Our tests began with a 35mm photograph of a speaker at a podium in a convention hall. The photo looks bad–it’s underexposed, it suffers from unsightly red-eye, and the contrast is low. And we scanned it with a really dusty scanner, to boot. Our goal? Clean it up, knock out the background, and move our speaker and podium to a more attractive background scene that we shot with a digital camera. But this second image is also underexposed, and the view out the window looks a bit dull, so we’d like to insert a digital photo of a blue sky.
After accomplishing these steps, we still want to adjust the foreground and background images independently; to manage this easily, we need each image to reside in its own layer. And last, we want to add a snappy title to the piece and crop the final, composited image to make an 8-by-10-inch print.
The Powerful and the Pitiful
Though Photoshop Creative Suite is truly the most powerful image editor of the bunch (no surprise there, considering it costs a defibrillating $649), we discovered that some programs, including Jasc Paint Shop Pro 8 and Microsoft Digital Image Pro 9, are more user-friendly. So for basic tweaks like those under Task 1 in the table, we might pass up Photoshop for a simpler program. We ended up picking Paint Shop Pro 8 as our Best Buy because it easily juggled multiple layers and offered the most flexible tool set, free from the restrictions of wizards. Plus, many of its tools are easier to master than are their Photoshop equivalents.
Microsoft Digital Image Pro 9 also proved to be very strong, with a task pane particularly well suited for beginners. Unfortunately, that same task pane can begin to feel confining once you’ve earned your image editing stripes. Ulead PhotoImpact 8 was also a good editor, but its interface is sometimes confusing–its content creation and Web publishing features, while thorough, take up valuable space in the menus, where we’d rather see more photo editing options. If you don’t need those extras, you’ll likely prefer the less cluttered interface of Paint Shop Pro 8, Digital Image Pro 9, or Adobe Photoshop Elements 2. Of these three, Photoshop Elements is the most daunting for photo editing beginners to learn. We found that its easy-to-follow tutorials, called recipes, helped us accomplish most of our tasks without checking the user guide or online help. Overall, however, Adobe doesn’t provide enough of these recipes.
ArcSoft PhotoStudio 5.5 offers some capable tools, but it lacks key features. Don’t bother with the online help–it’s the worst we’ve seen, with no context-sensitive assistance and only a 1995-era help menu. Farther from our ideal, but excellent for beginners, is Roxio’s deceptively simple-looking PhotoSuite 5 Platinum Edition. Because it offers only a few task icons and edit categories, we didn’t think it would get anywhere near completing our test composite, but it surprised us by finishing almost every step of the process. Nevertheless, advanced users will feel stifled by its wizard-based editing tools and its lack of manual adjustments.
Some contenders were way out of their league: CorelDraw Essentials 2, SmartDraw Photo 2, and Broderbund’s The Print Shop Pro Publisher Deluxe 20 simply lack necessary tools. Print Shop Pro 20–descended from a venerable DOS program used to make dot matrix banners for high school cafeterias back in 1984–is still intended primarily for making posters, greeting cards, calendars, and the like; it lacks many common image editing features. And while CorelDraw Essentials promises “powerful photo-retouching tools,” they proved too weak for our project. SmartDraw Photo tries to be a jack-of-all-trades for novices, offering photo organizing and Web publishing tools, among other things. But virtually all of its photo editing tools are underpowered or poorly implemented.
The top challenger to Adobe Photoshop Creative Suite comes down to Adobe Photoshop Elements 2, Ulead PhotoImpact 8, or Jasc Paint Shop Pro 9. The right one for you depends largely on your comfort level with image editing conventions. You’ll need lots of experience with Photoshop-like tools to get the most from PhotoImpact or Photoshop Elements; PhotoImpact offers the most bang for the buck if you’re also interested in Web design. Paint Shop Pro presents a somewhat friendlier interface–and as you become more familiar with image editing, you can delve deeper into its tools.