Right before my eyes, a stand of birch trees in Finland was transformed.
The colors were crisper, sharper even. The exposure seemed nearly perfect. And it was a scene that I could now look at again and again.
This metamorphosis wasn't the result of laser eye surgery or a newfound appreciation for birch trees. Rather, it was the result of a single mouse click in the latest version of Adobe Systems' Photoshop Elements, which at a list price of $89 is less than one-seventh the cost of the full Photoshop CS software aimed at professionals.
For most of us, Elements will do quite nicely, and its price puts the software in competition with Apple Computer's IPhoto on many levels.
Elements offers more tools than IPhoto, and some may claim there's a steeper learning curve. However, those extra features are worth the effort to learn if you want to take your home photography to the next level.
One of the nice features of Elements is its use of Adobe's "Bridge" photo organizer, which works rather like IPhoto to collect various picture files and allow you to browse to find the photos you want. You can search photos based on meta-data such as the use of flash, a specific f-stop or camera model, making it easier to find a range of photos in a sea of images.
These search "filters" can be stored for easy reuse.
There are some nice additional editing tools in the new product: a "Magic Selection Brush" lets you select various parts of a photo to edit or adjust, while the "Magic Extractor" can highlight a subject from a photo your dog, say and let it be used in other pictures.
The program also offers a tool to provide "the most realistic skin colors in moments," while a new straighten tool can correct tilted camera angles. These features are useful because, as veteran shutterbugs know, not every photo comes out perfectly straight or perfectly exposed.
Also new in this version and perhaps most important for dedicated users is support for basic "RAW" format use and for the universal "Digital Negative" format, or DNG, which promises access to photos for decades to come because they will not be stored in a proprietary format. These are important advances, I believe.
I very much like the "auto smart fix" button in the program, the one that took the Finnish birch stand and made it so much nicer. Purists may scoff and say you need to tweak every element of brightness, contrast, exposure, flash and so on, and you can do almost everything with Elements manually.
When in a hurry, or when processing batches of photos, however, the one-step procedure is quite handy.
Users will want to devote some time to learning the various features of Photoshop Elements 4. Use the wrong "magic extraction" tool there are ones for foreground and background items and you may end up frustrated, for example. This is a much more sophisticated program than IPhoto, good as the latter is for so many tasks, and it requires some study.
My final personal favorite remains the "Save for Web" feature, in which I can quickly, cleaning and reliably convert photos to a JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) format that loads quickly from the Internet.
For sheer time saving, this feature alone is worth the program's price.
Details at http://www.adobe.com.