In my element

Even before its recent update, there was no disputing that Photoshop Elements was one of the best budget-priced image editors around. Version 3.0 is a great upgrade that has rightly drawn plaudits. Most praise has centred on the program's updated image-editing features, now getting surprisingly close to matching those of the full version of Photoshop (prior to the launch of Creative Suite 2, of course - see First Looks, May, p22); the only key feature missing is CMYK support.

New tools such as the Healing Brush, which removes flaws by smart-sampling surrounding areas, the addition of adjustment layers, and support for 16-bit images and RAW files, are worth anybody's upgrade fee.

But what sells the program to me is the incorporation of Photoshop Album, Adobe's standalone image cataloguing and organising software. Elements now has two parts - Editor and Organizer - which you can switch between easily, if not as quickly as I'd like.

Made in heaven

The marriage of these programs has brought unexpected benefits, particularly to Elements' new photo-sharing abilities. They mix features culled from Elements 2.0, such as PDF slideshows and Web photo galleries, with those that previously only appeared in the paid-for version of Album, such as "photobooks".

All these options are accessed through a single Create button in Editor or Organizer views; from here, you can build slideshows, photo albums, wall calendars and Web-based galleries in the same, consistent way.

Elements has two show modes. A simple slideshow option to export shows to PDF will be familiar to existing Album and Elements users, but it's the much-enhanced Custom Slideshow tool that I've spent the last few weeks playing with - see this screen shot.

The custom slideshow is wonderfully intuitive. You add photos from your catalogue to a storyboard, and incorporate text, transitions and background audio (see screen shot). Completed shows can be exported either as Windows .wmv files to your hard disk, or burned directly onto VideoCD. Multiple slideshows can be added to a VideoCD project and then played back on a standard DVD player - assuming that it supports VideoCD playback (most do).

Wipe out

Elements at least makes it easy to create decent-looking multimedia. You can apply a wide range of transitions - such as insets, radial wipes and pixellate - between each slide and you can apply the same effect to all slides in one stroke by selecting Apply to All from the contextual menu. An even more impressive touch is the ability to adjust slide playback to match the background audio (see this picture), which automatically adjusts the time each slide is displayed so the show fits the background audio track exactly.

Although not immediately obvious, you can add multiple background songs to a slideshow, simply by selecting multiple .mp3 or .wav tracks from source folders. These are then added to the audio track in Elements' storyboard.

If you only want part of an audio track in your slideshow, you can also edit the songs by double-clicking the audio track in the storyboard and in the resulting dialogue box, you can individually adjust their start and duration as well as their volume.

Navigating to the right point in a track is more fiddly than it should be - there's none of the timeline-based editing you would find in a video-editing program (which is how I got away with covering this subject here, rather than having to hand this column over to our resident video guy), but the Play button in the dialogue box at least allows you to get a taste of the audio as it will play during the slideshow - and you can even insert silence between tracks. n

Sets and stacks

It's the obvious benefit of digital photography: as you don't pay film or development costs, you can take as many photos as you want. But inevitably, in the search for the best shot, you clog up your photo management software with dozens of near-identical images you can't bear to choose between.

To add to the bloat, those asset management applications that let you edit your images tend to save a copy of the original for you, just in case. The result can be a huge image database.

Elements 3.0 marks the first attempt I've seen to combat photo bloat and it's fairly successful, if not perfect. Aside from a basic new "compare photo" feature that lets you choose your favourite version of a photo by viewing two versions side-by-side, I've been drawn to two other new, but hardly trumpeted, features.

The first is version sets. If you edit a photo inside the program, the Elements Organizer (sic) keeps the original and edited versions together in a single stack, so you only ever see a single thumbnail preview when you browse the database. You can, of course, expand this stack and view both edited and original images individually.

Pile 'em high
A related feature is stacks, which helps keep track of associated photos. With stacking, you choose which photos to keep together manually. As with version sets, stacks appear in the photo browser window viewer as a single image, with a small icon that looks like a pile of documents, in the top-right corner. Stacks are flexible: although only the top photo in a stack is visible in the browser, you can choose which photo should take this spot and easily add and remove other photos. But there are some fundamental drawbacks too.

Firstly, you can't name stacks, so you have to rely on Elements' admittedly excellent tagging system to remember a stack's contents. Secondly, stacks aren't intuitive. I found that if you drag a stack from the photo browser window onto the desktop, only the top picture in the stack moves. Equally, while you can do basic photo editing - such as rotating and smart-fixing photos - in the browser window, when you apply such changes to a stack, they only affect the top photo.

But still, it's not bad for a first effort. And it's such a good idea in principle that all media management software should look hard at it.

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Tom Gorham

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