Photoshop Elements 3.0

A photo-editing program aimed at nonprofessionals needs to serve two audiences: experienced shutterbugs who want advanced digital darkroom features, and casual snap shooters who just want better shots.

Adobe Photoshop Elements 3.0 dances across this tightrope with aplomb. It sports numerous editing features that were formerly available only in the $699 Photoshop CS, and it wraps its new powers in a revamped user interface that makes image editing more approachable for casual photographers and inexperienced image editors.

A New Face

Elements 3’s biggest interface change is the new Quick Fix editing mode. In this mode, Elements displays sliders for improving color balance and bringing out details hidden in dark shadows and washed-out highlights. You can adjust each slider by hand or click on the slider’s Auto button to have Elements apply its best judgment to your photo. It’s an effective approach that provides quick results and invites experimentation.

More-experienced pixel pushers will want to work in Elements’ default mode, now called Standard Edit. Adobe tweaked the interface here, too—the tool palette is now docked on the left edge of the screen, while Elements’ other palettes live in a new Palette Bin on the right edge. It takes up too much space for my taste; fortunately, you can reclaim screen space by undocking the palettes you use most and then hiding the Palette Bin. The undocked palettes float above your image, as they did in Elements 2.0 (   ; December 2002).

Another new window, the Photo Bin, simplifies switching between open documents by showing a thumbnail version of each open photo. Click on a thumbnail, and the photo’s window becomes active.

More Power to the Pixels

New users will love the Quick Fix mode, but it’s the treasure chest of new editing features that makes Elements 3 so valuable. The new Healing Brush and Spot Healing Brush tools make short work of removing flaws, such as scratches, wrinkles, and skin imperfections (see “Healing Scratches”). The Healing Brush works like its Photoshop CS counterpart: you option-click on an area adjacent to the flaw and then paint over the flaw.

Unique to Elements 3, the Spot Healing Brush tool enables you to fix flaws without having to option-click to specify a source point. Simply click and drag across a flaw, and away it goes—usually.

In my tests, the Spot Healing Brush worked best when fixing a flaw that was surrounded by a sea of similar pixels—for example, painting out a power line that slices across a blue sky. When the Spot Healing Brush approached an area where the image changed dramatically, I often got odd results. (For a hands-on look at these new tools, see “Image Editing beyond iPhoto,” Digital Hub , January 2005.)

Another feature Elements has borrowed from Photoshop CS is the new Shadows/ Highlights command. It replaces Elements 2’s Fill Flash command, and it does an astonishing job of rescuing detail in shadows and bright areas.

Let’s Talk Raw

Elements 3 adds the ability to open and process raw photos—the unmodified “digital negatives” captured by a digital camera’s light sensors. The raw format gives you more control over exposure, color balance, and other attributes.

Like Photoshop CS, Elements can open a raw image in 16-bit mode. A 16-bit image provides more editing room—you can make dramatic adjustments in exposure and color balance with less risk of introducing visible artifacts. In this mode, each red, green, and blue image channel can be represented by more than 32,000 levels. The standard 8-bit mode is limited to 256 levels per channel.

Alas, most of the tools in Elements 3 don’t work in 16-bit mode. You can make color and exposure adjustments to 16-bit images, but you can’t retouch them. This is a little frustrating, though it is a reasonable compromise. The Elements features that do work in 16-bit mode are those in which the extra room pays off. After you’ve tweaked your image in 16-bit mode, you can always convert it to 8-bit mode for retouching.

Added Functionality

What else is new? The File Browser has new keyword and searching features. Batch processing is greatly enhanced: you can apply several Quick Fix features to an entire folder of images while you do something else. (It’s ideal for preparing a set of raw files.) A new Divide Scanned Photos command lets you scan multiple photos at once; it then automatically separates them into individual documents.

The new Filter Gallery, another feature taken from Photoshop CS, lets you experiment with image filters and apply multiple filters at once. A Cookie Cutter tool lets you superimpose hearts, paws, and other shapes on an image. And a new Reduce Noise filter cleans up grainy images, though you won’t find details about it in Elements’ online help.

Some Problems

Speaking of online help, it doesn’t work if you have multiple user accounts on your Mac and you run Elements 3 from an account that does not have administrator privileges. Macworld contributor Rob Griffiths has published a fix on his Mac OS X Hints Web site, but it requires typing several lines of code into Terminal—not a task for neophytes.

There are other flaws in Elements 3. Windows sometimes appear in strange places when you switch between the Standard Edit and Quick Fix modes. And Elements is obnoxious about registration: every time you launch the program, a dialog box appears asking whether you’d like to register. There’s no way to avoid this nag except to acquiesce, even if you don’t want to.

Macworld’s Buying Advice

While Photoshop Elements 3.0’s flaws are unfortunate, they don’t significantly detract from this must-have upgrade for digital photographers. Whether you spend your time in Quick Fix mode or want to shoot raw and fix every flaw yourself, you’ll marvel at how much this inexpensive program can improve your photographs.

Healing Scratches: The new Spot Healing Brush tool is ideal for fixing the scratches on the bricks and the girl’s hair; use the Healing Brush to fix the scratches on the cheek.

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