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Pushing Pixels with Photoshop Elements 9

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Photoshop is one of those rare products whose name recognition has transcended its source. Many people who may otherwise have no familiarity with computers beyond the basics of Web browsing and email understand that to manipulate digital photos, they need “Photoshop,” without realizing what they probably have in mind is the professional Photoshop CS5.

The software has even become a verb in the popular consciousness. It’s not difficult to find examples of news articles about images being poorly “Photoshopped” for advertising or even political gain. (And if you haven’t seen Photoshop Disasters, you really must check it out.)

So when an average person goes looking for Photoshop—either as a starting point or in search of a tool more advanced than iPhoto—you can imagine their shock at the $699 starting price of Photoshop CS5. Adobe learned long ago that making a consumer version of its flagship image editor satisfied a need in the market, but early versions were primarily stripped-down versions that shipped with scanners. Now, Photoshop Elements is packed with features, and in the new version 9, the software gains a few key capabilities of Photoshop CS5, but at the much more reasonable price of $99.

Photoshop Elements Basics -- In truth, when people think of needing Photoshop for their digital photos, they’re typically thinking of the basic color-correction tools offered by iPhoto—lightening underexposed images, cropping, adjusting color balance, and the like. And, of course, iPhoto makes it easy to apply such edits. But iPhoto’s correction tools are broad, affecting the entire image. Photoshop Elements offers additional layers (literally) of granularity for more specific edits.

One of the strengths of Photoshop Elements is that it caters to multiple skill levels. Using the Quick Edit environment, for example, you can adjust an image’s lighting, color saturation, and other attributes using familiar sliders. Click the expansion triangle to the right of a slider to display Quick Fix previews, then click a thumbnail image for the amount of the adjustment to apply. (Here’s a tip: Click and drag on a thumbnail to fine-tune the amount.)


But what if you don’t want to apply an adjustment to the entire image? The selection tools in the Full Edit mode are first-rate. Grab the Quick Selection tool to select a specific area of the image. In the image below, I’ve “painted” around the figures and selected the sky; I want to brighten the sky, but keep the figures in silhouette. I didn’t need to be very precise with the Quick Selection tool, because it detects edges and snaps to them as I draw close.

I could easily apply a lighting adjustment here (by going to the Enhance > Adjust Lighting menu), but that would change the values of the image’s pixels. As much as possible, I want to retain the original color values in case I change my mind later. Instead, I create a new adjustment layer: from the bottom of the Layers panel to the right of the image, I click the Create Adjustment Layer button and choose Levels. The adjustment layer sits above the image’s layer (the Background layer) and changes the appearance of the image without actually changing the pixel values themselves.

Because I made a selection before creating the adjustment layer, any changes I make affect only the selected area—in this case, the sky. I can then play with the sliders in the Adjustments panel to get the result I want. If I decide later that the sky is too bright, I can select the adjustment layer and change the sliders again. Better yet, if I want to go in a completely different direction with the photo, I can just delete the adjustment layer and start over—again, without disrupting the original pixels.

This sounds like advanced Photoshop work, and in a way it is, but it’s also very accessible (and, importantly, non-destructive). Photoshop Elements’ tools make it easy to get your head around what’s being done to your image.

Adjustment layers aren’t new in Photoshop Elements 9, but they do point to a welcome new feature. At last, the program supports real layer masks. You can make a selection and create a mask, hiding everything that is not selected. Layer masks are good for making adjustments, but also extremely useful when compositing elements of several images together, like a collage.

Content Aware Healing -- One of the best new features in Photoshop Elements is almost undetectable if you don’t look closely. The Spot Healing Brush has been a great tool for making repairs like removing blemishes or dust spots. Now, the tool uses Adobe’s Content Aware technology, which was introduced in Photoshop CS5 earlier this year. If you’ve ever done any image repair or touchup work, Content Aware really seems like magic. It’s smarter about analyzing an area to repair and filling it with similar pixels, making it a much faster alternative to the traditional way to make such edits, the Clone Stamp tool.

For example, in the image below, I want to remove a power line that bisects Seattle’s Space Needle. Unfortunately, the line cuts through an area that includes a lot of detail.

To remove the line, I drag across it once using the Spot Healing Brush. The same edit would have taken more time using the Clone Stamp tool in the past.

The implementation of the Spot Healing Brush in Photoshop Elements is limited compared to Photoshop CS5, as you might expect in a consumer-level program. For example, in Photoshop CS5 you can make a selection and hit the Delete key, and the program will replace the area with sensible imagery. In Photoshop Elements, however, you can still get much of the same effect with a little elbow (or wrist) grease: paint over a large area with the Spot Healing Brush and see what happens.

The technology is also used by the Photomerge Panorama feature. After stitching together a panorama, there’s always some dead space left around the edges, which is normally just cropped out.

But now you’re asked if you want to fill that space using the content-aware feature. The results can be mixed, depending on the source material; it’s great for skies, but can muddle areas with identifiable objects, such as the ground in the version below.

Photomerging -- One of the things I love about Photoshop Elements is that Adobe has put effort into helping photographers overcome common problems. Yes, the tools are there to compensate for dark photos or spot-fix aberrations, but it often takes some know-how to do it. The Photomerge features tackle specific problem situations.

To give one example, the Photomerge Scene Cleaner—introduced in Photoshop Elements 8 on the Mac—lets you remove unwanted elements from a scene by sourcing multiple similar shots. (This is a good example of why shooting in burst mode, where you can fire off three or more pictures in rapid succession, can be helpful.) The feature was originally billed as the Tourist Remover for its capability to erase bystanders who had unwittingly wandered into a shot.

In the example below, I’ve opened three shots into the Photomerge Scene Cleaner editor, and specified the best of the lot as the Final image at right. I don’t want the little girl in orange pants to appear, so I set as Source (at left) a shot where the girl was no longer occupying the same space.

To erase her from the image, I draw a line through her on the right; Photoshop Elements pulls the corresponding pixels from the Source image. This action accomplishes the same effect as the Spot Healing Brush I mentioned earlier, but in this case the program is replacing original corresponding pixels rather than synthesizing an area algorithmically.

A new Photomerge module in Photoshop Elements 9 is Style Match, which is designed to apply the photographic style of one image to another. In theory, it will let you approximate the look of, say, an Ansel Adams photo to one of your own. Adobe provides a handful of stylized source images, but you can also use your own photos or any other image.

In practice, I find the results to be heavy-handed, consistently blowing out highlights and requiring that I pull back on the Style Intensity slider. Just as bringing a camera and tripod to Yosemite won’t necessarily result in images that look as good as Ansel Adams photos, the Photomerge Style Match won’t magically make your photos look like a master’s. However, in either situation you’ll have fun getting the picture.

The Organizer -- I’ve saved the biggest change for last, because it’s something that is likely to be embraced or just ignored by Mac users. Photoshop Elements 9 now includes the Organizer (officially the Adobe Elements 9 Organizer), a separate application for managing one’s library of photos and videos. The Organizer has been a staple of Photoshop Elements under Windows for several versions, and on the Mac it replaces Adobe Bridge.

Like iPhoto, the Organizer imports and manages digital photos and videos, lets you organize media into albums, and lets you rate items on a scale of one to five stars. I particularly like the full-screen mode for sorting, rating, and tagging photos quickly.

(However, the Photo Downloader—a separate utility—crashes when connecting to an iPhone 4 or iPhone 3GS, the models I was able to test; Adobe is looking into the problem.)

The Organizer also includes quick-fix options for making basic adjustments to photos without opening them in the Photoshop Elements application, and options for sharing images to Flickr, Facebook, SmugMug, email, and more.

And it makes extensive use of keyword tags, which are alternately helpful and irritating. An option to analyze media automatically as it’s imported into the library applies smart tags that make it easy to weed out clips that are blurry, overexposed, or otherwise faulty. The feature is on by default, though I turned it off because it slows down the computer while processing. (You can activate the Auto-Analyzer manually whenever you want.) The analysis also looks for people’s faces in photos, so you can identify and group them on a per-person basis.

Keyword tags in general, however, are cumbersome. The tags appear in the Keyword Tags panel in a list, with corresponding icons, grouped hierarchically under categories such as Places and Events. You end up dragging, scrolling, and expanding categories to manage what really should just be text elements. Keyword tags have a peculiar engineer feel to them. The structure and process makes sense—and you can almost envision the flowchart that explains it all—but it doesn’t reflect how people would want to use tags. To see tags done correctly, look to Adobe’s Photoshop Lightroom or Apple’s Aperture, where you type tags, separated by commas, and they appear in a list.


One feature I use in every photo program that offers it is support for smart albums. For example, instead of creating a new album and dragging favorite photos from a recent vacation into it, I create a smart album that automatically locates all items ranked three stars or higher within the vacation’s date range. As I add new photos or change rankings, the smart album’s contents change dynamically.

The problem is, you can’t easily edit a smart album in the Organizer. You can change its settings after the album is created (in the options bar, click the Options button and then choose Modify Search Criteria), but that doesn’t actually edit the smart album. You must save the new criteria as a new smart album. This behavior has prevailed for several versions of the Organizer under Windows; perhaps people never edit (or use) smart albums, but it amazes me that the feature is as clunky as it is, and has been that way for so long.

A couple of features of the Organizer didn’t transfer from Windows to Mac: there’s no Map feature for assigning geolocation information, nor is there the capability to create a photo slideshow.

If you don’t want to use the Organizer to manage your library, you can still use Adobe Bridge (if you installed it with a previous version of Photoshop Elements, or as part of the Adobe Creative Suite) or iPhoto. In Bridge, right-click or Control-click a photo and choose Photoshop Elements from the Open With submenu that appears. In iPhoto, go to preferences, click the General icon, and from the Edit Photo pop-up menu choose In application; then select Photoshop Elements in the dialog that appears. Integration -- Photoshop Elements 9 now includes support for Adobe’s service, enabling you to publish photos to that service, edit them online, and sync them back to your library in the Organizer. As someone who’s had a Flickr account for many years, what interests me most is being able to back up photos off-site.

Included with the purchase of Photoshop Elements is 2 GB of online storage at, which won’t cover one’s entire photo library (not even close), but does give you an opportunity to have off-site backups of your top-rated photos, for instance.

Cost and Availability -- Photoshop Elements 9 costs $99, or $79 with a mail-in rebate. The program is also available in a bundle with Premiere Elements 9 for $149.99 (or $119.99 after mail-in rebate).

For an additional $49.99 per year, a Plus membership increases the capacity to 20 GB and includes member-only seasonal templates and artwork for creative projects like calendars and books, and how-to lessons. You can also purchase Photoshop Elements 9 Plus for $139.99 and save $10, or buy Photoshop Elements 9 & Adobe Premiere Elements Plus for $149.99 and save $30.

(If you’re interested in editing video using Premiere Elements 9, which makes its debut on the Mac, see my review for Macworld.)

As you can tell, I’m a big fan of Photoshop Elements—not just because it offers professional photo editing capabilities at a reasonable price, but because Adobe has done a good job of figuring out how it can best help photographers who don’t push pixels for a living. I’ve just finished updating my “Photoshop Elements 9: Visual QuickStart Guide” for Peachpit Press (both Mac OS X and Windows editions), and after using the program for the past few months, I recommend it highly, even given some of the quirks I noted in the easily avoided Organizer.


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Comments about Pushing Pixels with Photoshop Elements 9
(Comments are closed.)

Alaska Jack  2010-10-15 15:07
Jeff -

I use the full version of Photoshop for photo editing at work. I'd be interesting in getting Elements at home, for my own personal photos. But I'm wondering: What commonly used photo-editing features would I be missing?

- AJ
Jeffrey Frankel  2010-11-02 03:22
The most recent version of Photoshop I own is CS2. The CS2 feature I really miss in PSE9 is the ability to save snapshots of your photo in various states of the editing process. The only workaround I'm aware of in PSE9 is to "stamp" a new layer by selecting what is your topmost layer at any given time and then typing the command-option-shift-e combination.
Alaska Jack  2010-10-15 15:10
Oh, and, could I still shoot in RAW? I've just started doing that recently, and as far as I can see, there's no real downside to shooting in RAW. I wish I had switched over long ago!

- AJ
Jeff Carlson  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-10-19 16:07
Yes, you can shoot in RAW. Elements uses Adobe Camera Raw for the conversion, with controls for manipulating the image even before you open it in Photoshop Elements.
How does it compare with Aperture 3?
Jeff Carlson  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-10-19 16:10
That's a hard comparison to make, really. Aperture does a better job managing photos compared to the Organizer. And while Aperture has a lot of adjustment tools, you'd want Photoshop Elements when you need finer editing control, like making adjustments to selected areas, or fixing areas, creating panoramas, etc.
Jeffrey Frankel  2010-11-02 03:44
I started using Bridge CS4 when I purchased PSE8. Some things about Bridge drive me nuts. For example, if you carefully drag a stack to a different folder in Bridge's folder list, the stack is flattened in its new destination. When I bought PSE9 I figured I'd give Organizer a try. The good? -Support for both stacks *and* versioning, even within stacks. The bad? Non-hierarchical keyword organization, and no support for color labels. Nor was there any easy migration path from Bridge folder views to Organizer catalogs. If I recall correctly, keyword tags made the jump, but other metadata and photo stacks did not. For me, color labels are indispensable. (I use them to identify photos by print size or aspect ratio.) So, I went back to Bridge. As the article notes, it is easy to use Bridge with PSE9. The only thing you lose, AFAIK, is the handy little icon for Bridge in the PSE menu bar. But the command-tab keyboard shortcut for the application switcher takes care of that in short order.