Photoshop vs. Photoshop Elements
by Richard Lynch
Which is "the best", is, more often than not, flat out the wrong question to ask. If you have common needs for image editing, you can likely get results with any image editing program that you choose-you just need to learn to use it. That said, there are key differences in popularity, price, and system requirements that may affect your choice more than features-and these concerns might not matter one iota to the image results.
Several of the most popular packages for image editing are Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro and Photoshop Elements. I'll use these packages to point out some of the choices you have to be aware of to make the best solution for you. It would only confuse the matter more to throw in additional high-level products such as Ulead PhotoImpact (PC only), GIMP and Photo32.
Price is something that is hard to ignore when you look at a comparison between Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro and Photoshop Elements. Photoshop retails for $650, Paint Shop Pro for $109, and Photoshop Elements for $99. This would seem to place PS in a class of its own, leaving PSP and PE to battle it out on a different tier. At some level (e.g., professional pre-press use) this may be true, but in reality may not be if the user honestly considers the important features that will be used day-to-day.
Traditionally, high-end items tend to cost quite a lot more than even more-than-adequate bretheren. It is a sort of luxury tax levied by those who achieve exclusivity. A Rolls Royce may weigh in with a hefty price tag, but pales to an indy racer whose high level of sophistication makes it all but unuseable in daily situations (e.g., commuting). I would take neither out in a snowstorm to stock up on needed supplies. The investment in a rolls or indy racer would strike most as an absurd expenditure for a daily car unless one was so rich that it just plain didn't matter. In a similar way, it is hard for some people to swallow the idea that a lower price in an image editor may not mean you get less than you need.
High cost in an image editor traditionally comes with something that people completely ignore: increased operating and hidden costs. It should be no surprise that future upgrades to a costly program will tend to cost more than upgrades to a less expensive program. More expensive, more robust programs may require greater processing abilities, and in-turn have processing needs which require more robust systems-at a greater cost in addition to the program purchase. In recent years, Adobe's attention to processing power for Photoshop has forced many Mac users to purchase entirely new systems if they wanted to remain on the cutting edge. This hidden cost of image processing can total multiples of the cost of the program itself.
If you have an unlimited budget for image editing, then it is fine to ignore the costs. If you are on any type of budget, however, the upgrade expenditure that one may have for updating to a new version of a program should be weighted against other opportunities. It may be that the investment can be put to better use elsewhere, such as in investing in an update for your system (more RAM, a second monitor, more disk space, faster processor, a storage and archiving device, saving for a college education, etc.). Some of these updates may prove far more useful to you than the newest version of the program.
When is an upgrade not an upgrade?
Some people upgrade out of obligation (!), or the need to have the newest toy first, when the first consideration should be need. No single tool or function alone is worth the price difference in an upgrade unless you will be using that feature extensively. Upgrades should be looked at collectively; Read the release notes before upgrading. Hot new features should be looked at a little skeptically: they should add functionality that cannot be duplicated in any other fashion (for example, this was not the case for healing and extract functions). A few interesting additions in the feature set may get a bit of attention (by the manufacturer) as key features for a release, but may not really much more than interesting interfaces to accomplish tasks, rather than must-have additions. For the most part, new tools are never really magic, and just about any process can be mimicked or duplicated using the less expensive programs or pre-upgrade versions. Snazzy features are often just a variation on using basic tools in conjunction.
More Doesn't Mean Better
The obvious assumption one might make about a program with more features is that the program will be more robust, more powerful, and 'better'. However, a newer user may not find having more features to necessarily be better: more features may just mean you just have more choices to get something done, more potential confusion, more chances to use things incorrectly, and in the end: more features you won't need or bother to use. If the added features are essentially redundant you just have additional menu items screens and options to remember. An important factor is not always so much how many features there are, but how they are arranged and how intuitive you find them as a user, and what they really (rather than proport to) do.
Regretfully, learning the features of any program is a process. Some red-eye repair feature you found in a freebee program you got with your digital camera may or may not be called a red eye tool in another package as it may have different implementation and/or broader purpose. This makes a one-to-one comparison of features all but impossible. It is helpful to look at and compare programs by exhausing their demo possibilities. All of the differences between packages may not become apparent in a short-term trial offered in a 30 day demo, as even with dilligence, it is likely that you will only be becoming familiar with the program at that point. However, actually working with the program when possible will give you a credible means of comparison-and a better one for determining your need. If you can't find a feature by name, don't necessarily assume it isn't there.
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Richard Lynch is author of "The Hidden Power of Photoshop Elements 2" book and excels beyond the call of duty in making Elements into Photoshop -- winning the "2003 BEST AWARD" from the Design Bookshelf!
Richard maintains an updated collection of Elements essentials on the hiddenelements.com web site where you can find sample chapters, extra add-ons and plug-ins and most importantly an ongoing dialog with reader's questions. He answers these questions but also helps readers utilize the materials on the CD along with the lessons in the book optimizing the reader's learning experience.
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