Photo Editing: Automatic or Manual?

Paint Shop Pro 8 and PhotoSuite 5 aim to help you fix your pics

If you're a wretched digital photographer -- or even a good one -- Jasc's Paint Shop Pro 8 and Roxio's PhotoSuite 5 Platinum can help you fix your pics. The difference? Paint Shop Pro 8 takes some work to learn but gives ample help, whereas PhotoSuite 5 is easy to operate because it tries to do your thinking for you (not necessarily a good thing). I looked at beta versions of each.

As its uncomplicated interface suggests, the $50 PhotoSuite 5 Platinum is intended for beginners. Roxio calls the program "icon-rich": Instead of toolbars, it has large tabs labeled with text and picture icons. Nevertheless, these may sometime require interpretation. To reach minimal exposure controls, for instance, you click the Overall Quality tab, a label I found vague.

The $109 Paint Shop Pro 8 has tools to address almost any image issue, but it also offers lots of help for beginners, including an extensive new Learning Center -- similar to the Recipes section of the leader in this category, Adobe Photoshop Elements. You also get unlimited, toll-free technical support, too, a rare occurrence these days.

Like most image editors, Paint Shop Pro 8 provides several automatic ways to fix photos, including Auto Color Balance and Auto Contrast. But it doesn't offer what most people expect from an auto-fix box -- instead of simply applying a change automatically, the program pops up a slew of manual settings, including a randomizer button that mixes up settings for creative effect.

Thanks to a new scripting capability, Paint Shop Pro can easily correct batches of images in almost any way it can fix one image. PhotoSuite is even easier to use on multiple images, but you can batch-process with only a small subset of its editing features.

PhotoSuite 5 also requires you to preset an output resolution in Preferences. But to achieve that resolution, the software sometimes adds interpolated pixels -- a big no-no for an image editor because the procedure almost always makes pictures look horrible. According to Roxio, this alleviates worry about choosing the resolution. But that's the problem: The application makes important decisions for you.

Both image editors have nifty effects browsers. Paint Shop Pro shows you thumbnails (in a browser) of your image with the effects applied so you can see the changes side-by-side with the original. In PhotoSuite, clicking a picture icon in the left toolbar representing an effect applies it to your image, though you have little power to tweak it.

PhotoSuite 5 Platinum may work for quick fixes on many photos, but it also could make some of them worse. Paint Shop Pro 8 is far more capable, but it takes more effort to learn. Adobe's Photoshop Elements, meanwhile, remains more elegant than either.

By Alan Stafford