A Pixel's Worth a Thousand Words

In high school, the guy who took your yearbook photo assured you that the pimple on your nose could be airbrushed out. At your first job, the woman behind the print shop counter guaranteed she could "Photoshop out" the person who just quit from the company picture. But now it's your turn at the image-editing keyboard, ready to prepare graphics for your presentation or create a company brochure.

You can get professional-quality results when you edit images with your PC, but you need the right software. Among graphics pros, Adobe Systems Inc. Photoshop 5.5 is the tool of choice for processing images. But Photoshop costs more than $600, and the pros take classes, attend seminars, and hone their skills for years to use the application to its full potential. With recent drops in prices for scanners and digital cameras, nonprofessionals interested in digital imaging are clamoring for applications that can produce professional results without a big investment. Which ones really work? We examined 17 affordable image-editing applications (most of them priced under $100) to see how they measure up to the Photoshop standard.

What Can You Get For Cheap?

All image editing applications--including Photoshop--can import images, perform minor touch-ups, and prepare pictures for attaching to e-mail messages, posting on the Web, or printing. So what's different about a less expensive package?

Most inexpensive products use wizards to walk you through the editing process, whether simple or complex--and whether you like it or not. They can produce pleasing results but may hamper your ability to navigate. For example, when you're in certain windows marching through a wizard's steps, you'll see some tools but not others; that's because the designer figured you might otherwise be distracted by the presence of tools you don't need. But if you want to use a tool that isn't visible, you're out of luck. Some programs don't let you make changes without using a wizard, so you have far less control. In contrast, Photoshop provides little on-screen hand-holding but lets you switch tools quickly and make a wide range of manual adjustments.

Costlier photo editors permit more flexibility in other ways, too. Photoshop can import and export a large number of different file formats, such as EPS (Encapsulated PostScript, often used for company logos), whereas many of the less expensive products we looked at choked on EPS files. And most low-cost products don't allow editing or exporting CMYK images--images rendered in the four colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) a printing press uses. If you can't work with CMYK files, your screen (which creates colors using red, green, and blue) won't show what the final image will look like, and you won't be able to create a file suitable for printing on a professional press.

Apples And Grapefruits

It may seem unfair to compare programs that cost an average of $70 with a $600 application. After all, you may not care about CMYK--you may just want a photo editor to help you create images for your Web site. But these products have to do several things well to be worth even $50, so we matched the low-cost packages against each other while keeping Photoshop as a high-end reference standard.

To test the 17 products in this review, we put each one to work, combining three images and applying touch-ups along the way. Our goal was to create a real estate advertisement with minimal effort. All of the applications we tested can accomplish at least some of the tasks, but some could not handle certain chores at all, and others made getting the job done too laborious.

Several products excel at different tasks, but Ulead's $80 PhotoImpact 5 earns our Best Buy award because it is the most capable, well-rounded product.

PhotoImpact 5's Photoshop-like selection tools let you pick precisely the part of an image you want to work on--and includes many levels of customization.

Despite its panoply of features, PhotoImpact remains easy to use and avoids inflexible wizards.

Other products came close to matching PhotoImpact, but each fell short in one area or another. Jasc Software's $109 Paint Shop Pro 6 offers almost as many capabilities as PhotoImpact, but it costs $30 more. ArcSoft's $40 Photo Studio 2000 is similarly easy to use, but omits a few useful functions, such as sophisticated color correction. And ScanSoft's $50 PhotoFactory (which includes Kai's PhotoSoap2) presents a beautiful if quirky interface that allows you to produce truly elegant images, but the package lacks some important selection tools, among other features. That said, PhotoFactory is the most fun application to use: Instead of requiring you to paint and correct with circles and rectangles, it lets you daub your pictures with tools that look like real paintbrushes, erasers, and buckets.

Adobe's $79 PhotoDeluxe Business Edition 1 and Microsoft's $55 Picture It 2000 provide the best wizards. The wizards in Picture It raise and answer logical questions you might ask when embarking on a task--when you're trying to eliminate red eye, for example, it asks, "What if the discoloration isn't red?"

Unfortunately, both programs' wizards hinder access to other tools. Other packages have similar ups and downs, among them Adobe's Photoshop LE 5 ($95), Broderbund's The Print Shop Photo Pro ($50), Corel's Custom Photo ($50), MGI's Photo Suite III Platinum Edition ($50), Micrografx's Picture Publisher 8 ($50), and Microsoft's PhotoDraw 2000 ($109).

We also looked at Canon's $50 Photo Gold, Epson's $40 Film Factory 1.03, Ixla's $50 Photo Easy, Professor Franklin's $50 Instant Photo Effects, and Sierra Imaging's $50 Image Expert 2000. Each of these five programs does some things well (such as cataloging images) but has far fewer features than the top 12 programs for roughly the same price. Here, we'll focus on the more advanced products. (You'll find reviews of every product we tested at www. pcworld.com/aug00/image.)Hardware products such as digital cameras and scanners often come bundled with a free photo editor--including many we reviewed. But if you get a weaker product and you plan to do any serious photo editing, spend the extra money and get a program that rewards your effort.

The Basics You Need

The applications we tested claim to supply all the basic tools you need to massage your pictures. But some lack features you should expect even from a low-cost program. We consider three capabilities indispensable: robust selection tools, an effective red-eye reduction method, and multiple levels of undo and redo.

Good selection tools simplify photo retouching and allow you to modify just the problem areas of a photograph, producing better final images. For example, to fix red eye, you must be able to limit changes to the eyes, without affecting the subject's hair color. Most programs use "marching ants"--moving black dots that surround the edges of the selection--to identify a selection. This is a clean, coherent method. Less usefully, Microsoft's PhotoDraw 2000 shows a box around the selection, but the box doesn't adhere to the exact edges of the selection. ScanSoft's PhotoFactory offers no selection tools.

Broderbund's The Print Shop Photo Pro, MGI's Photo Suite III Platinum Edition, and both Microsoft products feature an edge finder (also known as a magnetic lasso) that lets you obtain an accurately drawn selection without having to perform painstakingly exact mouse movements. Instead, you draw close to the edges of the section, and the magnetic lasso then automatically snaps to the visual edges it locates to create your final selection.

A truly useful selection tool should include tolerance adjustments, which let you choose how picky the tool will be in matching your criteria. All of the applications here offer at least some tolerance adjustment; a few--including Jasc's Paint Shop Pro 6 and Ulead's PhotoImpact 5--build precise tolerance adjustments in all of their tools, allowing you to make a selection quickly and accurately. In contrast, Microsoft's Picture It offers only a few adjustment steps in most of its tools.

Red-eye reduction is one of the most popular features in an image editor--and one of the hardest to do well. Print Shop Photo Pro's tool does it best, allowing you to easily adjust the size and type of color you apply. The tool is smart, too: It won't let you color the white of the eye, no matter how hard you try. At the other extreme, Microsoft's Picture It applies opaque black circles over the pupils, rather than a semi-transparent color, producing a grotesque, dead look.

Having to start over can be frustrating because it often involves painstaking fine detail work. Luckily, several products support multiple levels of undo and redo. Not only does Ulead's PhotoImpact offers several undo/redo levels, but its menus list the steps you've taken so you can go back several steps with one click. Adobe's PhotoDeluxe and Micrografx's Picture Publisher 8 lack multiple undo/redo, but Picture Publisher offers an alternative, called a Command Center, that resembles the History Palette in Photoshop. In a window, the Command Center and the History palette list the actions you've taken, and you can selectively delete them or save them. Picture Publisher also allows you to use an eraser to scrub off applied effects gradually, down to the original pixels (Jasc's Paint Shop Pro can do this, too). Unfortunately, Adobe stripped Photoshop LE of this feature.

Your Creative Side

You may be willing to accept missing features in your photo editor if it produces good results. Several applications put powerful tools at your fingertips. The main artistic features we looked for were layers, masking, text addition, transparency, and cloning.

All the applications we tested can stack portions of images in layers. Layers allow you to put a person's head on a dog's body, for example, and retain each part of a composite image as a separate, individually editable object.

Similarly, adjustment layers apply color and other corrections to an image without modifying the original content. Jasc Paint Shop Pro handles layers best; it lets you create many different types of layers and apply lots of effects to them. PhotoImpact falters a bit here: Layers remain separate, editable objects, but you can't select a portion of an object once you've placed it on another image. For example, in our test image, once we placed a picture of a man on top of an image of a White House, we could not select just his jacket (but we could while he was still a separate image).

Masks function like tarps on the floor when you're painting a wall--they protect a portion of an image from change so you while you edit other parts.

Masks are more flexible than selections because you can use other tools to modify the mask. For example, if you want to apply a funky effect so that one part of the image gets 100 percent treatment and another part gets only 25 percent, you can use a mask to define how the effect is applied. Ulead's PhotoImpact had our favorite masking tool: A simple keystroke combo lets you toggle between mask mode and normal view. Less appealingly, Micrografx Picture Publisher goes overboard with masking--you can't correct an image's color or add text without masking first. Even worse is ScanSoft's PhotoFactory, which won't allow you to select any part of an image, so you always have to use a mask.

The ability to put text into a photo might seem like an afterthought, but it's a handy feature to have if you don't want to rely on a desktop publishing program. Jasc's Paint Shop Pro, a star in this area, can write text on a curved path, splash text with colors that grade from pale to vivid, and adjust kerning and leading (vertical and horizontal spacing between letters). ScanSoft's PhotoFactory, which handles text better than any other program, adds elegant drop shadows that you can match to the drop shadows on other objects.

Transparency, another handy feature, allows underlying layers to show through layers that would normally cloak them. For example, you can place your company's logo on top of a portion of an image but still see the image underneath. All of the 12 applications discussed here allow transparency, and most of them enable you to use transparency within a tool so that you can apply effects gradually.

Another handy tool is a cloner, also known as a rubber stamp. A cloner can duplicate large portions of an image or remove blemishes by copying "clean" pixels over "dirty" ones. Several apps also offer an automatic global dust remover, but this tool tends to blur the entire photo. Ulead's PhotoImpact cloner works especially well, because it lets you build the effect by holding down your mouse button, rather than by clicking repeatedly, as other apps do).

PhotoImpact can use many different types of brushes, too, such as crayon or chalk; the others offer different brush shapes, but not brush media options.

You've Got Pictures--Now What?

Once you've put the finishing touches on your masterpiece, you'll want to show it off. The image editing features to use for this depend on whether you want to send the image to your ink jet printer, post it to a Web site, or have it printed professionally. (For tips on how to prepare your file for each destination, see www.pcworld.com/aug00/image.)The destination you choose for your picture will determine which image formats your image editor must support. All the applications we tested can import and export several formats, including the high-quality .tif format and the scalable .jpg format, which can produce good prints or small file sizes for posting on the Web. Several of the programs even import Photoshop files, though none retain image layers or other sophisticated features contained within those files.

On the other hand, few image editors can import EPS graphics files created in a vector-based drawing program such as Adobe Illustrator or Macromedia Freehand.

In these programs, graphics look razor-sharp at any magnification. But when you import an EPS file into an image editor, you must convert it and choose the resolution at which you want it to appear. Only Adobe Photoshop LE 5, Jasc Paint Shop Pro, and Microsoft PhotoDraw can import EPS graphics (and PhotoDraw garbled every one we tried). Microsoft says PhotoDraw can't import EPS files created with later versions of Adobe Illustrator.

When it's time to print professionally, you'll want an app that handles CMYK color mode. By default, all editors work in RGB (red, green, blue) mode, because your monitor displays those colors. Several can import CMYK files and convert them to RGB, and others can separate files into CMYK channels for importing into a desktop publisher. Only Micrografx Picture Publisher lets you create a single-file CMYK image that you can send to a print shop without going through a desktop publisher. With the others, you must ask the shop to convert the file for you before printing. That task may cost extra, and you may be surprised by the final image's colors--a rich royal blue may shift to a muddy gray-blue, for example.

If you intend primarily to send images to a Web site, you need only RGB mode.

Every package we saw can save images as Web-friendly .jpg or .gif files.

Adobe's PhotoDeluxe offers a filter that cleans .jpg images, and though it's hard to distinguish its effects from those of a blurring tool, it makes the image look better. Ulead's PhotoImpact has an extensive, easy-to-use tool for resampling (reducing photo resolution) and color optimizing; you'll need it to shrink file sizes so that site visitors can download images faster.

Most image editing applications can easily export your images as a Web page.

This offers a useful means of posting images to your site if you don't own an HTML editing program. Hit a button or choose a menu command, and the applications create a simple Web page with the image name above or below it.

Several products, including ArcSoft's Photo Studio, Micrografx's Picture Publisher, and ScanSoft's PhotoFactory, can create photo albums to post online.

Of these tools, PhotoFactory's produces the best results, with beautiful templates that make albums especially simple to create.

Any of the 12 programs can improve your images. If you're a beginner, you may be tempted to choose a wizard-dominated program. But if you use it extensively, the wizards will soon get in the way. Our advice: Choose a robust, less wizard-guided application such as our Best Buy, Ulead's PhotoImpact. Though it'll take more effort to learn, it will be less cumbersome and more flexible.winner in a photo finishOur best buy, Ulead's $80 PhotoImpact 5 offers great power for beginners and experienced users alike, and it doesn't cost much more than the wimpiest tools we reviewed. PhotoImpact offers more features than any other product we considered, and you can customize its tools more completely. As a result, you get the effect you want, rather than the effect you'd otherwise have to settle for.

Optimizing before you try to post an image to a Web site, you should reduce its file size. Ulead's PhotoImpact 5 does the best job of the packages here, mostly because of its many different adjustments. Before and after views of the image let you check on the effects of your tweaks as you're making them.

Selection the lack of a color picker selection tool in Corel Custom Photo meant we had to draw a selection around the background trees before we could adjust their brightness and contrast. Notice the sharp delineation between the foreground trees on the left and the background.

Glossary For Glossies

Here are the top terms you'll need to know when working with any photo editor.

CMYK: Short for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (K is used to prevent confusion with blue). Most printing presses combine inks in these four colors to give the illusion of many different shades. Some presses use six colors or more.

Layer: Stacked elements in an image. Layering allows you to edit elements such as images, graphics, and text separately from each other.

Mask: A tool that protects areas of an image. Masking permits you to apply an effect to one specific part of an image or to vary the strength of an effect within an image.

Path: A representation of a border that surrounds an object to identify a selection. The path shows where an effect will be applied, and it can provide a guide for typing text.

Resampling: A process that reduces an image's resolution while maintaining the image's height and width. To resample, the program subtracts or blends pixels.

When you are preparing images for the Web, resampling can shrink file sizes so that visitors to a site can download the images faster.

RGB: Short for red, green, and blue. Your monitor displays multiple colors based on the RGB method. The monitor fires electrons at the tiny red, green, and blue phosphors that coat the inside of your monitor screen, and your eyes blend the colors to give the image the appearance of many hues.

Selection: A designated portion of an image to which an effect can be applied.

If you wanted to change the color of the paint on a picture of a house, you'd select the exterior walls with a tool such as a magic wand or a lasso.

Tolerance: A setting that determines how choosy a selection tool will be in matching the criteria you specify. For example, a low-tolerance setting in a color-picking tool selects only a narrow range of colors.

Transparency: An effect in which the image editor varies the opacity of an image element so that underlying elements can show through.

Red eye--most image-editing applications offer tools to fix flash-Induced red eye. But Microsoft's Picture It offers little control over how the fix is applied, and it produces an opaque black spot over the pupil. In contrast, Broderbund's The Print Shop Photo Pro lets you gradually paint over just the red pixels--it protects the iris and white of the eye--resulting in a much more natural look.

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