Adobe’s Photoshop Elements 8: Windows & Mac; Photoshop Lite, Or Just For Snapshooters?

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Adobe’s Photoshop Elements favors the majority of the photo community, those who often get involved with the craft as they begin the family portion of their lives. Some do become photographers who find that the camera has a creative appeal beyond documenting their growing kids. Adobe makes the appeal of Elements 8 abundantly clear by the images accompanying their press materials for the software: all were snapshots, mostly pictures of children.

Even with the old tried and true Windows XP, Elements 8 is offered as an option to open files into Adobe Elements Organizer 8.0.

After installing Elements 8, the first thing I did was put the Adobe supplied press CD in my computer and opened it into Organizer—it’s easy and works very similarly to Bridge.

Yes, a lot of the new and improved features are targeted to the family snapshooter, but is that necessarily disadvantageous to photographers who might be seeking an affordable alternative to Photoshop? Is Elements 8 Photoshop Lite? Or, has Lightroom taken that space in the Adobe image-editing family? What certainly is new in Elements 8 is that the Windows PC and the Apple Mac versions of the software were released at the same time, so this report was done with both versions running on two different computers, more or less synchronically.

To get the Mac/Windows differences out of the way first, the only big difference between the editions is that the browser for Windows is called Explorer, while the Mac version gets a simpler version of Adobe Bridge, the browser Adobe provides with Photoshop CS4. Windows Explorer has been improved measurably, having much more of the user control offered in Bridge than past versions of Explorer. Now, a user who has individually arranged their way of storing digital photo files, and doesn’t just put them ad hoc into the Windows My Pictures folder, can use Explorer in a personally defined way. In the past, Explorer almost had a mind of its own about seeking out image files in your computer and organizing them in thumbnail pages.

By just clicking on a thumbnail image in an Organizer page you get a full-frame blowup with a tool window on the left side of the screen that provides a variety of editing changes that can be applied to the image. Slick.

To test the Adobe claims about automation, I opened the Raw scan files on an old CD-R and used the “automated” fixes. I then switched to the Edit mode and manually color corrected and adjusted the same original Raw images in my own way. Here is a contact sheet set of four of the images with the Raw scan file on the left, the auto-fixed in the center row, and the manually edited on the right.
All Photos © 2009, David B. Brooks, All Rights Reserved

Improvements, Claimed And Real
Adobe starts their description of why the new Elements 8 is better using two terms: “automated” and “intelligent.” I have no quarrel with why Adobe uses “intelligent” as the software now has the ability to recognize faces. But I have a general qualm about any kind of automated image adjustment simply because the software cannot recognize and identify the subject content. For instance, if there is a huge snowstorm, and everyone is out shoveling snow, and you take some pictures of the scene, can any software recognize the subject within the image? No—it can only measure the pixel values and their relationship within your picture and then auto adjust the image to a standard of what the engineers measure as a good picture. For typical photos, say the family enjoying a barbecue together, the programming engineers do well and you will get a good result. But if you like taking pictures of strange and unusual subjects, like scenes of a very foggy day, automation can do more harm than good.

What I would say is an Elements advantage is that Adobe provides a lot of good guidance and support to assist a user in learning how to use the program. Those who have an eye for photographing unusual, eye-catching subjects should take advantage of Element’s support to acquire the skill of fine-tuning an image to make it sing. To see how Elements can help you do that I took some very old Raw scanner files on CD and ran a test, first using the “auto” button and then some “manual” adjustments. (See illustrations.)

The new Recompose tool, when chosen, pops up a preview instruction on how to use the tool’s capabilities. A simple job of shifting a 2:3 (35mm film aspect ratio) to fit into an 8x10 or 11x14 sized print window is much like using the sized Crop tool. At the lower right is a “trigger” window to accept or reject what you have edited.

Over the last number of years each new Photoshop version has included more refined and effective cleanup and retouching brush tools. Elements 8 is no exception with smother more efficiently made corrections to removing the dust spots and scratches in a film scan of Kodachrome or the zits in a portrait of teenaged Tilly.

Since digital cameras have become increasingly popular there has been a growing interest in how to convert color to black and white. In Elements 8 the dialog is ever easier and more effective to getting the interpretation that best renders different colors to shades of gray.

Old timers often complain that Curves is missing from Elements, but I have found essentially the same adjustments can be made as effectively and easier using the Shadows/Highlights dialog. And with this dialog the algorithms used to make the alterations in shadow, highlight, and mid-tone contrast blend a more effective image result without some of the pitfalls Curves is prone to.

The Hue/Saturation control window in Elements 8 is apparently the same as in Photoshop CS, but I found the programmers made the change rate weaker, I suppose to keep users from overdoing it. That’s a good reason, but sometimes when an image needs a lot of help there is not enough oomph to fix it.
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