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Picture Perfect

Making the most of your digital photos with great tools and software
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
"24", Jan/Feb 2006

Back in your Instamatic youth, pressing the shutter button at just the right moment was all the control you had over the final photographic outcome. Sure, there were guys who lurked in darkrooms full of gear and chemicals to get more positive results from their negatives (myself included), but we were the lunatic fringe of amateur photographers in a drop-the-film-at-Fotomat world. • Now that mainstream photography has gone digital, anyone who wants to enjoy better pictures can load up inexpensive software and turn straight-from-the-camera snapshots into impressive photographs, without having to black out the windows or stink of hypo solution. Going digital improves the way we organize our photo collections, too, and makes sharing pictures point-and-click simple. In the next few pages we'll explore the latest ways you can get better results, enjoy your photos more and reel in the compliments while you're at it.


Dozens of photo software packages are available today that handle everything from basic editing to sophisticated image manipulation. You may have even received a good beginner's software package with your computer, printer or camera. (HP software products are particularly easy to use, yet powerful.) I've focused here on four affordable ($100 or less) software solutions that let you start simple and work up to fairly advanced photo editing.

The verb "photoshopping" has entered the vernacular as a digital synonym for any picture tweaking, whether it describes the removal of any blemish that might make a celebrity look vaguely human on a magazine cover or the juxtaposition of George W. with space alien leaders in Weekly World News. You don't need the full version of Adobe Photoshop (a $600 investment) to employ most of the same tools the pros use, however. The basic version, Adobe Photoshop Elements 4.0, may leave out some features useful for preparing pages for the printing press, and simplifies some of the filter options that professional photographers obsess over, but it delivers all the image enhancement power that even an advanced amateur is ever likely to need, plus a comprehensive and comprehensible system for organizing your photo collection. The system that lets you create separate layers containing additional elements (text, objects) or even filters and effects, turning them on and off at will to judge the results, is incredibly powerful. Be forewarned: with a wealth of tools just a mouse-click away and a manual that's heavy slogging, this program can be intimidating for newbies. My suggestion: start with the basic tutorials provided in the software help system and then play around with your images, learning each tool's function as needed. You'll master the basics in a few hours and then progress to discover new and interesting image enhancement options lurking just below the surface. It's worth the effort.

Microsoft Digital Image Suite 2006 is another worthy contender. The Microsoft approach is more task-oriented than the toolbox-oriented Adobe Photoshop Elements. Here you get an on-screen menu with plain-English options (Color and Saturation, Fix Red-Eye), each of which leads to a separate menu offering options and settings. While the editing capabilities don't quite match Adobe's sophistication at the high end, they are easier to grasp. The photo

collection organization tools are first-rate, and so is the manual, once you find it (there's no printed manual, a major mistake in my book, but you can read the 288-page magnum opus on your computer screen).

Ulead PhotoImpact 11 makes up in power and flexibility what it lacks in organization. Its image enhancement options are as good as Adobe's, with an array of filters and effects ranging from demure to deranged. On the plus side, you get side-by-side before-and-after comparisons of many enhancement options and thumbnail previews of others, eliminating a lot of guesswork. And I like the fact that you can customize the menus and toolbars to meet your own needs, starting with a basic layout and adding more elaborate options as you progress.

Macintosh buyers get a copy of iPhoto, an excellent program for organizing and sharing photos that also offers basic photo fix capabilities. As we explore your image-editing options below, though, you'll find valuable tools and capabilities that aren't included in iPhoto (working with selected areas of a photo, for example), and Apple's next step up the photo software ladder is the $499 Aperture program, designed as a pro-level Photoshop competitor. My recommendation: pick up a copy of Adobe Photoshop Elements 3.0. The Mac version of Elements 4.0 won't be ready for several months, but the key features we'll discuss are already built into 3.0, and you can expect a significant upgrade discount on the updated software when it's released.

Each of these programs brings a different style and procedure to the image-editing process, and your personal preference may lead you to one or the other. The good news: you can try before you buy, since Adobe, Microsoft and Ulead offer free downloadable trial versions of their programs at their respective Web sites (they're big files, though, so a high-speed Internet connection is highly recommended).


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