3. SOFTWARE MAKES YOU A PHOTO DOCTOR
A PC loaded with advanced photo-editing software is far more than the digital equivalent of a home darkroom—it's like having a world-class photo-retouching department on your payroll. This can be dangerous. In a fit of glee, the neophyte often employs the awesome array of photo-manipulation tools to commit hideous aesthetic crimes and picture-doctoring pranks, even feeling the need to e-mail them.
Eventually, though, you focus on the two important uses of photo software: correcting faulty pictures (red-eye, exposure) and altering pictures for aesthetic reasons. The latter ranges from cosmetic surgery—removing a shadow, smoothing a blemish, much as magazine art directors do—to combining multiple images into a scene, even if that scene exists nowhere but in the recesses of your hard drive.
WHAT FLAVOR TO BUY?
Digital-darkroom software for nonprofessionals comes in two flavors: introductory programs ($35 to $50), including Microsoft Picture It Photo and Roxio PhotoSuite 5 Platinum; and power tools for the enthusiast ($90 to $110), such as Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0, JASC Paint Shop Pro 8 and Ulead PhotoImpact 8. The basic programs offer a nice, inviting, icon-clicking interface and step-by-step wizards that take you through the editing process. But you forgo the precision that comes with manual control options. The advanced programs produce far better photos, though they can intimidate with palettes and menus that clutter the screen. Here, we size up the top contenders in each category.
The One-Click Fix
No matter which program you choose, one-click repair options for color, sharpness and other improvements are a crapshoot: Sometimes the results are remarkably accurate, sometimes they create psychedelic travesties saved only by the Undo command. PhotoSuite offers a very convenient one-click fix-all feature, but in our tests the fixes were rarely satisfactory—an underexposed Christmas photo became a grainy, washed-out horror. The other programs separate autofix into separate categories (color, brightness and more) so you can choose the ones that actually work. We particularly like the Paint Shop Pro approach, which offers before-and-after comparisons and a slider control to fine-tune the strength of each correction.
Color & Exposure Repair
The introductory programs offer two choices for correcting color and exposure manually: You can change the entire image at once or meticulously pre-select individual areas. We found PhotoSuite, with its precise controls, performed best. Higher-end programs add tools for dodging and burning that are more exacting and convenient. Camera- and darkroom-emulating tools are getting more and more sophisticated: For instance, when a shot taken under the shade of a tree renders its subject in darkness, you can add a virtual fill flash that will create more light and detail within an otherwise murky image. When tweaking color and exposure, Elements and PhotoImpact required the fewest steps.
Among the basic programs, PhotoSuite did the best job of correcting the dreaded red-eye, providing natural-looking results. Armies of Satan's warriors were returned to normal in a few clicks. More sophisticated manual controls helped Paint Shop Pro beat the other advanced programs in correcting severe red-eye—you can choose the proper color for the iris and specify pupil lightness and even the size of the glint in the eye. When dealing with a scan of an old damaged photograph, automatic scratch- and dust-removal tools tended to
create blurry results across the board. Paint Shop Pro's combination of an automatic small-scratch filter and a manual dust removal tool produced fewer artifacts and blocky areas and less obvious blurriness.
Filters & Special Effects
The programs offer an array of tools to emulate old darkroom effects like sepia tone, as well as layer on special effects that have more to do with fine art (brush strokes) than photography. (For fun, we applied filters to a mediocre shot of poolside palm trees and wound up with a painting-like image with a brush-stroke texture and improved color.) Overall, PhotoSuite is the superior beginner's application, offering more filters and adjustable settings to help achieve "artistic" effects. Among higher-end programs, Photoshop Elements and PhotoImpact provide a tremendous array of lighting and textures, all with extensive user control to adjust the intensity of the effects.
The PopSci Picks
Roxio PhotoSuite is slightly less accessible than the other basic programs, but its sophisticated controls make it our top choice. For enthusiasts we like Photoshop Elements for its simple interface.
CLOSING THE FILM GAP
In many ways the purpose of editing software and the complex math that runs digital cameras is to emulate
the aesthetic effects of film photo-
graphy and printing. As a result, the debate among film loyalists concerns whether digital can ever equal the gamut of hues found in large-format film and the beautiful prints made from such film. If it does, it will
happen in part because of advances in editing software—filters that can manipulate huge data files from high-capacity digital cameras to yield
aesthetic results. In other words, get ready for the Ansel Adams filter on Photoshop 10.0.
DO THE PIXEL TWIST
Sick of relying on a mouse to prod your pixels from place to place? Meet the ShapeTape, a device that will
let you twist, curve, and otherwise manipulate an image with your bare hands. The prototype device, a
surrounding a spring-steel core,
is the product
of a Canadian
the software that will allow changes to this real-world device to show up in the virtual onscreen world is being developed at the University of Toronto. Expect the technology—as well as other new hands-on manipulation devices—to hit the market within the next five years.
SHOULD YOU TURN PRO? THE LURE OF PHOTOSHOP 7.0
Adobe Photoshop 7.0 reigns supreme among photo professionals in two key areas: cranking out the four-color separation files used for commercial printing, and editing image files with extreme precision. For retouching problem areas (like the bags under a hard-partying celebrity's eyes), Photoshop's unique Healing Brush and Patch tools make the process tantalizingly simple. Add advanced color-management capabilities and sophisticated layering options and it's clear why Photoshop has become the industry standard for bending visual reality to artistic will.
Yet Photoshop 7.0 is a $600 program in a market where $100 buys an awful lot of image-editing power. Adobe's own Photoshop Elements provides many of its brand mate's features, including layering for nondestructive editing and a full suite of image filters and painting tools, plus compatibility with nearly all of the Photoshop plug-ins. But if you want the ultimate in editing, go pro.