A One-Two Punch for Shutterbugs

Adobe's hobby version of Photoshop and Nikon's new scanner make a potent combination

Hobbyists who want to get into a digital darkroom and manipulate photos on their computers have long faced an unpleasant choice. They could settle for such inexpensive and limited programs as Adobe PhotoDeluxe, Microsoft PictureIt, or ArcSoft PhotoStudio. Or they could take the plunge and go for the pros' choice, Adobe Photoshop--for $600.

Adobe (ADBE ) eased the pain of Photoshop's price tag with a "limited edition" that took away some of the more arcane features and about $500 of the cost but did nothing to flatten the program's steep learning curve. Now it has introduced the new Photoshop Elements, available for about $90, for Windows or Mac. The price break is nice, but even more alluring to hobbyists, who regularly drop hundreds of dollars on lenses and gadgets, is the ease with which Elements helps anyone turn digital snaps or scanned photos into better pictures for print or online use.

The look and feel of Elements will be familiar to anyone who has used Photoshop, but there are some critical differences. On the left side of the screen is a panel of picture-editing tools, such as paintbrushes and a color-selection eyedropper. On the right is a collection of "palettes" that handle a variety of chores, such as selecting brush styles and recording a history of actions so that you can always revert to an earlier version of your work.

Palettes are a powerful tool in Photoshop, but too many of them can clutter your screen. The pros often use two monitors--one for the picture and one for the tools. Elements offers an easier solution: a series of tabs across the top of the screen that open and close palettes as needed. Two new palettes are helpful to nonexperts. The Recipes palette gives step-by-step instructions for common tasks, such as correcting color balance or adding text to a picture. And when you select a tool, information on its use pops up in the Hints windows. These helpers are useful to beginners, but unlike the pesky Office Assistant in Microsoft Office, they are unobtrusive.

Elements lacks a number of Photoshop features aimed at pros, including sophisticated tools to prepare pictures for commercial printing and video. Elements' techniques for creating complex composite images are also limited. But for those more interested in improving the appearance of their pictures than in the calendars and T-shirt projects that low-end photo programs specialize in, Photoshop Elements is a solid choice. And I commend Adobe Systems Inc. for including something sadly rare in consumer software: a comprehensive printed manual.

MORE PIXELS. Before you can edit, you need to get your picture into the program. That's where a new Nikon Corp. (NINOY ) product comes in. Digital cameras get a lot of buzz, but many serious photographers prefer film, both because they have a big investment in gear and because film produces images far better than the best digital sensors. For the serious amateur, the Nikon Coolscan IV ED scanner for Mac or Windows can bridge the gap from film to digital. At $900, it's not intended for casual use, but for serious work there's no alternative to a dedicated film scanner. The Coolscan produces high-resolution images--nearly 11 million pixels, compared with 3 million in a good digital camera--from 35mm negatives, film strips, or slides. The scanner has built-in software to clean up scratches and dust and can even restore badly faded color images.

Coolscan can be a bit of a pain to use. The desktop software that manages the scanner is clunky, and feeding a film strip requires that you insert it into a slot just right. But the results are terrific, allowing quality enlargements far beyond the dreams of digital cameras or lesser scanners. Those images do, however, make for files of up to 50 megabytes per picture. You'll want a fast computer with lots of RAM and a big hard drive to work with them.

Digital photography has been a great success at two ends of the spectrum, pros and the point-and-shoot mass market. New hardware and software tools make the digital darkroom a lot more accessible to the hobbyist in the middle.


    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.