Sometimes the little apps win after all. While many of us turn to graphics behemoths such as Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro or CorelDraw, no matter how trivial the image-editing task, getting a big program to do what we want can be a battle against intuition.
Take, for example, recolouring old black and white images. This might seem a fairly trivial task. It should be, but using standard image-editing apps either takes too much time or produces poor quality results.
I know this from experience. I used to have to regularly recolour images in Photoshop and it involved painstaking fiddling with the Variations palette to get realistic results. I suspect the big apps never bother to make it easier because the simple process of recolouring black-and-white photographs will never be a headline-grabbing selling point.
But that leaves a gap for single-trick ponies, such as Recolored (you'll find the trial version on the July 2006 issue of PC World Magazine's Cover DVD or at www.recolored.com), one of a number of apps dedicated to solving a basic problem that the big programs still can't properly address.
In an era of feature-laden graphics suites, Recolored's single feature - it adds colour to greyscale images - seems almost quaint. But by concentrating on doing one thing, it can focus on finding a way to do it simply and effectively. I doubt it could be easier to use: you simply draw rough brush strokes over the areas you would like to colour. Then a handy palette gives you quick access to colours that match attributes such as eyes, skin and clothes.
Remarkably, it takes only five minutes to colour an image - and four minutes, 40 seconds of this is spent waiting for Recolored to perform its colouring magic. A similar app with perhaps more potential is Group Shot (http://research.microsoft.com/projects/groupshot), which has just come out of Microsoft's research labs. As with Recolored, the idea behind Group Shot is simple to understand, because it tackles a problem that has plagued photographers since cameras were invented: how do you pick the best photo from a series?
One of the inevitable results of taking a series of shots of a group of people is that, while some will look good in one picture, others look as though they are playing extras in a Hammer House of Horror film. In the next shot, the positions are reversed. You rarely get the perfect photo when everyone is looking their best.
That doesn't bother Group Shot, because it allows you to compose the perfect group shot by creating a composite image from multiple original photos of the same scene - see Figure 1. As with Recolored, Group Shot is simple to use. You add the originals to a tabbed central well and compare each photograph section by section. When you have chosen the best part of a photograph, click the Add to Composite button. Repeat this with other areas of the photo, and Group Shot slowly builds a composite image. Group Shot does take a bit of fiddling if you've taken a series of pictures where people are moving around a lot. People occasionally appear in duplicate or are missing in the combined photo. But still, it's a rare problem and the Group Shot guide takes an admirably stoic attitude to problems such as family members' heads being chopped off.
"Luckily," it advises sagely, "it is only a photo."