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Photoshop Elements 11

11/17/2012 9:36:19 AM
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Ratings: 4/5

Price: $118.5


Adobe is celebrating the 11th version of Elements with a fresh new look. Many of the photo manipulation enthusiasts who form its target audience are getting on in years, and the light grey text on dark grey background of earlier releases was proving increasingly contentious: they simply couldn’t read the labels.

So Elements now gets a bright, cheerful interface, while Adobe’s high-end Creative Suite apps borrow the dark and restful look. But the changes here go far beyond a mere color overhaul: the whole feel of the app is bolder, more accessible and more immediate, and should entice new users too.

Description: Adobe Elements 11 Organizer

Adobe Elements 11 Organizer

As before, the software is divided into two halves, the Organizer and the Editor. The Organizer works like iPhoto, with a zoom-able thumbnail view of your image collection; face recognition; geo-location mapping; and the ability to bundle images into events. You can jump to photos taken on a particular date using a pop-up calendar. Faces are hit-and-miss: you’re often asked to name a piece of furniture.

A number of quick fix tools are built into the Organizer, including a global Smart Fix as well as Sharpen, Levels, Red Eye, Color, Crop and Contrast. They work reasonably well, although there’s no user control: it’s a one-shot, take-it-or-leave-it process. The Organizer can display and fix Camera Raw images, but can’t write that format, so processed images are saved as JPEGs, TIFFs or PSDs. This is surprising, since the Editor uses a Camera Raw dialog similar to Photoshop’s.

Like iPhoto, the Organizer’s Create tab lets you build calendars and photo books. Unlike iPhoto, it doesn’t make this a slick process; Elements first has to download the templates, then perform a complex series of Actions to assemble the pages. Editing is tricky, and we had difficulty using a camera card: although Elements claimed to be copying photos from it – and certainly took long enough – we couldn’t find the copies, and the clumsy file navigation system didn’t help.

Overall, Mac users installing Elements may as well by pass the Organizer altogether. As in previous versions, all the real work in done in the Editor, with its three modes: Quick, Guided and Expert. This turns out to be an ingenious solution, as the three works smoothly together.

Description: Quick mode

Quick mode

Quick Edit mode uses a cut-down tool panel with basic selection tools and everyday extras, including not only red-eye but a tooth brush tool to whiten teeth. On the right, you’ll find the same basic edits as in the Organizer, but this time you can pop them open to reveal a grid of nine adjustments, each showing a tiny thumbnail of the current image. Rolling over any of these performs the adjustment; clicking it commits the changes.

There are more degrees of subtlety here. In the Levels control, for example, separate tabs adjust shadows, mid tones and high lights.

Guided mode offers more complex operations, such as removing color casts, fixing blemishes and optimizing portraits, as well as more photographic effects such as tilt-shift and high key, and ‘photo play’ effects including Out of Bounds and Pop Art. In each case you’re walked through the process in simple numbered steps that perform each task according to your specification. When creating reflections, for instance, you add a basic translucent reflection, choose a background color, adjust the intensity, add an optional distortion, then add a gradient. It makes light work of complex tasks.

Where Elements gets really clever is when you then switch from Guided to Expert mode. Rather than seeing a flat image with all the effects you’ve applied, you see all the layers that make up the result, complete with gradients, masks, adjustment layers and more. If you have the know-how, you can go into the layers and edit them individually; and if you don’t have the know-how, there’s no better way to learn it than by taking it apart the effect you just applied to see how it’s been constructed. We’d like smarter naming of the layers, but we commend this approach.

Description: Expert mode

Expert mode

The Options panel now appears below the image, larger and alternating with the Photo Bin. While this gives instant access to all the parameters for each tool as it’s selected, it also cuts down the available working space. You can opt to open floating panels instead using a button at the bottom right.

Beyond the interface changes, Elements 11 is a little light on new features, but there’s enough to justify the upgrade. The Refine Edge dialog that previously made a tentative appearance has been updated to provide nearly all the functionality of its Photoshop equivalent. It’s a highly sophisticated system for creating cut outs with soft edges, smoothing, feathering and color fringe correction, returning selections or new masked layers.

Support For Actions is a welcome new feature. They perform multiple operations with a keystroke, carrying out sophisticated tasks in an instant. But you can’t create new Actions; you have to find a friend with full Photoshop to build them for you (or download them from Adobe). It’s just one example of the way Elements is deliberately limited.

New filters include Tilt Shift, Vignette and a powerful Lens Blur, as well as three new sketch effects: Comic, Graphic Novel and Pen & Ink. These are based on the Oil Paint filter in Photoshop CS6, but take it to a higher plane; they’re powerful, useful filters that can produce a convincing hand-drawn look.

Elements 11 is snappy without being lightning-fast. To keep it accessible to the greatest number of users, the Mercury Graphics Engine that now powers Photoshop hasn’t been used. While the Mac version is still 32-bit, there’s no feeling of sluggishness in most operations.

The few new features in Elements 11 are very good. While the Organizer remains disappointing, the Editor offers greater discoverability, a more powerful feature set and the ability to modify guided edits using more professional tools. With the friendly new interface, Elements is now both more capable and easier to learn – a combination of which Adobe should be proud.

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