Adobe's Elements offers graphic tools for non-pros

First published in Business in Vancouver: The high-tech office column: Issue #611, July 10, 2001


Two weeks ago, we looked at the new version of Adobe's Acrobat software, perhaps the most-used product for creating electronic documents.

Adobe Systems' best-known product is Photoshop. This image editor, aimed at graphics professionals, has created an entire sub-industry, from training courses in its use, to hardware and software add-ons to enhance its operations.

But its very success leads to a problem. Nonprofessionals wanting to work with graphics tend to think they should be using Photoshop. And that software definitely isn't for everyone, due both to its high cost (about $1,000) and its complexity.

Adobe has an entry-level graphics program, Photodeluxe, often bundled with digital cameras and scanners. But while Photoshop is more than most people need, many users find Photodeluxe too limiting.

Adobe has also, quietly, offered Photoshop LE, a sort of Photoshop Lite. It too was more often found packaged with hardware or with other Adobe products than sitting on a store shelf. But LE never won many fans; its subset of features frustrated serious graphics users, while its interface was too complex for more casual users.

Assuming there's a big, underserved market of users who have outgrown the training wheels of Photodeluxe, but don't have the high-end needs, bottomless pockets or infinite patience of the Photoshop market, Adobe is trying again with a new product: Photoshop Elements.

As the name suggests, the company has tried to take the most-used elements of its high-end product and package them in a way that Adobe hopes will have a broader appeal with business users, nonprofessional photographers and hobbyists.

The $150 price point will be a definite improvement. And the program still packs quite a bit of punch for users looking to create or edit digital images. While at a casual glance it looks like big sibling Photoshop, Adobe has fine-tuned the interface so nonprofessionals get more help. Menus have been reworked to appeal to Microsoft Office users. A Quick-start screen offers a list of common commands and links to tutorials for often-used operations. Explanations pop up when your cursor points to tools and buttons, a boon for those of us easily confused by too many cryptic icons. (Am I the only one who sometimes feels like a word can be worth 1,000 pictures, at least in software design?)

Also nice are the pull-down palettes that explain and illustrate the program's many filters and effects. And a new set of recipes offers cookbook-like instructions for complex tasks. Only a few recipes ship with Elements, but more are promised.

One nice feature not available to the pros is Photomerge, making it easier to create panoramas from multiple photos. As well, the pros will envy the ability in Elements to edit text directly on screen, rather than in a dialogue box.

Of course, users of the full Photoshop get features not available with Elements. They get much more support for layers, for example. And Elements lacks any support for CMYK images, which graphics professionals need to accurately predict how colours will print out; Elements is limited to supporting the RGB images used on-screen. (If you don't know what any of this refers to, you probably don't need this feature.)

Image Ready, Photoshop's Web companion is not included, although some of its features are built into Elements, including a nice "Save for Web" command.

Kudos to Adobe for including extensive printed documentation, though I find the manual overly technical for its intended market. Overall, Adobe has produced a subset of Photoshop's tools that, with its increased helpfulness and decreased price, should appeal to many users needing to work with photos and other graphics.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan