Buyer's Guide 2008: Photo-Processing Software
Today’s software offers us a big range of choices in how we work and play with our images
Image-processing software is amazing today. It allows the photographer to duplicate the old color and black-and-white darkroom without the mess, space or toxic chemicals. And we can do more, enhancing and optimizing images in ways that the traditional darkroom worker could only dream of.
When photo-processing software is mentioned, everyone first thinks of Adobe Photoshop. Of course, it's still the dominant software of this type on the market today. But that doesn't mean it's for everyone, nor is it best for all purposes. You may find that other programs fit your needs better or that you need more than one program to get the best from your photos.
To help you understand the differences among the programs and find those that best meet your needs, here's a quick overview of the key photo-processing software. All programs are available for both Windows and Mac platforms unless otherwise noted.
Adobe Photoshop CS3
Of all the Photoshop programs, CS3 is truly evolutionary. It continues the high standard of offering controls and adjustments that allow you to do almost anything with a photograph. It's often said that the good news about Photoshop is that it has so many controls, but the bad news is that Photoshop...has so many controls; it can mean a steep learning curve to master the program. CS3 has added some important controls, however. One of the most significant for photographers is the new Camera Raw, which has gained new color adjustments, outstanding sharpening controls and a whole lot of tweaks to make it more photographer-friendly. CS3 also brings out an updated Bridge, the visual browser for Photoshop, which now actually works for photographers. Before, Bridge was clunky and slow. Now, based on work with Lightroom, Adobe has given Bridge a whole new life so that it works quickly and well. CS3 also has introduced a slimmed-down workspace. You can go back to the old workspace layout, but the new one is clean and easy to use. If you need the versatility and the scope of controls available in Photoshop, this is the place to be. But for photographers who don't need it all, it can be confusing, and it's expensive at a street price of $599.
Adobe Photoshop Elements 5
Photoshop Elements was Adobe's effort to make Photoshop more accessible to the average photographer. While not as extensive a program as Photoshop, Elements is based on the Photoshop processing engine and includes a lot of features to make the photographer's work easier, such as more intuitively named controls and buttons. The program has a terrific Help palette that instantly tells you more about the tools you're using, including links to instructions on how to best use the tools. But one of the biggest differences is that Elements inspires you to work with your images in different ways, such as putting your photos into scrapbook layouts and making greeting cards, calendars, flipbooks and so forth, plus it has an organizing module that lets you catalog your images. Version 5 also introduces a long-awaited Curves adjustment, one control that was missing in Elements. This isn't quite the same as Photoshop's Curves because you can't click and drag points on the curve; however, it's more photographer-intuitive, giving sample curves for different effects and sliders to change specific areas on the curve. Photoshop Elements 5 is very affordable at a street price of $99.
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 1.1
Photoshop Lightroom is Adobe's first program designed specifically for photographers right from the start. While originally conceived as an efficient RAW workflow, Lightroom now lets you work on lots of images in JPEG, TIFF, PSD and, of course, RAW, quickly and efficiently. It has a totally different interface than either Photoshop or Elements, but the layout is simple and easy to understand. It's based on modules that hold the processing tools for a specific type of work: Library, Develop, Slideshow, Print and Web. The Library module is a powerful organizing and editing tool. With it, you can quickly sort, keyword, add metadata, remove photos and so on. The Develop module is like a more powerful Camera Raw. It even includes a "magic" button that turns your cursor into an adjustment tool for tonalities and colors—simply click on the photo, on the tone or color you want to adjust and drag to make the adjustment. Lightroom finds the right tone or color to change for you, making the process very fast. The Slideshow module is limited to presentation-type shows because audio can't be exported with them. The Print module puts all the printing controls in one place, and the Web module makes it easy for photographers to do Web galleries. Lightroom is moderately priced at a street price of $249.