Adobe Photoshop Elements 11 review

Pros

  • Lots of superb image manipulation tools
  • Geo-tagging with integrated maps
  • Excellent range of output options
  • Bargain price for what you’re getting

Cons

  • Non-integrated Organiser app isn't ideal
  • Fragmented online help system

The latest version of Adobe's top-selling consumer photo editing program, Photoshop Elements 11 (which retails at £79 direct), builds on and polishes rather than overhauls this venerable application. The interfaces of both the photo editor itself and the Organiser helper app get a sleek, simplified redesign, and Maps have been integrated to locate your geo-tagged photos.

Photoshop Elements 11's new filters can turn your photos into illustrations, and its new Guided Edits can easily produce effects that would take some major Photo-shopping in the company's industry-standard pro photo tool, Photoshop CS6.

Installation

Photoshop Elements is not a small program. On my system, it took up a massive 2.6GB of disk space, so make sure your hard disk has plenty of headroom. In comparison, Corel PaintShop Pro X5 uses a scant 245MB. Elements is available for both Mac and Windows, but there's still no native 64-bit version, something that would be helpful as super-megapixel cameras' file sizes continue to grow. Installing is a multi-step process that involves first downloading and installing the Adobe Download Assistant, and then requires a reboot. This review is based on the Windows version, running under Windows 7.

Interface

With Photoshop Elements 11, the program's interface gets a refresh. It's a simpler, cleaner look – the direction the whole software industry is going, from Google Chrome to Windows 8. When you start the program, a fresh welcome screen reveals the new look: Organise and Edit have been replaced with Organiser and Photo Editor, making it clearer that your choice is between launching two different apps.

Yes, the separation between the organiser app and the actual editor remains, and yes, you can organise and edit photos within one and the same app with Picasa on the low end or Lightroom on the high. But Photoshop Elements is meant to be a Photoshop-lite, rather than a consumer photo workflow app. The Organiser is akin to Adobe Bridge, where you import, organise, and export the photos. The organising includes face tagging, and now with this new release, geo-tagging with built-in maps. And new for Elements 11 is the editor's ability to display albums created in organiser right in the Photo bin of thumbnails along the bottom.

Elements' Organiser interface still outstrips products in its own category – Serif PhotoPlus X4 Digital Studio and Corel PaintShop Pro. Serif's organiser is even less integrated and capable than Elements'. Corel's offers a bit more integration, but its organiser isn't as slick or powerful as the one with Elements. One thing I miss in Elements, though, is a split window to show before and after editing comparisons.

The full-screen view of Organiser with hide-able toolbars lets your photo take centre stage, but I wish a similar view were available in the full editing app. It does let you drag the image view onto a second screen for a nearly unencumbered view, though there's still a window border. I do like how double clicking a thumbnail in Organiser's gallery view switches to a full-window preview, and double clicking again switches back to the gallery.

The Organiser

The Organiser is shared by both Photoshop Elements and Adobe’s prosumer video editing app, Premiere Elements. It lets you add captions, star ratings, tags, and implement basic fixes like rotation and auto-corrections. I like the new cleaner, simpler interface, which emphasises your images, and by default runs in full-screen. Along the top, you now have four modes – Media, People, Places, and Events. The hide-able left panel holds your albums and disk folders.

Along the bottom are large buttons for Undo, Rotate, Add People, Add Places, Add Event, Slideshow, and Editor. The last can be used to open the selected images not only in the Photoshop Elements editor, but also in Photoshop itself, or even another photo editor. All the way to the right at the bottom is a zoom slider, which lets you zoom between page fit and small thumbnails (but not to 100 per cent). An Instant Fix button and one for Tags/Info complete the interface.

The Instant Fix button opens a panel with buttons for cropping (though no levelling), auto-contrast, red-eye fixing, auto-colour, auto-sharpen, auto-levels, and smart fix, which combines colour and exposure fixes. As with all "auto fix" tools, these only work well on some photos, but it's nice that you can do some editing and adjusting without launching the editor program itself.

Photoshop Elements can play and tag videos as well as photos, but there's no button to filter just videos in the Organiser view, though there is a menu choice under View. Speaking of tagging, Element's Auto Analyser, can identify photos that are sharp or blurry, high or low contrast, too bright or dark, contain people, and more, applying tags that you can filter by using the Tags/Info sidebar. Auto analysing, however, isn't a particularly quick process – each photo took about 5 seconds on my 3.4GHz dual core rig – so you've been warned in case you try it on thousands of photos at once.

Importing

When you plug in camera media, an option added by Photoshop Elements appears in the AutoPlay window, called Organise and Edit ("Import" would have worked for me). This opens an old-style dialog in Organiser called "Photo Downloader." After you hit the Get Media button, the photo files are copied to your hard drive, with a small dialog box informing you of the import's progress, showing thumbnails of the current image, per cent complete, and number of photos remaining.

A second Import dialog opens to get the photos into Photoshop Elements' catalogue, and finally your pictures show up in the Organiser. Other software usually combines these steps, which I prefer. Photoshop Elements' first import dialog lets you choose naming and target folder options, and whether to delete the pictures from the memory card.

An Advanced view in the Importer shows thumbnails and lets you automatically fix red eyes, plus it can group similar images into stacks on import. However, the only tagging option is to make the group name you've chosen for the set a tag, and you can't apply optimisations or other adjustments at import, as you can with many other programs. After importing, only photos from the most recent import appear in the Organiser's grid, but clicking Show All reveals the rest. After this, you can click the Display button at the top right to group pictures by Import Batch, Folder location, or just all thumbnails.

The new Maps

Hitting the Maps choice atop Organiser lets you see where your photos were taken, as you may have guessed, on a map. If your photos have no GPS data embedded, you can manually place them on a map, but I was impressed that my GPS-tagged iPhone photos were automatically placed on the correct spot on the map.

A marker is placed on the map with the number of photos taken on that particular spot. Clicking on the marker opens thumbnails of all photos from that location in the right half of the program window. You can go the other way too: Choose a folder of photos, and the map shows you their location. You can also simply list the locations in text. In all, it's a pretty cool addition to Premiere Elements' Organiser.

Face recognition

To get started with face tagging, simply click on the big People mode button, and click the Add People button at the bottom. Not only can Photoshop Elements 11's Organiser find and identify faces in your digital photos after you tag some of them with people's names, but it can also now hook into Facebook, download your friend list, and attach Facebook contact's names to photos – far beyond what you get in CyberLink PhotoDirector, but iPhoto and Aperture offer a similar function.

Photoshop Elements' face recognition did a decent job of identifying more photos of the same person, but it couldn't handle profile views, and sometimes proposed persons of the opposite gender (embarrassing) or failed to recognise the same face in the same session. At one point, it even wanted me to identify a subway warning sign – clearly face recognition isn't yet a perfect science, and that’s something I've seen in pretty much every competitor's implementation, too.

Events

The final new mode in Organiser is Events. As the name suggests, this lets you group photos taken within a timeframe. The good news is that you don't have to create and populate events on your own (though you can if you want) – the Smart Events switch will do it for you. You can group by date or by a time, though there wasn't enough control over how much time separates an event’s photos.

To the right, a calendar control lets you specify year, month, and date to restrict event display. As with iPhoto, the nifty trick of "skimming" lets you pass the mouse cursor over each event group to quickly riffle through them.

Adjusting photos

Photoshop Elements really comes into its own when you move from the Organiser to its full editor app. The program makes many of the full-fat version of Photoshop’s high-end image manipulation capabilities available but without the degree of difficulty. Many of the tools, particularly content-aware ones that let you do things such as removing areas or objects without disrupting the background, are unique to Adobe.

The editor, like the organiser, has been trimmed and neatened, as well as endowed with mode buttons along the top – Quick (pictured above), Guided (we'll come onto that shortly), and Expert (pictured below) in this case. New effects make Elements' feel like Instagram squared, with a level of control over the effects that the mobile app could only dream of.

Expert mode offers near-Photoshop control, complete with filters, layers, actions (the ability to run them, not create them), histograms, and tons of artistic and graphic effects. Like Photoshop, you get an array of tool buttons along the left, and edited files are saved in Photoshop PSD format. For web producers, there's even the "Save for Web" option, which optimises (i.e. reduces the file size) of images for online display.

The crop tool, too, is suitable for many pro uses, letting you specify standard aspect ratios and even a target size in pixels. The Recompose tool is probably the most impressive: It lets you change the aspect ratio of an image without stretching or squashing faces and the like. You can even remove selected objects and mark others for preserving. Recompose did a good job of letting me move my big head closer to a friend without distorting, though I did have to crop the photo to remove a duplicate head.

You can also do standard Photoshop things, such as blur, sharpen, apply creative filters, and add imagery. And there's a good selection of clipart such as frames, shapes, and more. The spot-healing brush does an excellent job of removing blemishes. I could also remove a sign in the background of a photo by brushing the nearby forest texture over it with the healing brush. The same tool lets you fix old torn scans of photos.

When opening a camera .raw file, it starts out in Adobe Camera Raw, so you have access to that window's colour, exposure, and detail controls. This includes noise reduction, but Element's has no chromatic aberration correction. The tool actually has red-eye reduction and cropping, which seem like unnecessary duplications of what's already in the editor app.

Blinging photos

Other great tools in the Photomerge group accessible from the File/New menu include Group Shot – which lets you get the best expression on each person in a group shot if you've taken a few of the group. Photomerge Faces lets you, for example, give one person another's eyes. Scene Cleaner lets you remove passers-by from a landscape or famous sight. Exposure, also called HDR (high dynamic range), lets you fix lighting by using two or more shots to get the best appearance of, say, the clouds in the sky and a forest below. Corel offers HDR merge tools, but has nothing comparable to the other Photomerge functions here.

The panorama tool offers lots of control, ensuring you end up with a full panorama, rather than one with twisted edges. It can even fill in empty areas left by the photos and stitching – to impressive effect in my testing – but it can take a long time to do its work. Again, though, you won't find the filling option in competitors.

Not only does Expert Mode let you apply layers of effects and filters, but there's also a generous selection of content like backgrounds, frames, and shapes to gussy up a photograph. The Text tool lets you wrap text around a shape outline, so that it doesn't overlap important parts of an image and just creates a nifty effect. But its character options are far less extensive than those in Photoshop.

New filters in version 11 include Comic (see the above image), Graphic Novel, and Pen & Ink (see below). An omission seems to be that these, however, don't appear in the Filter Gallery window, but must be chosen from the Filter menu directly. But that said, they can produce some pretty amazing effects.

The step-by-step Guided Edits take you through the process of creating an effect that would be a major undertaking in Photoshop proper. The "Create a Perfect Portrait" involves up to seven steps, including selective blurring, contrast, face tools like teeth whitening and spot healing, adding glow, and slimming down. I found that the latter didn't work as well as CyberLink PhotoDirector's "body shaper" feature, instead merely squeezing the photo horizontally.

New Guided Edits have been added to version 11: High Key, for a white-washed portrait look, Low Key for black backgrounds, vignette for faded edges, and tilt shift for a miniaturising selective focus look. The latter is pictured below, and as you can see, in this image I've chosen just to have the books in focus:

Guided Edits also let you create an Orton effect (sort of overblown lighting, popular from Instagram), depth of field (also known as "bokeh"), and a picture stack effect. Though I'm usually after the most accurate rendering of the subject I shot, these effects actually added a lot of interest to some of my test images. Smart Brushes let you paint effects and adjustments onto specific areas of a photo, including back & white, colour, lighting, special effects, and artistic treatments like pencil drawing. These offer a really cool and easy way to make a sky bluer or darken areas of an image.

Sharing and output

From its Create and Share panels, Photoshop offers the most output options of any consumer photo editor – whether you're into creating slideshows, sending picture emails, burning discs, or uploading to web galleries. You can directly upload to your favourite online photo sites, including Flickr, Facebook and so forth, or Adobe's own Revel service. New for Elements 11 is direct upload to the creative video site Vimeo.

Slideshow creation is particularly detailed, and you can even specify duration and transition style for each image. The collage feature offers a few layouts and good control, but Windows Photo Gallery actually offers a cooler collage effect. The calendar builder boasts 31 themes for holidays and other topics.

You can hook up your email account to Adobe Photo Mail simply by entering your own email address, and then a code emailed to you needs to be tapped into the Share panel. After that, you can directly send photos from within Photoshop Elements using your own email address.

A final word about Adobe Photoshop Elements' help system: The program doesn't include a downloaded help system. Instead, you're taken to Adobe's support site, and your results could be drawn from other users, for different versions, and even different products. I wish Adobe would make specific documentation for each product version, so that I knew a topic search in Help was relevant to my product. Another issue is that if you don’t have internet access, then obviously you’re stuck without any help guidance whatsoever.

Verdict

If you're mostly concerned about organising, and doing interesting and creative things with your images, but don't want to invest the time and money in learning Photoshop, Photoshop Elements 11 is your best option. It offers a generous subset of what's in Photoshop itself at a fraction of the price (£79 versus £667).

It would be nice if the Organiser and Editor apps weren’t separate entities, and the help system wasn’t a fragmented, online beast. But even so, competitors don't come close to matching Photoshop Elements' array of dazzling photo effects, organisational tools like face tagging and now geo-tag maps, along with sharing and output options.

Photoshop Elements 11's tools for getting creative with your digital images are unrivalled in its price range, making it our top choice for consumer photo editing, and bagging the program a Best Buy award.