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Touch Up Photos Like the Pros

If you have a digital camera, a scanner or any other "imaging" device, chances are that it came with a rudimentary photo-editing program. That program is probably good enough for very basic tasks like cropping (selecting what you see in the image) and maybe a bit of color correction, but if you want to do anything more sophisticated, you'll need a more robust photo-editing program.

There are several on the market, ranging from as little as $12.95 for Photo Express 4.0 from Ulead (download from to $609 for Adobe Photoshop, the leading high-end image-editing program.

But there are plenty of products in between, including Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0, a newly revised program that has many of the same features of Photoshop but at the greatly reduced price of $99. Not to be left out, Microsoft also has a new mid-range program, Picture It! Digital Image Pro version 7, which sells for $109 less a $30 mail-in rebate.

Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0 has a similar look and feel to the full-fledged version of Photoshop. It lacks some of the more esoteric features that are important mainly to professional photographers and serious amateurs who want the ability to make the most granular changes to their photos. Frankly, if you're a candidate for the full version of Photoshop, you probably already know it. But if you're a serious shutterbug with a digital camera or a scanner, then Photoshop Elements will give you more than enough power for virtually anything you're likely to do.

For most of us, the basic function of a photo-editing program is to prepare pictures for printing. To that end, all photo-editing programs -- even the most basic -- allow you to resize and crop images as well as to make subtle or major changes to lighting and coloring. Photoshop Elements, of course, does all that, but it also has plenty of bells and whistles. For example, you can easily import images from digital cameras (including video clips from cameras that have that feature). You can also quickly prepare photos for Web posting or e-mailing. One nice feature, called Picture Package, allows you to print multiple photos on a single sheet.

Even though it's based on the Adobe Photoshop "engine," the designers have added some features aimed at regular folks. The new "quick fix" feature, for example, lets you quickly access frequently used tools and shows you a before-and-after image so you know the impact of whatever you're doing before it's etched in stone. There also is a file browser that helps you locate and access your images and perform batch operations such as renaming or rotating a group of images with a single command.

Microsoft's new Picture It! Digital Image Pro version 7 is equally impressive and, in my opinion, a better choice for the novice to intermediate user. For one thing -- and this may not be a big deal for many people -- it loads faster. I get annoyed at the several seconds that Photoshop Elements imposes on users while the program loads all of its features. Picture It! pops up almost immediately on a moderately fast PC.

For me, the hardest part of learning to use this program was getting used to the idea that it's not designed to mimic a professional editing program. The interface is mainly aimed at people who don't have a lot of experience with high-end photo-editing programs. Although it has the standard menus across the top of the screen, most of the commands you need are accessed via eight icons on the left side. Some functions, like cropping, adjusting colors and tinting or removing red-eye, are immediately apparent, but others, such as erasing a small portion of an image, are a bit harder to figure out.

Unlike most digital editing programs, you can't just grab a tool like an eraser or paint brush and apply it to the image. That aspect actually makes Photoshop Elements and other mid-range programs (like Jasc's Paint Shop Pro) easier to use. Still, there's an excellent help system that -- so far -- has answered almost all my questions.

Other nice touches include a "mini-lab" -- which lets you load and manipulate several pictures at a time and make subtle corrections to them, such as adding "fill flash" to an under-exposed image -- and the "dodge and burn" brush that lets you adjust brightness or contrast to a specific area of an image just by moving a brush over that portion of it.

My favorite features -- especially for the older set -- are the face touch-up tools, including one designed specifically to remove wrinkles. It works, and it's cheaper and safer than plastic surgery.

By Larry Magid

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