 10's organizer handles the step of downloading from a camera quite well, but then things start to go wrong.
The auto analyzer function, introduced in a previous version, works to find people's faces and evaluate images' compositions (high-quality or low-quality, in focus or blurry, long shot or closeup); and now it allows you to search for objects that appear in multiple images or search for duplicate images. To search for objects--say, a soccer ball--you find one image containing a soccer ball, and then issue a visual search command. Once you receive the results, which are shown with percentages representing the likelihood of a match, you can refine them by using a slider that lets you choose between "color" or "shape." Farther down the list of results, I saw many head-scratchers--you call that a ball?--but sliding toward "shape" helped improve the overall results.
The ability to search for duplicates based on visual similarities, when you have thousands of images in a catalog, would be an incredible time-saver. But when I used the feature to find duplicates in a catalog of 20,000 images and videos, it operated very slowly. The application took about a minute to search a group of 171 images on my three-year-old dual-Xeon workstation, but it required more than 20 minutes to search my full 20,000-image catalog. That's probably reasonable, given the amount of data and the intensive nature of the operation, but the auto analyzer crashed a few times while it was working and again when I was sorting through the results, requiring me to restart the 20-minute process each time. When I could keep it running, it did a nice job of finding true duplicates--such as batches of images that I had downloaded twice, for some reason--and of "stacking" (grouping) images of similar composition.
Adobe says that it has heard complaints about previous versions of the auto analyzer (see this site for a compendium of common complaints about earlier Elements versions and the auto analyzer, together with some possible fixes). The company says that it has changed the analyzer's memory footprint to make it "leaner." Nevertheless, on my system, the analyzer, which runs as a separate Windows process, accessed nearly as much memory as the organizer application, and it required a substantial amount of CPU power while it was running. The main organizer application seemed stable when the auto analyzer was turned off or had finished analyzing media; but even then, the organizer seemed lethargic--and its best features depend on the auto analyzer.
Made for Facebook
Face recognition is another feature that relies on the auto analyzer. You can use it to identify people in photos and then tag them. In Photoshop Elements 10, you can tag them with your Facebook friends' names. First, you authorize Elements to connect to your Facebook account, permitting it to download your friends list. Then you run a visual search, which will produce a dialog box with people's faces. It is pretty good at identifying people; it suggested pictures of people that had been taken 30 years apart; pictures of people with hair and without hair (me); and shots of people looking straight at the camera and looking sideways.
If you then right-click on a person, you can start typing the person's name to apply a tag, and Elements will suggest people from your Facebook friends list. Later, if you choose to upload photos to your Facebook account, the tags will be uploaded, too. (Any tags created on Facebook will not be downloaded to your Elements catalog, however). Unfortunately, the approve/exclude mechanism is laborious: It has no keyboard shortcuts, clicking in the right spot to exclude a photo can be difficult, and the feature often presented faces I'd already seen. A similar mechanism in the free Google Picasa 3.8 application is much faster and easier to use.
Does Anybody Still Edit Photos?
In case you still want to doctor a photo or two before moving them along to Facebook, the editor application of Elements 10 has a few new features, including three new guided edits (walkthroughs). The new Picture Stack guided edit breaks your photo into four, eight, or twelve blocks and assembles them into a collage-like group; it's a mildly interesting effect. Likewise, the Orton effect applies a "soft, dreamy" look to photos, which can produce interesting results, especially for portraits.
The new Depth of Field guided edit helps you blur the background of photos so as to highlight your primary subject. This isn't terribly difficult to do with existing tools, and I don't think it saves you much effort. Also, when you use the guided edit, the first step is to create a selection of the image's background. Sometimes--if the foreground object is very small, for example--I find it easier to select the background instead of the foreground object and then use 'invert selection' to choose the foreground object; but when I tried to do this in Depth of Field, it bumped me out of the guided edit entirely, and I had to start over.
Elements 10 adds 30 new patterns, and you can use a new Smart Brush to apply them to portions of your image. The tool combines Elements 10's Quick Selection tool with a Fill tool: You use it to select areas of your photo that you want to fill with a pattern or effect, and as you make your selection, the tool fills the area instantly. Nice, but it's a shortcut most people probably don't need because it saves you only a single step.
Another new feature gives you the ability to add text on a path or onto an object shape: Draw a line, a box, or a circle, for example, and you can place text on any of those object shapes. This feature has been in the big-brother version of Photoshop and in Adobe Illustrator for eons. One limitation: You can edit the size or shape of the object or path after you've created it, by pushing or pulling on anchor points; but once you've added text, you can adjust only the size of the overall object.
This Organization Needs Some Organization
I appreciate that Photoshop Elements 10's editor has much of the power of and a similar interface to Photoshop CS 5.1--and I like using the editor. But the organizer, which has so many potentially useful tools, continues to suffer from major performance issues, and its integration with the editor remains poor, despite Adobe's latest efforts. Compared to Google Picasa 3.8, which offers many of the same nifty features--including face tagging and duplicates finding--but in a better-performing, more-flexible, free package--Elements 10's organizer isn't competitive. If Adobe wants its organizer to succeed, the company needs to boost the tool's performance and flexibility so that it outperforms what you can get for free.