REVIEW: Adobe Photoshop Elements/Premiere Elements 7

I was quite impressed with the previous version of Photoshop Elements (version 6) and Premiere Elements (version 4)—at a time when Adobe’s Creative Suite was getting more complicated than needed and Photoshop was branching off into several versions, Photoshop Elements remained fast yet robust while Premiere Elements did not disappoint.

Now the two applications have been upgraded, both named version 7, and include a free Basic membership to for a little added boost in creativity and connectivity, plus 2GB of online storage space. Overall I like what I see in the upgrade, though I think there is relatively little that’s groundbreaking in Photoshop Elements compared to Premiere Elements, which enjoys some neat “patent-pending” technology. Still, Photoshop Elements is the top-selling consumer photo editing software so there are plenty of users who will be considering the upgrade.

The Organizer gets a little better

One of the highlights of reviewing Photoshop Elements 6 was the application’s Organizer, which I liked very much as a leaner, speedier version of Adobe Bridge. There is only one new feature in version 7: a new Text Search field allows users to search for images by keyword. Other digital asset management apps like Lightroom have always offered keyword search, so I’m glad the Organizer is finally doing the same. It works well and you can also view non-matching images and save a search as a Smart Album.

One more valuable addition is the ability to change the gray color used in the Organizer’s (and Editor’s) interface. It’s nice to be able to do this, as I’ve always found the default gray a little light—I prefer to use 80% or 20% gray to improve contrast.

Smart Brush = Quick Selection + Adjustment Layers

My recent review of Photoshop CS4 Extended dinged the Adjustments and Masks panels, which I thought were not much more than repackaged features that Photoshop already had. I wasn’t sure the change was necessary for Photoshop’s advanced user base. In contrast, Photoshop Elements sports a new tool that leverages pre-existing tools but has a much stronger rationale. The Smart Brush, which is basically a combination of the Quick Selection tool and adjustment layers, simplifies the selection and adjustment process for beginner and intermediate users.

Photoshop Elements adjustments

The Smart Brush is a helpful combination of selection and adjustment technology. Click the image for a larger view.

To use the Smart Brush, select your effect (there are over 50 effects available, from lightening and darkening to effects for nature, photography and wild special effects) and then begin brushing. The Smart Brush creates a selection and uses that as a mask for an adjustment layer. These features were already in Photoshop Elements but this makes applying them easier. Advanced users may find the Smart Brush tool helpful to get close to desired effects, and then use their adjustment layer skills to refine them. Since the effects are layer-based, the Smart Brush is a non-destructive tool and adjustment pins are placed on the image so users don’t have to go to the Layers panel to make changes. The only downside to this tool is that it’s memory-intensive—applying the Smart Brush usually made my computer pause a second or two—but I run Windows with 512MB so other users may not experience this. There is also a Detail Smart Brush tool available, but it seems to do the same Smart Brush moves with a different brush engine.

New Quick Fix tools make easy fixes easier

Another example of simplifying popular moves in Photoshop Elements are the new Quick Fix tools: the Toothbrush, Blue Skies and Black-and-White tool. You’ll find them in the Touch Up panel at the bottom of the Quick Fix interface. Like the Smart Brush, these tools add a selection and run fixes for color, brightness and contrast to create white teeth, blue skies or high-contrast black-and-white. The algorithms are good enough to create the desired effects but there are some drawbacks:

  • The Quick Fix tools only apply the effect once—you can’t brush it on and then brush some more in the same area. You have to deselect and apply the tool all over again if you want to amplify the effect.
  • The tools will apply the selection to any area it touches, so brush with care.
  • Like the Smart Brush, these tools are also memory-intensive.

I think there’s promise with some of these tools, but the tools in Full Edit mode do a better job without the drawbacks other than a steeper learning curve.

Guided Edits expand for actions and effects

Guided Edit mode has three new options: Automated Actions, Photographic Effects and Photomerge edits. I’m glad to see them included in Photoshop Elements 7, but I think they could use some work.

Photoshop Elements actions

The Faded Ink with Vignette action. Click the image for a larger view.

Actions have been a very important feature of Photoshop for many years, and I’m glad to see them available here. While actions in Photoshop are customizable and can be complex, Photoshop Elements simplifies the process with drop-down menus and a small selection of preset actions for captioning, cropping, “losing weight” and more. Some of these actions are just not useful—for example, the “losing weight” action just resizes images in minute amounts. Other actions create some great effects, such as the Faded Ink with Vignette action. Unfortunately there aren’t many preset actions, which doesn’t make sense to me—Photoshop offers many more. Users can create their own actions, but the process is very lame and it requires creating actions in Photoshop, exporting an .atn file, and placing the file in a directory deep within the Photoshop Elements folder. There is no way to create actions within Photoshop Elements, thus making it impossible for users to save their favorite processes.

The Photographic Effects offers three effects: line drawing, old-fashioned photography and saturated slide film. They work well enough and create very nice-looking images, and I recommend playing around with them. My problem is that their panels in the Guided Edit mode have very long explanations and instructions, more so than most other guided edits.

Photoshop Elements pencil sketch

The Pencil Sketch effect. Click the image for a larger view.

Users will also find three Guided Edit options based on the Photomerge technology Photoshop has been offering with impressive results. They are equally impressive in Photoshop Elements, and tricks like the Scene Cleaner that remove unwanted elements from series of images. These guided edits also have detailed instructions but I think they’re warranted here since the procedures are more complex. I am very glad to see the Photoshop Elements development team making such good use of technology that has developed and matured in Photoshop and Photoshop Extended.

A few more new features

Not much else is new in Photoshop Elements. There is a new Surface Blur filter, new to Photoshop Elements but available to Photoshop users for years. It’s very good for blurring portraits and faces to remove unwanted detail. Users will also find new theme for creating photo books, more Camera Raw support and integration with Premiere Elements and its new InstantMovie technology to create better slideshows.

Photoshop Elements has some new key features that do a good job of leveraging Photoshop technology, and it can be a compelling upgrade for some. Others who find the previous version to be good enough might be hard-pressed to find a compelling reason to upgrade—Photoshop Elements 7 just does not have a groundbreaking feature that makes upgrading a no-brainer.