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A histogram can be a very scary thing. What could that ugly, jagged thing have to do with the snapshot of your kitten that you're trying to brighten up?

Actually, a histogram can have a lot to do with brightening images, but it's hardly an intuitive tool. In an effort to shield you from the horrors of histograms -- or the forbidding price of Adobe Photoshop ($600) -- we've rounded up three low-cost image editors. Canon Photo Advanced Edition 1.0 is a new arrival on the scene, and it comes with a wealth of extras bundled on the CD-ROM. MicroFrontier's Color It 4.0 uses tools like the histogram above, but it's relatively easy to learn. Finally, QBeo's PhotoGenetics 2.0, though it's basically limited to color-correction, accomplishes that task in the simplest, most intuitive way imaginable.

Canon Photo's interface completely fills your monitor, and a status bar at the top tells you the function of each tool. Color It's interface isn't as immediately helpful, but MicroFrontier provides an excellent tutorial to help you over the learning curve. Happily, both programs offer multiple undo's.

PhotoGenetics uses a unique approach. When you load an image and click on Start Evolution, you see the original image on the left and a modified version on the right. The farther to the right you slide your cursor, the more your original image resembles the modified one. Click your mouse when you like what you see, and you're presented with another modified image to work with. Repeat until you're satisfied, click on Stop Evolution, and you're done. We found this process to be enchanting in its simplicity.

Color It and Canon Photo both provide good tools for cropping and rotating pictures, and this is where they begin to leave PhotoGenetics behind: it only allows you to rotate your image in 90-degree increments. If you scanned your photo crookedly -- or worse, shot it crookedly to begin with -- you're out of luck. Also, though PhotoGenetics excelled at color-correction (see "Recolor My World"), Canon Photo and Color It are both much better at controlling brightness. Canon Photo's Tone function offers independent control for midtones, and Color It's Levels and Curves commands give you enormous power and precision in this area.

Recolor My World  Color correction is a breeze with PhotoGenetics; the image on the right is the first suggested modification to the original on the left.

PhotoGenetics also doesn't have any way to sharpen your images. Color It offers an extremely sophisticated sharpening tool in the Unsharp Mask filter. It's one of the most unintuitive of commands, though, since you have to balance three confusingly named controls to achieve maximum results. Novices will want to stick with the programs's one-shot Sharpen and Sharpen More commands, although those may produce too-strong results. Canon Photo's Sharpen function strikes a nice balance between ease of use and control with one simple Intensity slider.

All three programs offer red-eye removal, but the results are generally clumsy and poor. Only Canon Photo begins to take the right approach, basically having you just paint out the red-eye with an adjustable brush.

Putting It Together  Canon Photo's bundled PhotoMontages software lets you create stunning mosaics from thousands of tiny photos. The original image is upper left; a detail of the cat's right eye is upper right.

Canon Photo and Color It also allow you to add captions, but Color It was less flexible in this respect: if you click away from your text and work on another aspect of your image, you can no longer edit the text. Canon Photo's text tool also has a built-in drop shadow effect.

Canon Photo is an excellent all-around performer, but unfortunately it has a fairly critical bug; if your images are sampled at anything higher than 72 pixels per inch, the program automatically resamples them to 72 ppi, thereby eliminating detail. The resulting loss of detail will be sorely missed if you print your pictures. At press time, Canon was working on a fix for this problem; a software patch should soon be available from the Canon software Web site. Another drawback: it requires a minimum of 37.4MB of RAM, which is almost twice the requirement for Photoshop 5.5. PhotoGenetics can squeak by on only 7.3MB, and Color It with a paltry 4MB.

For all of Color It's sophistication, it's missing one crucial feature that Canon Photo has -- layers. Even Adobe's $49 PhotoDeluxe (

; Reviews , April 1998) has this capability. Canon Photo also allows you to adjust the transparency for each layer. MicroFrontier's $100 Enhance 4.0 does offer layers, and is therefore probably a better choice than Color It for the novice who's not horrified by histograms.

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