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What Adobe offers photo pros, near experts and amateurs

The sunsets are incredible Ephraim village Green Bay side Door County peninsula. | Lori Rackl~Sun-Times

The sunsets are incredible in Ephraim, a village on the Green Bay side of Door County peninsula. | Lori Rackl~Sun-Times

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Updated: June 29, 2012 8:45AM



Adobe has the Holy Trinity of photo software...

Whoops! A religious allegory, during a presidential election year? Yikes.

OK, maybe I’ll go to my “B” allegory and refer to Photoshop, Photoshop Lightroom, and Photoshop Elements as the Three Bears of photo editing. For any given person who grudgingly admits to themselves or their life partners that perhaps there are some moments that merit a photographic recording, one of these apps will be the perfect fit.

Crumbs. Aren’t I really trying to compare these three apps to the Three Bears’ personal property instead of the bears themselves? (“Adobe Imaging Apps: They’re like the bedding you’ll find in a rental cabin. Or perhaps they’re more like oatmeal. — Andy Ihnatko, Chicago Sun-Times.”)

If Adobe had their own downtown stores complete with invisible glass staircases, pros would eagerly camp out for the next release of Photoshop. No, it ain’t a consumer app. I’ll upgrade that to a “Hell, no”: it costs $699. It’s a pro tool for people who can convert an expensive piece of software into a lucrative contract or project invoice.

Still, you can download a free demo of Photoshop CS6 (along with free demos of everything else in this column) from http://www.adobe.com/downloads/. Each new edition seems to introduce at least one feature that provokes a “Holy cats...what just happened? Do that again!” moment during the demo. In CS6, it’s the enhancements to content-aware fills, and Photoshop’s new content-aware moves. You took a cool photo of a field at sunset but wouldn’t the composition be stronger if that cow in the dead-center of the frame were off to the side? In CS6, make a rough selection around the cow and drag it into its new position. Photoshop will blend it into its new spot and intelligently fill in in the hole she left behind. You might decide to spend a few minutes on some touchup work, but what would have taken you an hour in any other app is seamlessly done in no time flat.

Adobe has also performed an overhaul of Photoshop’s overall interface. And just in time, too: after several iterations in which its developers just kept bolting on new features, Photoshop has a simplicity and a coherence that have been lacking for years. So many familiar features have received tweaks and tiny enhancements. Even something as familiar as the Auto enhancement buttons in various color and exposure boxes have been carefully fine-tuned to yield better results, And Photoshop now has a more sophisticated understanding of what constitutes “skin tone,” for purposes of making automated selections and adjustments.

And this is why even many serious amateurs spend $700 for Photoshop. Once you’ve gotten the hang of the app, reality becomes what you wish it to be and your will becomes real in minutes instead of hours. Sure, it would have been better if you’d spotted that sweaty, hairy, shirtless guy walking in the background and waited for him to clear the shot before you snapped that terrific beach photo of your kids. But you didn’t. That’s OK: Photoshop can make it all better.

I’d go so far as to say that for many hobby photographers, the desire to up your game shouldn’t send you out to buy a new “pro” camera body or lens. $699 for Photoshop CS6 might be a far more productive investment than $1,500 for a supposedly higher-quality camera.

For most hobbyists looking to improve their photos, Photoshop Lightroom 4 will be the more practical choice. It delivers a big punch for $149. It’s such a powerful tool for fine-tuning the lighting, color, and clarity of an image that it’s changed my expectations for digital cameras, both as a tech columnist and as a consumer.

A digital image is just the end-result of lots and lots of math, applied against a file full of numbers. Change the math and you change the image. Lightroom puts every one of those mathematical variables into a slider, and instantly shows you the results of your adjustments. It becomes the great equalizer. So long as two cameras record sharp images with a reasonably wide range of tones, I’ll happily recommend (and buy) a camera that writes slightly less-impressive photos to the card, if it’s substantially cheaper or has extra features that I like.

Many of Lightroom’s enhancements are the sorts of things that would otherwise require Photoshop and finesse. Push a shadow slider and suddenly a dark corner of an image is alive with details, without losing the deep blacks that anchor the eye. And usually, Lightroom can fix a weird color cast that defies the simple temperature and tint sliders found in most consumer-grade photo apps. It’s also easy to bring vibrancy to sallow faces, or kick down the intensity of an azalia bush so that the details of the blossoms aren’t lost in the high-voltage color.

Lightroom really sings when you shoot RAW images (which record more color data) but it does surprisingly well even with the JPEGs that a cameraphone spits out. And it’s about more than just adjusting lighting, color, and sharpness: it’s a marvelous organization, cataloguing, sharing, and archiving tool.

(MacOS users have an equally powerful alternative in Apple’s own Aperture app. It’s just $79.99 and it’s a bit less cluttered than Lightroom. The main tradeoff is speed. Lightroom moves fast, fast, fast on most modern Macs. Sometimes, the distance between my moving an Aperture slider and seeing the results on the screen of my 2011 MacBook Pro is one impatient sigh.)

Adobe Photoshop Elements is in the lineup’s “Baby Bear” position. It’s the most aggressively consumer-oriented of the three, and the most affordable: $99. I love Photoshop Elements because Adobe consistently trickles many of the coolest features of their megabucks photo editor into the consumer app, and consistently figure out a way to re-articulate them so that a non-professional can use them.

So, yes, maybe you can eliminate that sweaty guy in the background of the beach photo, if he’s against a clean background. You can squash a landscape-formatted photo into a portrait aspect ratio without pinching and distorting its subjects. You can select, isolate, and brighten up just the faces in the back row of the group shot, and you can fix the kid who’s picking his nose by covering up his head and a torso from the immediately previous shot, in which he’s smiling sweetly.

Photoshop Elements won’t rescue or improve every photo, of course. But it delivers ample power and performance for 90% of those folks who care about their photos, and 100% of those who take photos but never seem to do much with them. If Photoshop Elements’ sole feature were its ability to automatically identify and organize your photos by content and event, it’d earn its price fivefold. The dazzle comes after you’ve carelessly been importing photos for more than a year, and despite your complete lack of initiative or effort, you can retrieve all of the photos of your Mom and Dad with just a click, and all of the blurry ones have automatically been rejected.

I keep hearing people claim that conventional cameras are on the way out and that before long, a phone will be the only camera that most people own. If you’re expecting a baby and you declare your intention to document the kid’s first years of life with the phone that you got free with the two-year contract, well, that’s not grounds for divorce but if things do go south later on, that’s definitely going to come up in the custody hearing.

But the point is that there are all different levels of seriousness regarding one’s photos. Adobe’s out there to cover everyone. If you can’t fathom spending $700 for the same photo editor that the pros use, $150 will buy you an app that makes the photos from your cameraphone, or your budget point-and-shoot, look like something that came from a far pricier camera. $100 will get you a simple app that will keep your Facebook wall stocked with current and attractive photos from your family and your life, and help you push out a great holiday card photo once a year. Those seem like fair alternatives, yes?



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