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Review: Photoshop Elements 9

Experience advanced image editing without the price tag

Photoshop was one of the first applications that really sold Macs as a creative platform, back when digital images were a cutting-edge concept rather than something you can take on your phone.
It’s fair to say that over the years, Photoshop has remained so dominant in the world of photography and design that nothing else has come close to supplanting it. Even Apple hasn’t tried that hard for the middle ground, with iPhoto being quite entry-level in terms of its feature set, and Aperture aimed much more at professionals.
The full version of Photoshop is fairly pricy, but the Elements version has always offered the core features (plus extras) at a much reduced price. It’s aimed at those who aren’t necessarily professionals but equally, want to be creative with their images and go beyond iPhoto’s friendly but quite limited editing tools.
Like Premiere Elements, Elements 9 comes with the Organizer application, a sort of centralised hub for media where you can view, edit, tag and otherwise manage your pictures and videos. It automatically analyses photos for faces and enables you to create albums and collections, adding tags for convenience. It also allows you to perform such editing tasks as auto contrast, levels and colour, and a Smart Fix option that tries to enhance multiple characteristics at once to liven up or fix your shots.

From here you can also create prints, books, greetings cards and calendars by dragging and dropping pictures into editable templates. Actually, when you do this it sends you back to Photoshop, where all these options are also available. We found that with the two applications open at the same time, our MacBook struggled a little and slowed down, due partly to quite high RAM usage and also perhaps its moderately powered graphics card. The preset themes and templates are all pretty good, and when you have filled them with content and customised them, you can either print copies or order hard copies online. This is a great feature and perfect for wedding or holiday albums.

Our only issue was that it slowed our trusty MacBook to a virtual crawl while processing the templates. You can manually set the program’s memory usage in the Preferences, but it feels like you’d want 3 or 4 GB installed to allow Photoshop and OS X to both have enough and run smoothly.
In regular operation, Photoshop Elements is snappier and has a single window interface. However, you can manually make the various panels docked or floating. The interface is slightly more clunky and clinical than iPhoto’s, but it does have many more features. The tool panel on the left gives you access to all

kinds of advanced editing tools for cutting, cropping, layering and retouching pictures. The tools are excellent and range from simple through to semi-pro, with things like the Smart Brush and Spot Healing Brush particularly useful for retouching and editing in clever ways. Some of the tools will be unfamiliar to beginners, but many offer help windows and even links to online video tutorials when clicked.
Photoshop is about more than just picture editing, and you get all sorts of layer, mask and drawing tools to create advanced composite images and graphics. Full gives you all the options while Quick provides easy access to the most commonly used retouching tools. Also of great interest is the Guided Edit tab, under which you’ll find presets for things like making images into pop art, cleaning up scratches and dust, fixing distortion and clever stuff like Lomo effects. The software guides you through this and shows you what it’s doing and why. There are even split- screen options to see an image with and without effects at the same time.
There’s a good range of filters, text tools, grids and other features that are essential if you’re going beyond retouching holiday snaps. It supports plug-ins, of which there are many, ranging from free to more expensive, if you want to expand the range of effects on offer. Once you have finished editing or creating albums, there’s integrated online sharing to Flickr, Facebook and other sites accessible with a few clicks.
Like its sister program, Premiere Elements, this version of Photoshop will appeal to beginners and yet also boasts some very advanced features, which until a few years ago would have cost a fortune as part of the full version. Of course, that version now contains lots of extra features, but really it’s stuff that most people don’t need. So if your interest in image editing stops at cropping, changing exposure and creating an album, you’ll easily be able to do that here. But the possibilities go much further, with layers, masking, effects, magic brushes and other things that would be of use to experienced photographers. There’s guidance if you want it and some handy preset actions and instructions, but also the freedom to be more creative and use advanced tools. One note of caution: you’ll need to run it on a decent Mac for smooth workflow. All in all, a lot of bang for your buck.