Sep 19, 2004

How to buy photo editing software

Digital Photography Tip
If you have a digital camera and a computer, you can become your own photo retouching service. With these tools, you no longer have to rely on your photo skills to get that image just right when it is shot. Now you have a second chance with photo editing software.

The professional standbys

Photo editing was once the domain of professionals, but now software packages can be had for $50 to $150. There are many titles to choose from, and while the temptation may be to buy the best and most comprehensive software, it's not always necessary. Once upon a time, anyone who wanted to retouch their photos would have been inclined to buy either Adobe PhotoShop or CorelDRAW.

Today, the publishers recognize that most consumers want powerful photo editors without the pixel-level manipulation and graphics geek finesse that the pro packages impose. They also want a product that doesn't approach the $1,000 mark, which is what pro software titles cost.

Adobe has come out with a derivative title from their pro version called Photoshop Elements (now in version 3.0). But there are plenty of other titles in the event you want a break on the price. Jasc Paint Shop Pro is a good alternative, as is Ulead's PhotoImpact and if you want free, check out The Gimp.

When choosing a photo editor product, I recommend you download a trial version of the product first from the Web. (Most publishers offer a free 30-day trial) This is a good way to get a sense of how a software package matches your skill level and needs.

What's your skill level?

Packages tend to come in three variations. Some over-simplify tasks for basic photo manipulation, allowing you to auto-correct and fix red-eye, but won't let you perhaps erase the fly that landed on your grandmother's bun when the picture was taken. They also tend to be jammed with all kinds of cutesy add-ins that give you the ability to put effects like flowered borders and thought bubbles into your photos. This may be what you want, but most people just want to clean up an image.

On the other hand, the pro level packages provide the ability to effect fine, low level details with tools that use lingo unique to the graphics profession. If you don't want to worry about histograms or learn what "posterize" means, then avoid the pro packages. If you're ambitious, then you might want to investigate them, but expect a fairly long learning curve and a high intimidation factor at first.

You'll find the third approach, which offers photo-editing features, somewhere in the middle. These packages give you quick fixes such as red eye elimination and auto-image correction with one-button features, but give you a little more power to fix blemishes, such as erase telephone poles growing out of people's heads.

Which file formats will you need?

When testing a package, make sure that it can save into a variety of file formats. Digital cameras save images as JPEG or TIFF and some even in RAW format. While most users will want to keep them in JPEG format, you should see what other types of file formats the software can translate images to or from. Advanced users will want to save the photos into their own proprietary image formats that can't be read by any other program (RAW). This can be problem if you are editing and then emailing the images to friends or colleagues because they won't be able to open the pictures unless they have the same software program as you do.