Low End Mac Reviews

Photoshop Elements 4.0 and Lightroom Beta Show Adobe Still Does Well by Mac Users

- 2006.05.09

Once upon a time, Apple and Adobe were best buddies. While only a minority of personal computers were Macs, if you were serious about graphics or design, you ran Adobe software like Photoshop, and while that software was available for both Windows and Mac, you probably ran it on Apple hardware.

While there's been nothing as definitive as a divorce, the Apple/Adobe relationship has been somewhat strained for the past few years. As Windows system became more graphics-able, an increasing percentage of Adobe's revenues came from Windows versions of the company's software.

And as Adobe's attentions turned more and more to Windows users, Apple began releasing Mac-only products, such as Final Cut Pro, that competed with Adobe products, in this case Premiere.

When Apple began bundling iPhoto with new Macs, Adobe developed the similar Photoshop Album - for Windows only.

Despite the tensions, Adobe continues developing Mac versions of much of its product line. (Though not all - development of the Mac version of Premiere stopped in 2003, for instance.)

Photoshop Elements 4.0

While Adobe made its reputation with graphics software aimed at professional users, one of my favourite Adobe programs is graphics software for the rest of us, Adobe Photoshop Elements. Version 4.0 is available for Mac users.

Priced at US$90 ($80 for download; upgrade pricing: $70 on disc, $60 download), Photoshop Elements delivers a significant percentage of the power of the full version of Photoshop (like like previous versions of Elements) at a significant discount. (The full version of Photoshop sells for US$649.)

Elements 3.0 significantly changed the interface. Versions 1 and 2 had an interface barely modified from big-brother Photoshop, which was nice for people looking for a cheaper version of the pro-level toolkit - but not especially easy for new users. Version 4.0 keeps the newer, easier to use interface.

Adobe Bridge

New to Elements is Adobe Bridge, also available in the latest versions of Adobe's pro-level Creative Suite. Bridge, like iPhoto, makes it easy to access a large collection of photos through sets of thumbnails; keywords can be assigned to individual photos or sets to simplify searches.

menuA Quick Fix mode may be all many users ever use. (Two buttons on the toolbar make it easy to switch between Quick Fix and Standard Edit modes.) The Quick Fix interface offers a minimal number of tools, along with lighting, coloring, redeye, and sharpening fixes. Users can experiment with sliders to make changes to their photos or simply click Auto buttons to see what the software suggests. A single Auto Smart Fix button lets Elements make all its proposed changes at once. (All these Auto tools can be accessed from the Enhance menu in either mode.)

Users who would rather have more hands-on control will prefer to work in Standard Edit mode. They will be rewarded with some new tools, in a number of cases brought over from the latest versions of Adobe's pro-level programs, and in a few cases improved over the higher-priced (but older) equivalents.

Often the toughest task in photo editing is selecting just the right area of a photo; the new version of Elements gains a Magic Selection Brush; scribble on part of a picture and (with luck) the software will be able to pick it out from the background. When it works (it will take practice, and it won't work if there's little contrast between foreground and background), your object will be neatly selected - like magic.

Similarly, the new Magic Extractor tool lets you brush over your desired foreground and background, this time letting you preview (and clean up) the results before discarding your background. Very slick - and even better than the comparable tool in big sibling Photoshop.

Magic Extractor

Other improvements: The Skin Tone Adjustment tool alters color balance to produce more natural-looking skin tones. Red-Eye Fix works better with less selection required. And (also migrating from the pro-level programs), the Straighten tool lets you draw a horizontal or vertical line and align a horizon or other line in your photo to it.

One of my favourite features in early Elements versions has been the ability to easily create a panorama image, perhaps merging multiple landscape shots into a single 180-degree image. It's still there, but you'll have to look for it. The secret: Choose File/New and then select "Photomerge Panorama". This will let you select multiple images to be merged into one.

...85% of Photoshop's power for 15% of its cost.

Despite its 2006 copyright date, Photoshop Elements, like other current Adobe products for the Mac, is compiled for PowerPC Macs only; new Intel Macs will run it using Rosetta, with resulting impacts on performance. Despite this limitation, Photoshop Elements 4.0 continues to provide a good balance between power and ease-of-use; nonprofessionals who need to do more with their photos than iPhoto allows should appreciate Adobe providing them with 85% of Photoshop's power for 15% of its cost.

Adobe Lightroom

Also of potential interest to Mac-using digital photographers: Adobe Lightroom. Aiming at much the same audience of users working with camera RAW formats as Apple's Aperture. (Camera RAW is an optional file format on many digital cameras, allowing users to save images without any compression or processing by the camera hardware, offering users the ultimate raw material for hands-on photo editing. Like every uncompressed format, RAW images are big; if you save in this format, expect to fill up your memory card fast.)

Adobe Lightroom

Currently, Lightroom is available only as a prerelease public beta for free download. And surprise of surprises: the Lightroom beta is Mac-only (though Adobe is noting that the release product will have both Mac and Windows versions). Adobe is hoping for user feedback, noting that feedback may be reflected in the final release.

The current Beta 2 is set to expire on June 30, 2006, and it's possible that there will be a new version available before then. Registration with Adobe is required; after that would-be users can select a 6.4 MB download of the core program or a 113 MB download of the program along with a set of RAW formatted images, projects, and metadata.

Adobe Lightroom

Although Lightroom is being presented as a tool for working with RAW image files, it can also be used with images saved in more common file formats such as JPEG. In fact, Adobe seems be aiming it (and eventually pricing it) somewhere in between its existing Photoshop Elements and full-blown Photoshop products.

Where both Elements and Photoshop have common parentage and overlapping toolsets, Lightroom was developed fresh from the ground up. (Some references within the program suggest it was initially a Macromedia project; Adobe purchased Macromedia last year.) It promises a complete photographer's toolkit, with everything from working with albums of thumbnails (a la iPhoto or Adobe Bridge) to editing, presentation, and printing tools.

Adobe Lightroom

I'm not going to give a complete review of Lightroom at this time - especially since Beta 2 is set to time-out relatively soon. If you want to read more about Lightroom, the Adobe link listed above includes links for several beginner video tutorials. Alternatively, while based on the earlier Beta 1, Michael Reichmann's First Look and Primer is the most comprehensive guide that I've seen.

If you work with digital photos or are interested in the shape of graphics software in the near future, it's worth downloading the Lightroom Public Beta. And given the sometimes on-again/off-again nature of Adobe's relationship with Apple, it's nice to see something from Adobe that's (at least for now) just for Mac. LEM

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