If you got a new digital camera this past Christmas—or, more likely, a smartphone or tablet packing a camera function—you really need some photo editing and optimization software in order to get the best out of all those holiday photos you snapped.
Adobe’s Photoshop Elements has been the benchmark application by which consumer (ie: relatively affordable) image editing apps are judged for 18 years. First introduced as Photoshop LE (Limited Edition) in 1996 and renamed for its 2001 release alongside Photoshop v6, Photoshop Elements is tailored to address the needs of photography enthusiasts (for example, with its red-eye effect removal and skin tone adjustments). Photoshop Elements lacks some of professional Photoshop’s high-end features that cater to requirements of a print production environment—it doesn’t export files in the CMYK color mode, for example, although that function can be added-on in the form of a third-party plug-in.
On the other hand, if you don’t really need those high-end professional features, a huge upside to using Photoshop Elements instead of full-zoot Photoshop Creative Cloud is that Elements’ Mac version sells for $100 bucks, or one-seventh of Photoshop’s price of entry prior to Adobe switching to a Creative Cloud subscription-only model with a tariff of $50 monthly for its flagship application. You can get most of the functionality of Photoshop that you would ever likely use unless you’re a professional or really serious amateur photographer licensed in perpetuity in Photoshop Elements for the price of two months’ Photoshop CC rental. Looked at that way, Photoshop Elements 12 is a steal, and I’m guessing that many Photoshop CS users who don’t really need Photoshop’s highest-end features, but still want its familiar main functions will be convinced to switch to Elements.
I’ve used every Photoshop Elements version for the Mac since version 2, and it’s not for nothing that it’s been the Number 1 selling consumer photo editing software according to the NPD Group/Retail Tracking Service (January 2007 to March 2012). Elements is, in most respects, the best PSE yet, with all of my favorite features from previous versions carried over. These include an array of adjustment tools for attributes such as exposure, brightness, contrast, saturation, smart brushes, levels, color, sharpen and gradient curves carried over. Additional returning features include face recognition, geotagging maps, filters, HDR, panoramas, and camera raw. And there’s new stuff besides.
I’ve always considered Photoshop Elements to be worth its extra cost compared with what some very good would-be challengers have to offer for less money, so I was interested to vet whether the latest Photoshop Elements has maintained its feature and function superiority lead over up-and-comers like Pixelmator 3 ($30) Acorn 4.1 ($50), Corel Aftershot Pro ($25), and Cyberlink PhotoDirector 5 ($60), or even free Web-based Google Picasa, to say nothing of the powerful Open Source GIMP software, all of which have been getting better and better.
Photoshop Elements 12 Impressions
After checking out Photoshop Elements 12, I can affirm it’s still out in front, although not by the margin it used to obtain. And unless you’re really short of funds, Elements remains the image editor you want if you’re only having one.
One tedious aspect of getting PSE up and running is the relatively lengthy and convoluted Adobe install procedure using the Adobe Download Assistant, as opposed to the simple drag and drop into the Applications Folder from a mounted disk image that so many Mac apps use nowadays, or, more often these days, a quick download from the iTunes Mac App Store.
However, after I went through the Adobe ID password change drill since I couldn’t recall the password I’d used for my last Adobe install, I filled in the 24-character serial number and was rewarded with PSE 12’s splash screen, paying some homage to photographic history by depicting a Rolleicord VB twin lens reflex camera identical to the one I’ve owned for nearly 40 years.
PSE 12 is slow starting up compared with smaller image editing apps like Pixelmator, presumably due to PSE’s relative ponderousness. However, once it’s open, I didn’t notice any particular sluggishness on my late 2008 unibody MacBook with a 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 4GB of RAM, and running OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion.
The Photoshop Elements user interface is not changed much from version 11; still fullscreen and with the neutral gray theme Adobe says is less distracting. Unfortunately, it’s also not terribly attractive to my sense of aesthetics, and I’m not a fullscreen app fan. I much prefer Pixelmator’s great-looking piano black theme and multiple floating windows and menu palettes motif for looks, even if it is distracting (I haven’t found it to be). As before, there are three different Photoshop Elements 12 UI modes toggled with tabs: Quick, Guided, and Expert.
Quick includes a limited selection of simple tools for correcting color and lighting, and commands to quickly fix common problems such as red eye, Brightness-Contrast, Exposure, Sharpen, and so forth.
Guided enables you to edit photos in the Guided Edit mode that walks you through the various touch-up processes and application of photographic effects, containing tools for basic photo edits. Users who are new to digital imaging will find Quick or Guided modes a good place to start fixing photos.
Expert has tools to correct color problems, create special effects, and enhance photos. Users who’ve worked with image-editing applications before will find Expert mode provides them with a flexible and powerful image-correction environment, lighting and color-correction commands, and an array of tools for fixing image defects, making selections, adding text, and painting on images. You can rearrange the Expert workspace to best suit your needs by moving, hiding, and showing panels. You can arrange panels in the Panel Bin and also zoom in or out of the photo, scroll to a different area of the document window, and create multiple windows and views.
Help files that explain all this and much more in detail are available on the Web. Like the program itself, they’re slow to open, but comprehensive and helpful once they do.
Photoshop Elements 12 Features:
- A new way to easily move objects with the Content-Aware Move tool that has crossed over from Photoshop CS. Just circle, drag and drop an object you want to move or remove and let Elements do its stuff automatically, as opposed to manually using multiple layers to achieve similar ends. In any case, it will likely be necessary to do some touching up using PSE’s Healing Brush tool, but the program does the tedious heavy lifting part for you.
- Crooked photo correction with the new Straighten Tool. Rather than trial and error adjusting by degrees or using the free rotate command, you can now just drag the new straighten tool crosshairs across the photo to adjust an off-horizontal horizon. Content Aware fill will fill in the missing edges automatically instead of you having to crop your photo smaller. This works better with some subject matter like landscapes than with others that contain a lot of detail at the corners.
- Photomerge lets you combine two or more photos into one composite image for panoramas or combines group shots.
- Pet-Eye Correction—similarly to Red Eye Correction—removes green, yellow and other “pet eye” discolorations from animal shots. Just position the crosshairs over the center of the critter’s off-color pupil and click.
- You can personalize your photos with new one-click special filters such as vintage photo effects, textures (eg: canvas or flaking paint) and frames in the in the Quick Editing mode.
- Enhanced Learn As You Use helps novice users produce professional creative effects with more than 25 Guided Edits such as the new Zoom Burst.
- The new Photo Puzzle features lets you turn shots into jigsaw puzzle effects, automatically cutting your shot into puzzle pieces you can move around.
- PSE 12’s new dedicated Old Photo Restore feature automates fixing damaged, aged or worn photos.
- Expert mode’s Auto Smart Tone applies automatic color correction and automatically fine-tunes your photo’s brightness, contrast, saturation, etc. with a single mouse click. It also supports user adjustability that isn’t possible with straight Autocorrect or Smart FIx.
One of PSE 12’s marquee new features is Mobile Albums that upload to Adobe’s Revel cloud service. You can then view your photos in a web browser or with dedicated Revel apps for iOS, Windows 8, and Mac OS X. Revel also works the other way, with photos taken on iOS devices automatically uploaded to the cloud and downloaded to a Mobile Album, and you can you can decide what to upload on a file-by-file basis. A new left-panel Mobile option in the Organizer app lets you access any photos in your online galleries, create new ones, and drag and drop photos into them. There’s also a Revel Importer app for Android that handles this sort of uploads.
However, there’s a big caveat: Adobe Revel is free for 30 days, but after that it’s limited to 50 photo and video uploads per month. And your mobile bandwidth allowance for iOS apps can suffer, since there’s no option to restrict uploads to Wi-Fi only. Personally I find Dropbox more flexible and appealing, with the 2GB of free content offered upgradable by referring others to the service. However, if you’re already a Revel user, or are favourably disposed to paying an ongoing service fee after 30 days in order to become one, this new feature will be a convenience.
Another thing that distinguishes Photoshop Elements in comparison to most of its competition in the sub-$100 image editor category is that it’s huge. On Mac systems it specifies 7GB of available hard-disk space to install applications, and an additional 5GB to install content, which may be a significant factor for users with current base spec 128GB MacBook Airs and 13-inch MacBook Pros on which disk capacity is at a premium. Another is that Elements is available for both Mac OS X and Windows, so if cross-platform file transparency and features are something you require, that could be a clincher, since Pixelmator and Acorn for example, are Mac-only software.
Photoshop Elements at version 12 doesn’t really offer anything earth-shatteringly new over version 11, so unless some of the features outlined above really appeal, you can still comfortably stick with Photoshop Elements 11 if it’s doing the job for you. However, Elements 12 still offers the most comprehensive combination of power, feature-depth, and user-friendliness in the sub-$100 image editor class, and is still the one to have if it will be your sole photo-editing and management application, and if your needs transcend the basic functionality available in all modern image-editor applications (even Apple’s iPhoto and Preview). Note that you need to be running OS X Lion or later, so Snow Leopard holdouts are locked out of this version.