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11th February 2011
Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 review
by Ian Burley
7797: Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 review

Photoshop Elements continues to improve, especially for Mac users

The ninth edition of Photoshop Elements in almost ten years since version 1

Adobe Photoshop Elements is the affordable consumer version of the all-singing and all-dancing professional version of Photoshop that is now branded the Creative Suite (CS) version. Photoshop CS5 will set you back around £600, while Photoshop Elements 9 is around a tenth of that price. You can also buy Photoshop Elements 9 bundled with Adobe's consumer-targeted video editing suite, Premiere Elements 9. We'll be reviewing Premiere Elements 9 soon. Both are available for Windows and Mac operating systems, and in the same box. Mac users, will especially be interested in PSE9 as there are more updates to the previous version of PSE for Mac than the Windows version, increasing parity between the two versions.

Photoshop Elements 9 can be purchased in a bundle with Adobe's Premiere Elements 9 video editing package

Harnessing some of the power of the professional version of Photoshop

Under its skin Photoshop Elements 9 (PSE9 for short) relies heavily on the professional version of Photoshop. This is an excellent thing as much of the well-matured power of Photoshop is available to PSE9 users, including layers, full support for colour management, powerful aids like the quick selection tool, refinement of selections, spot healing tool, and countless image adjustment and correction tools. Some even more ambitious tools introduced in recent versions of Photoshop CS have found their way into PSE9, like selected content aware fill tools. One Photoshop feature much missed in the Elements version has been layer masks, a very flexible and powerful way of blending images in layers without altering the originals. A fully adjustable tone curve tool is still not included but you can install add-ons from third parties that provide such functionality. Compatibility with pressure-sensitive pen tablets and tablet PCs is also provided.

So what don't you get that's in Photoshop CS5? It's a long list, but mostly things that non-professionals won't miss. Headline features include 3D support, perspective cropping, actions (although a simplified batch process system is included in PSE9 for working with multiple files), more advanced applications of Content Aware Fill like Puppet Warp, for example. I often find Quick Mask on Photoshop very useful, but this is not included in PSE9.

Split personalities

PSE9 continues the tradition of several PSE generations in being a solution with two personalities. On the one hand it is an organisational tool for your photos (and videos) and this is linked to, but separate from, the more familiar editing environment, or workspace, that experienced Photoshop users will recognise. In fact when you start PSE9 you are offered the choice of going in to the Organizer or the Editor. PSE9 marks a change for the Mac version which, until now, has been supplied with the Bridge application from the full-fat Creative Suite instead of Organizer, which was developed specifically for PSE and has been standard on the Windows version for years. Bridge is more powerful than Organizer, but much less friendly for novices.

When you start PSE9 you must choose whether you wish to organise your photos or edit them. In fact, you can switch between the two fundamental modes fairly easily.

Above is a typical view of the Organiser, with a flexible thumbnail navigator, plus options to rate and tag your photos. You can also select an image and open it in the Edit workspace.

And here is the Edit workspace, with image editing toolbox bar on the left and option tabs for applying special effects and sharing and distributing your work on the right.

The RAW factor

While many will be interested in PSE9 for projects like making photo calendars, applying interesting effects to their photos, and even creating art that is partially or wholly non-photographic, a key attraction to some photographers will be access to Adobe Camera RAW (ACR) conversion. PSE9 is compatible with ACR generation 6, which is a substantial improvement over previous generations, including much improved noise and sharpening tools. You may even find yourself forced to invest in PSE9 if you have a very new camera that produces RAW files not supported in earlier versions ACR. The previous version of PSE is only compatible up to ACR 6.2, while PSE9 is, at the time of writing, compatible with ACR 6.3 and will probably be compatible with future releases for at least a year or so. Of course, if you aren't convinced PSE9 is worthwhile because you run a reasonably recent earlier version, you can use the free Adobe DNG Converter and convert your RAW files to the portable DNG format that will be compatible with earlier releases of ACR, and therefore earlier versions of PSE.

Speed and performance

If PSE9 has a weakness, it's in its need for computer power. Although PSE9 does feel slightly less hesitant, especially starting up, than earlier versions, you will be doing yourself few favours in running it on weak hardware like power-miserly netbooks. Even on a typical dual core affordable Windows 7 laptop switching between Organizer and Editor can involve irritating waits.

Exploring PSE9

On the next two pages we explore some of the key features of PSE9's Organizer and Editor...

 

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Starting up and exploring the Organizer workspace

The ninth edition of Photoshop Elements in almost ten years since version 1

Click on any of the images below to see a larger view in a new window.

As we have already seen, when you start PSE9 you get the choice of opening the Organizer or the Editor.

There is plenty of hand-holding for both new users and those upgrading from earlier versions.

The Organizer will offer to find all your photos, wherever they may be stored on your computer, and import them automatically.

You can keyword tag and rate your photos in Organizer and there is a rather complicated icon labelling system that supports this. Organizer will also smart tag your photos, analysing each one for image quality, including a rating for focus and sharpness.

You can also tag your photos with the location where they were taken.

Location tagging can also be aided by a feature that integrates Yahoo! Maps. Incidentally, notice the bar-graph style timeline across the top of the Organizer. Each bar represents one day and its relative height indicates how many photos were taken on that day. You can jump to the photos of a particular day by clicking on that day's bar.

Not all editing functions are the preserve of the Editor workspace. Organizer can apply auto fixes, including exposure (brightness, shadows and highlights) and red-eye reduction.

Just like an increasing number of new cameras, PSE9 can detect faces in photos and you can also tag faces and PSE9 will attempt to recognise that person in other photos and tag them accordingly.

On the next page we look at the Photoshop Elements 9 Editor

Check the latest price or purchase options for the Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 (Win/Mac) via
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Check the latest price or purchase options for the Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 & Premiere Elements 9 bundle (Win/Mac) via
Buy through Amazon and you will help fund this site
Buy Photoshop Elements through DPNow and help finance this site!
Each Amazon outlet can ship to most countries in the world.


The Photoshop Elements 9 Editor workspace

The ninth edition of Photoshop Elements in almost ten years since version 1

Click on any of the images below to see a larger view in a new window.

Here is a typical view of the Editor workspace. The opened photo or photos are displayed along the bottom of the workspace, the toolbox is on the left, and tabs on the right provide access to special effect tools, layers, guided edits - which are a bit like wizards, and choices for using your photos, including uploading photos to social networking and photo sharing sites, as well as pdf slide shows and burning to CD and DVD. This is also where you can access projects for creating photo calendars and books, and greeting cards, etc.

One of PSE9's big strengths is its compatibility with Adobe Camera RAW 6. This is a much-improved RAW converter capable of extracting a lot of image quality from your camera RAW files, especially when photos were taken in low light and at high ISO settings.

Like the full version of Photoshop, PSE9 is blessed with the excellent Quick Selection tool which can quickly and easily achieve complex shape selections.

Once you have made your selection you can refine it using the fantastic Refine Edge tool to soften and adjust edges for really professional extractions.

Layer Masking has been added to PSE9 for the first time. You can apply shape selections to the layer mask instantly and selectively blend multiple layers without having to dangerously edit the originals.

Content Aware Fill (CAF) makes its debut from the full version of Photoshop in PSE9. CAF is a system that uses a smart analysis routine that attempts to artificially replace the space left by deleted objects with detail that blends in seamlessly with the surrounding detail. In the example above look at the red post in the lower left of the image.

 

To eliminate this post we're using the Spot Healing brush with CAF enabled. After painting over the area we want to blend into the surrounding area, PSE9 analyses the surrounding detail and uses some of that detail to fill in the gap left by the removed object.

 

And here is the result. It can work brilliantly well as a bush is an ideal item for blending. But it can also be disappointingly ineffective, throwing up strange regurgitated bits of the surrounding areas. Basically the larger the object and the smaller the surrounding area, the less successful is the result. It also works better if the surrounding detail doesn't feature strong and sharply defined objects.

 

Another example of Content Aware Fill in action in PSE9 is the Recompose tool. Here we are using Recompose with the help of Guided Edits on the right. Recompose lets you select important areas or objects in a picture and then move them relative to each other, with Content Aware Fill adjusting the gaps as seamlessly as it can. In this example the two snorkelling girls are a certain distance apart, laterally. So let's move them closer in order to convert the image from a landscape format to a vertical or portrait format.

No cutting and pasting is involved. You just highlight the two girls as image objects to be preserved and then slide the image sides closer to each other. CAF does the rest. If there had been three people in the picture and you only marked two as preserved, the third may well have disappeared. The concept is quit mind-boggling and bangs another nail into the coffin of the saying 'the camera never lies'!

Finally there are various projects for making professional looking art work or useful products like photo calendars (below) greeting cards and other image-based goodies.

Only one page to go; our summary of what we think of PSE9 and its review rating.

Check the latest price or purchase options for the Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 (Win/Mac) via
Buy through Amazon and you will help fund this site
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Check the latest price or purchase options for the Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 & Premiere Elements 9 bundle (Win/Mac) via
Buy through Amazon and you will help fund this site
Buy Photoshop Elements through DPNow and help finance this site!
Each Amazon outlet can ship to most countries in the world.


Conclusions and rating

The ninth edition of Photoshop Elements in almost ten years since version 1

Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 is quite a major update from Elements 8. It's a particularly big step for Mac users, although some who have become used to using the pro-spec. Adobe Bridge organiser and viewer tool in previous Mac versions of PSE may get a rude awakening with the more consumer-orientated PSE Organizer workspace replacement. Content Aware Fill based features, Layer Masks, added project offerings and photo sharing options among others, represent major additional features to PSE9. Established features, like Photomerge panoramas and RAW conversion, have also been usefully improved. There is also integration with Adobe Premiere Elements 9 if you're interested in video editing, which could be very compelling. So it's hard not to like PSE9. It's not perfect, but its plus points clearly outweigh the negatives. So here is a summary of our likes and dislikes:

What we like about Photoshop Elements 9:

  • Powerful and feature-rich Photoshop engine underpinning the Editor
  • Excellent Adobe Camera RAW 6 support
  • Friendly interface for novice users combined with familiar tools for more advanced users
  • Inclusion of Layer Masks
  • Content Aware Fill based tools (Recompose, Spot Healing Brush)
  • Superb shape selection and refinement options
  • Easy to use projects suite for professional looking results
  • Improved photo sharing options
  • Comprehensive Organizer workspace facilities for keep tabs on your photos
  • Lots of 'smart' functionality like Smart Tags and Face Recognition

What we are not so keen on about Photoshop Elements 9:

  • Needs a reasonably powerful computer for satisfactory performance
  • Some Organizer functions are quite complicated and can be intimidating for new and inexperienced users
  • No fully adjustable tone curves tool
  • No Quick Mask tool
  • No Perspective tool
  • Disappointingly high price for the bundle with Premiere Elements 9 compared to US pricing

Overall

Photoshop Elements 9 is a very good choice if you're looking for your first feature-rich photo editing package. On the other hand, you may feel you don't need the sheer selection of projects and features that PSE9 offers. In that case you could save a bit of cash by going for one of PSE9's less expensive competitors, like Corel Paint Shop Pro Photo X3, Serif PhotoPlus, and even the free GIMP application. If you already run a previous version of Elements, depending on the age of your version, you may well be persuaded to update to PSE9. It's unlikely that you will end up feeling that buying PSE9 might be a mistake - it's safe bet. And for that reason we're pleased to award Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 a DPNow.com Editor's Choice award.

 

Check the latest price or purchase options for the Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 (Win/Mac) via
Buy through Amazon and you will help fund this site
Buy Photoshop Elements through DPNow and help finance this site!
Each Amazon outlet can ship to most countries in the world.


Check the latest price or purchase options for the Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 & Premiere Elements 9 bundle (Win/Mac) via
Buy through Amazon and you will help fund this site
Buy Photoshop Elements through DPNow and help finance this site!
Each Amazon outlet can ship to most countries in the world.


 
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