Advanced Digital Photo Editing on a Budget

Written on November 24, 2010. Written by .

When I first saw Adobe Photoshop Elements, my initial assumption was that it was a really watered-down version of Photoshop designed for cropping, red-eye removal, and basic adjustments like brightness and contrast. But my assumption was totally wrong. In fact, Photoshop Elements is more like a version of Photoshop stripped down to the subset useful for digital photography, whereas the full version has many features intended for graphic design.

I might never have discovered Elements if it weren’t for the fact that a copy of Photoshop Elements came bundled with my Wacom Pen and Touch tablet. The tablet works really well with Elements, allowing you to draw with pressure-sensitive brushes, making editing much more fun than with a mouse. The tablet cost $99 and came with Elements, which costs about the same, though the version it comes with is not the latest. So I installed it and started checking it out. I was impressed that it supported all the same layer blending modes as Photoshop, and has tons of the same filters in the Filters menu for things like adding photo filters, light sources, blurs, textures, vignettes, and much more.

Elements also had all the important tools like the healing brush, clone stamp, dodge, burn, sponge, magic wand, quick select, lasso, impressionist brush, color replacement, unsharp mask, magic extractor, and all the basic ones.

The most important missing pieces are probably the curves, channel mixer, layer masks, and trim functions. But fortunately, all of these can be added to Elements for free. The curves and channel mixer functions are included in the free no-time-limit demo of Elements+, a plug-in that expands the functionality of Elements. The layer mask function is included in Elements version 9, but since I have version 7, I installed a plug-in that installs the layer mask function. And there is another plug-in that installs the trim function.

There are definitely a lot of features that are not included in Elements and aren’t installable. The pen tool for advanced selections is missing and the layer styles are less powerful, for example. But the missing features are mostly for graphics design. For photography, there isn’t anything that I have missed so far.

Also worth mentioning is the free version of the Neat Image plugin, which does a great at noise reduction on photos taken in low-light. The free version is limited in the size of the image it operates on, but it goes up to 1024×768, which is sufficient for photos to be uploaded on the internet.

For photographers, one of the most valuable plug-ins is Adobe Camera Raw. The full Photoshop version of Adobe Camera Raw has the same functionality as the Develop module of Adobe Lightroom. The Elements version of Camera Raw has more limited functionality, but it has all the functionality of the Basic section, which has all the most important sliders. As far as I know, the functions not included in the Elements version of Camera Raw can be performed in the Elements editor, like gradient filters and camera distortion correction.

Adobe Lightroom is designed to be an efficient photo organizer and streamlined editor for basic non-destructive edits. Adobe Photoshop and Photoshop Elements are designed to be layer-based bitmap editors that function on both the pixel-level and the image-level. If money is not a factor, the best setup is to have both Lightroom and the full version of Photoshop. But if you are on a tight budget, you can get almost all the photo-editing functionality of these expensive pieces of software with just the relatively affordable Photoshop Elements combined with the plug-ins mentioned above.

Tip for Canon DSLR users: I tried a few RAW image browsers and the Canon ZoomBrowser EX application was by far the fastest – several times faster than IrfanView and Photoshop Elements. Canon also has a RAW image thumbnailer and previewer codec that lets you see thumbnails in folders and previews in the Windows previewer.

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3 Comments so far
  1. mspice November 24, 2010 7:18 pm

    Thanks a lot for the post. The Wacom tablet and pen especially seem like they might be very valuable photography retouching tools. As far as software goes, I am still inclined to go with Lightroom as I mostly want to focus on processing pictures quickly and maintaining there “nature as a photograph” as much as possible, but I will have to download the trial of Elements and see how it feels. I assume you used the trial of Lightroom, but just wanted to point out it has various selective editing retouching brushes which emulate and streamline some of the layer and mask capabilities of Elements and Photoshop. Either way, glad you are enjoying photography! It’s a lot of fun!

  2. mspice November 24, 2010 7:27 pm

    Also, have you done any video editing at all yet. I am curious how Adobe Premiere Elements would work for that. Do you have plans for this at all?

  3. cspice November 25, 2010 4:37 am

    Actually I never installed the Lightroom demo, I just watched a lot of tutorials on it. But yeah, I did see the retouching features and gradient masks. Lightroom can do a lot, and for photography (as opposed to digital art/painting), it is probably everything you need. For non-students though, it may initially be a better deal to get a Wacom tablet and Elements 7 for $99 than just Lightroom for $299. Especially since the overall power of Elements seems to be higher. As far as I can tell, the only major disadvantage of Elements versus Lightroom is how quickly you can get things done. In terms of video editing, I have no plans to get started with it at this point, but I think it is likely that I will get into video at some point in the future. For now, photography is enough of a challenge!

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