The quality of digital cameras is rising while prices are falling, sparking sales in an otherwise dull market for high-tech gear. The least expensive cameras are useful mainly for shooting low-resolution images to be e-mailed or put on Web pages, but many of the newer products produce pictures that can rival film for most uses. The image-editing software bundled with these products, as well as the photo-handling applets built into Windows XP and the Macintosh, is another matter. They do little more than let you sort pictures and print out snapshots.
If your interest in photography is more than casual, you'll want software that lets you do everything formerly done in a darkroom--and a great deal more. Two new programs, Photoshop Elements 2.0 from Adobe Systems (www.adobe.com) and PhotoImpact 8 from Ulead Systems (www.ulead.com), offer such enhanced capabilities for less than $100. The programs, while different in their approaches, are impressive. And they are striking values in a software market where $500-plus packages such as Microsoft Office and Adobe's professional products are causing sticker shock.
Photoshop Elements, which comes in a single edition for Windows and Mac OS 9 or X, is a refinement of the original program issued last year. Like its predecessor, the new Elements can do at least 80% of what Photoshop 7.0 does at less than a quarter of the price. Photoshop is the professional standard for photo editing, but most of its features that are absent in Elements will never be missed by anyone except professional photographers or, more likely, graphic artists or commercial Web masters. For example, Elements lacks the ability to do precise color matching for four-color printing and does not include the Image Ready application for advanced preparation of images for the Web.
On the other hand, Elements is a lot easier to use than the full Photoshop. It avoids the restrictive approach of low-end products like Microsoft Picture It! Instead, it offers liberal, and generally helpful, hints based on whatever task the program thinks you are attempting. And it offers a number of what it calls "recipes"--tools to combine and automate sequences of steps, such as creating a simple animated image for the Web.
Ulead PhotoImpact ($79 as a download, $89 retail; Windows only) is closer in approach and capabilities to full Photoshop than Elements. It offers a broad range of tools, covering everything from simple red-eye correction to the preparation of complex images for commercial printing or for the Web. But it generally offers much less guidance. Where Elements includes a built-in tool for browsing and selecting the photos on your hard drive, PhotoImpact relies on a separate application, Photo Explorer, that is only included in the retail version. I also found the placement of tools and menu items in Elements much more intuitive, but that may be the result of familiarity gained by having used Photoshop and other Adobe programs for years.
But one feature of PhotoImpact compensates for a number of shortcomings. Among the common problems in photos is messed-up perspective, particularly in scenic shots you're likely to take while traveling. If the camera is not held precisely vertical, horizontal and vertical lines in your photo will slope disconcertingly. And if you tilt your camera to take a picture of a building or a monument, vertical lines will converge and rectangles turn into trapezoids.
PhotoImpact has some nifty tools for correcting these perspective errors. Select any two points in a picture that are supposed to lie on a horizontal or vertical line, click, and the picture is rotated to the correct orientation. Another tool lets you selectively stretch the image to make those converging vertical lines parallel. And a single click lets you crop the corrected picture back to a neat rectangle. Photoshop Elements can accomplish the same effects, but not nearly as easily.
In the end, choosing between these programs is largely a matter of taste. PhotoImpact offers a lot of raw power, but learning to use it effectively requires a fair investment of time. Photoshop Elements offers fewer tricks but is a more polished and easier to use package. Both are great values, and in a world of software monopolies, it's wonderful to have the choice.