Buyer's Guide 2009: Image Processing Software
The latest generation is more photographer-friendly than ever, with powerful
Photoshop Elements (Adobe)
Photoshop Elements is an underrated program by many photographers because of its price, yet it uses the same processing engine built into Photoshop and includes most of the photographer-specific features of Photoshop. Features it doesn't have are often unique tools that really aren't needed by photographers. In fact, many photographers are finding that Photoshop Elements combines extremely well with Lightroom 2, so that a package of both will give the average photographer more capability than Photoshop alone, yet at a lower price.
Photoshop Elements 7 was just announced by Adobe. However, a significant development was that Photoshop Elements 6 came out for the Mac in 2008. For various reasons, including Mac's transition to Intel processors, the Mac updates of Photoshop Elements have been slower to market. Photoshop Elements 6 for Mac catches up the platform considerably, but Elements 7 is, for now, available only for Windows.
Elements is another of the more modern programs that use a dark gray interface to make the photographs show up their best. It's a powerful program and offers a lot for its price, including Scene Cleaner—by taking multiple shots of a scene, you can use Photomerge technology to literally paint out distracting elements (such as people moving through a great travel location)—and a new Smart Brush that lets you paint effects to a specific part of a photo. Elements 7 also features something new for this program, a membership website, Photoshop.com. Elements 6 is available for Mac and PC.
Photoshop Lightroom (Adobe)
Photoshop Lightroom offers some of the fastest and most efficient image processing of any program on the market today—and it has been designed for photographers. Using a dark gray interface, Lightroom makes all adjustments readily available, so you don't have to search for them in menus. In addition, the program is set up to make it easy to go from one photograph to another, whether you're reviewing them or copying adjustments from one image to many. Lightroom is designed to work efficiently on any modern computer and is available for Mac and PC.
With Lightroom 2, Adobe has added a number of significant improvements. First are local adjustments. You now can easily affect parts of the picture without changing the rest of the picture with the use of the Graduated Filter and the Adjustment Brush. These tools give you a direct feel for the photo that no other program offers because they allow you to quickly, and literally, paint effects directly onto your picture, such as darkening, lightening, contrast change, color adjustment and more. Because they're nondestructive, any adjustments can be tried out, and if you don't like them, simply delete them and try something else. This makes experimenting and working the photo easy and confidence-building. Additionally, Lightroom 2 has some major changes in its Library module. This includes a redesigned interface to give better grouping of functions, a much improved filter or search tool, and Smart Collections, which allow you to set criteria for photos to automatically put them into collections.
Picture Window Pro (Digital Light & Color)
Picture Window Pro is a classic image-processing program that has been around for a while, with a reputation for offering a great deal of power for a low price. It packages a lot of Photoshop's imaging power into a smaller and less expensive program.
Picture Window Pro offers complete control over an image, including such advanced features as Curves and 16-bit color support. It has a unique HDR-like adjustment, the Image Stacker, which allows you to combine bracketed exposures to gain a better tonal range from your scene than the camera can get in one exposure. The program also has long been known for its extensive tools for creating masks and selections beyond the capabilities of most programs at this price. This means that compositing images can be done with a high degree of precision, including rotation, scale changes and even perspective adjustments, so that the composites can be blended well. Picture Window Pro is available only for PCs, from the Digital Light & Color website.