First Look: Photoshop Elements 6.0

Patience can indeed have its rewards, and when it comes to the newly unveiled Adobe Photoshop Elements 6.0 the payoff promises to be big.

Adobe announced the latest version of its consumer-level image editor, the first update to the Mac edition of Elements in two years. (In fact, it’s been so long since Adobe has come out with a Mac release that Elements skips version 5 entirely on this platform, going from 4.0 directly to 6.0.)

For the past week I’ve had the pleasure of playing with a beta of this long-awaited update and the enhancements to Photoshop Elements are nothing short of amazing. Adobe incorporated more functionality from big brother Photoshop CS3, plus added some features Photoshop wishes it had.

The $90 Photoshop Elements 6.0 ($70, if you’re upgrading) won’t ship until March. But here’s what to expect when the final version of the software appears.

A quick start and a new look

Version 6 introduces a new interface, but, quite honestly, the first thing you’ll likely notice is the program’s zippier launch. In informal testing on my 2GHz MacBook Pro Core Duo, Elements 6.0 opened three times faster than the last Mac version of Elements. That’s because this new version runs natively on both PowerPC- and Intel-based Macs; you’ll need either OS X 10.4 or OS X 10.5 to run Photoshop Elements 6.0.

Once open, you’ll notice a dark gray interface, similar to that of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. Though it is easier on the eyes and certainly make photos “pop” onscreen, it may take a little getting used to. I found some dialog settings slightly harder to read.

Elements is aimed at amateur photographers, and it’s clear that Adobe put a lot of thought who uses the program. Hence, Elements 6.0’s new interface features three workspaces: Edit, Create, and Share, resulting in a user experience that’s suited to the intrepid novice and seasoned guru alike.

Let’s start with the Edit workspace. (We’ll discuss the other two below.) It lets you choose between Full, Quick, and Guided modes. Experienced users will feel at home in the Full “do anything” mode, though intermediate users may prefer to do their tweaking with a subsampling of common editing controls in Quick mode (the QuickFix mode in previous editions of Elements).

In the all-new Guided mode—pictured below—users see a list of task-based questions. Depending on your answers, Elements selects the appropriate tool in the right sequence (thou shalt color correct before sharpening!), complete with a description of how and why you’re supposed to use that particular tool.

This mode is very explanatory and rather like having a friendly teacher parked by your side. A handy before-and-after preview is also available in the Guided mode as well as the Quick mode.

Editing tools

When it comes to editing your images, Elements offers new tools and features throughout the application. The Enhance menu now includes a Convert to Black and White tool, offering six conversion presets, with the ability to tweak each one individually by color channel. The update also adds more powerful sharpening (Smart Sharpen and Unsharp Mask), along with the ability to adjust Color Curves, and Correct Camera Distortion (great for quick edge vignetting!).

Elements gains a pair of features from Photoshop CS3 Quick Selection and Refine Edge. The former automatically draws a selection across an image by detecting defined edges in your picture; the latter lets you feather selections as well as preview them against black or white backgrounds or as a mask.

Another enhancement borrowed from the CS3 suite is CS3’s Adobe Bridge software. This adds organizational, keywording, and photo preview prowess, along with increased Raw support, to Photoshop Elements.

Perhaps the biggest advance in simplified editing is the addition of two new PhotoMerge options. Nestled snugly in the File -> New menu, you’ll find The Fantastic Three: PhotoMerge Group Shot, PhotoMerge Faces (both new in this version), and the returning PhotoMerge Panorama.

Perhaps the most useful of all is the new PhotoMerge Group Shot, wherein Elements will create one perfect photo from up to 10 images. It begins with auto-alignment so that the faces can be blended perfectly. Next, choose one photo as the “base” starting point, then use a scribble-like tool to grab the eyes from another photo, and perhaps a smile from yet another, and so on. Elements uses your scribbles as a go-by and automatically figures out how much of the photo to clone in order to blend them seamlessly.

PhotoMerge Faces works in a similar manner, creating a single face from the pieces and parts of many.

Create and Share workspaces

Once your photos are edited, enter the Create workspace to present them in a better, easier manner. In Project mode you can work with multiple pages in a single document, allowing you to easily create a photo book (which you can order from within Elements), collage, web gallery, or PDF slideshow. You can begin any project with a Project Bin full of photos (called Photo Bin in previous versions), or create a custom layout and pop the photos in later. Artwork mode houses a plethora of backgrounds, frames, graphics, shapes, text, and themes; you’ll be able to add your own as well.

The new Share workspace will help you export a web gallery, e-mail a photo as an attachment, order prints, or burn photos to a CD or DVD.

First impressions

All in all, it looks like Adobe has hit the mark of making photo editing easier than ever. Elements 6.0 seems to be the perfect “next step” choice for anyone wanting to do more with their photos, while giving them plenty of room to grow. The most challenging part for many users will be waiting for that March ship date.

Lesa Snider King, founder of GraphicReporter.com, is the chief evangelist of iStockphoto.com, author of Graphic Secrets for Business Professionals (Lynda.com, 2007), and co-host of YourMacLifeShow.com.

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