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Adobe Photoshop Elements 5.0 - All-in-One Photo Management, But Don't Expect Miracles

written by: D. A. Karp•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 9/19/2008

How does Adobe Photoshop Elements 5.0 compare to Photoshop CS2/CS3? This review will answer that question as well as delve into how useful its workflow and photo management features will be to photographers.

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    Adobe has created a capable, flexible, and powerful photo editing application that is widely accepted as the gold standard in the field. That product is called Adobe Photoshop.
    Adobe Photoshop Elements, however, is quite a different product. Photoshop Elements is, essentially, an organization tool for digital photos, plus an editor tool. It doesn't do some of the more advanced tricks that Photoshop does, but it also offers plenty of goodies you can't do in Photoshop.
    For instance, the Organizer tool in Photoshop Elements (which doesn't have an equivalent in Photoshop CS2/CS3) has a cool mapping feature, face recognition, and timeline to make finding photos in a large collection easy. And Elements' own Editor tool has a magic selection brush and a photo-straighten tool, neither of which is found in Photoshop. But Elements has more limited color support than Photoshop (no CMYK or duotone), fewer photo transform and distortion tools, no masking, no actions (macros), no manual level control, and no paths or channels palettes. But with full support for plugins, layers, adjustment layers, and most of the tools in Photoshop's toolbox, you get quite a bit of Photoshop in this little package.
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    Price to Value

    Rating AverageWhat's Hot: 
    The Full Edit tool is essentially a "lite" version of Adobe Photoshop, and offers Photoshop's most useful features (like layers, filters, and selection tools) at a fraction of the price.

    Buy this program if you want a well-designed photo editor with room to grow, or if you need desktop mapping of your geocoded photos.

    What's Not: 
    The Organizer tool is useful, but isn't well enough integrated with the editing tools to be worth the price alone when compared to free programs like Google's Picasa.
    Also, the software's workflow capabilities (via the Quick Fix tool) are no match for something like DxO Optics Pro. For instance, there are no noise, geometry chromatic aberration, or distortion correction tools. Red-eye reduction and white balance are nice, but not nearly enough.
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    Installation & Setup

    Rating AverageWhat's Hot: 
    Product installation is fairly painless, and not riddled with too many unnecessary prompts.

    What's Not: 
    The first time you start the program (and each time thereafter until you turn it off), you see a Welcome screen that asks you what you want to do. Unfortunately, if what you have in mind doesn't fall neatly into one of the five categories presented, you just have to pick one and then wade your way through the program to find the tool you want. (If the Organizer and Editor tools were in the same program, there would be no need for the Welcome screen to send you to the right place.) Also, it would have been nice if the installer offered to organize your existing photo files on your hard disk into separate folders, much like Apple iTunes does with your music. As it is, Photoshop Elements only does this to photos it imports from your camera's memory card.
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    User Interface

    Rating AverageWhat's Hot: 
    Photoshop Elements is three tools in one: the Organizer, a photo thumbnail viewer with integrated photo tagging, mapping, and face recognition features; Quick Fix, a workflow tool offering only the most basic adjustments to color, exposure, and cropping; and Full Edit, the "lite" version of Adobe Photoshop.

    Overall, the UI is modern and looks fairly slick. The re-sizable panes are diverse, and designed with workflow in mind. The Organizer has a cool timeline slider at the top of the window, wherein an integral bar graph visually represents the distribution of photos along the timeline. Drag the viewport to quickly reposition the main view, or slide the little margin arrows inward to narrow the scope of the view. In all, this works much better than Picasa's annoying slider control, but is not nearly as useful as Picasa's folder list.

    The map (one of the coolest features) is hidden behind a collapsed pane on the left of the Organizer, while the tagging pane is shown expanded by default on the right. It's a pity more of the program's features are not so easily located.

    The Editor shows thumbnails of one or more photos being edited, allowing you to quickly fix up a group of photos, such as those you've just imported from your camera.

    What's Not: 
    The various panes in Photoshop Elements are hopelessly inconsistent. Some can be docked and undocked by dragging, others require a double-click of the title bar, and many panes can't be undocked at all. The docking mechanism in Adobe Photoshop is so, so much better.None of the toolbars are customizable, which makes it impossible to put the most frequently used features at your fingertips. Adobe Photoshop has this same limitation, but it at least has customizable macros (called Actions) that somewhat compensate for this shortcoming. Photoshop Elements has no such feature.

    One of the biggest problems with the Organizer is that it doesn't show the filenames of any of the photos on the main screen, and there's no way to change this. Even with the Details option turned on, only the date of the photo appears beneath the thumbnail. The filename of only the currently selected photo (assuming there's only one) is shown in the cramped Properties window; from there, you can click a tiny button to open the parent folder in Windows Explorer. The usefulness of the Organizer ultimately suffers as a result of this pointless limitation.

    The only way to view the metadata (EXIF data) of your photos, such as camera model, exposure time, GPS info, and so on, is with the fourth tab in the tiny Properties window.
    Also, double-clicking a photo in the Organizer isn't as useful as it should be. Instead of showing the photo full size, or opening it in the editor, it only switches the Organizer to the largest thumbnail display. If you want to view the photo any larger, you have to use the clumsy "full screen" slideshow feature.

    The two editing tools (Full Edit and Quick Fix) are presented as two tabs in the Editor application, while the Organizer is a separate window. This clumsy arrangement quickly gets out of hand unless you're able to commit to working only on a single photo from start to finish before you start working on another photo. It would make it easier and quicker to switch between these three tools if they were all part of the same application.

    Finally, the toolbar in the Full Edit window resembles the one in Adobe Photoshop, but is different enough to frustrate and disorient seasoned Photoshop users.

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    Product Features

    Rating AverageWhat's Hot: 
    A photo organizer is only good if it can help you find specific photos quickly and easily. While it's not the best of its class, the Organizer tool in Photoshop Elements does offer two unique (and fun) features that make it easier to find specific images. The software has a built-in mapping feature that is well integrated with the photo viewer. If your camera has a built-in GPS, the Organizer automatically places a map pin pointing to the geographic location each of your geocoded photos was shot. (You can also drag and drop non-geocoded photos on the map to manually associate them with a specific geographic location.) Then, drag and zoom the map to show only a certain region (say, Hackensack, New Jersey) and turn on the "Limit Search to Map Area" option to show only those photos that were taken in that region. Not even Google's own Picasa organizer can do this, despite Google's substantial mapping offerings.

    Next, the software has a Face Finder, which quickly scans all your photos and finds the human faces in each one. Then, you manually identify each face (including multiple faces in a single photo) and the program tags your photos accordingly. Thereafter, you can quickly find all pictures of Grandma, whether they were taken in Hackensack or Budapest.

    The Organizer can also be configured to automatically copy new photos from your camera's memory card onto your hard disk, and even organize them into folders named for the dates the photos were taken.

    The Editor has two personalities. On one side, there's the Quick Fix tool, which lets you quickly change the lighting (but not exposure), fix red-eye, adjust the color balance, add sharpening (which, incidentally, does decrease picture quality), and crop the photo as you see fit. The Full Edit tool has a more complete array of touch-up tools, such as the eyedropper, rubber stamp, text, pen, eraser, and lasso selection tool. There's a pretty slick Straighten tool, which only requires that you draw a horizon in order to rotate an image.

    What's Not: 
    The integrated map is a mini version of Yahoo's online mapping service. Although it's handy, it only works when you're online. Given the choice, I'd prefer Google Maps (of which Yahoo Maps is a clone), because it offers higher magnification (you can zoom in closer) and better navigation. Unfortunately, there's no way to choose a different mapping service.

    Next, the face finder is most useful if you've taken the time to identify the faces in all your photos. But the Face Tagging window is clumsy and difficult to use, even for a handful of photos (you need to drag and drop the faces to identify them); I'd hate to have to face tag my whole collection.

    The feature that copies photos from your camera is very slow, and rather a pain to set up. You have to click through no fewer than six separate prompts each time you insert a memory card, unless you dig into the Preferences window and turn off a bunch of checkboxes. The organizer also has a tough time remembering to delete the photos from the card when it's done; I've set this option twice, and it still won't do it. And when it's finished copying your photos, you see only the new photos in the Organizer; you have to click a button to return to the main view and see your new photos in the context of your whole collection.

    Finally, the toolbox in the Full Edit tool is powerful, unless you're accustomed to toolbars in full-featured photo editors (like Photoshop), in which case it feels limited and toy-like. For instance, it's hard to take seriously the cookie cutter tool, which allows you to crop a photo into a silly shape, such as a heart, butterfly, or snowflake.
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    Rating Average
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    Adobe Photoshop Elements 5 is a good place to start if you haven't done a lot of digital darkroom work. Its photo organizer does the job well enough, and the accompanying editor can handle just about any photo touch-up task you throw at it. In all, the package is a good value and an excellent choice if you don't want to cough up the cash for the full-blown Adobe Photoshop. I'd easily recommend it for someone who wants Photoshop but can't afford it, but if all you want is a photo organizer, there are free tools that do most of what Elements can do. And don't buy it if you want a workflow tool; there are more capable tools out there if you want to make quick enhancements to your photos.