Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 review: first look


Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 review: first look

Adobe has refreshed its consumer-friendly version of Photoshop with a smattering of new features – at least one of which it’s borrowed from its vastly more expensive big brother, Photoshop CS5. We’ll have  a full review of Photoshop Elements 9 in the next couple of days. (UPDATE: Click here to read our full review of Adobe Photoshop Elements 9)

In the meantime, here are our first impressions of three of the key new features in this year’s suite.

Content-aware fill

One of the stellar features in this year’s Photoshop CS5 was content-aware fill. This allowed you to make a selection round a rogue object in your photos – a stranger wandering into shot, or a carelessly placed photo bag in the backdrop of a portrait, say – and remove the offending object at the click of a button. The clever part was that Photoshop would analyse the pixels surrounding the selection and intelligently attempt to fill the space – more often than not successfully.  You can see our video of content-aware fill in action here.

Nobody really expected this flagship feature to make it into the sub-£80 Elements, but to Adobe’s credit it’s done just that – albeit in a somewhat reduced form.

Content-aware fill has been built into Photoshop Elements 9’s spot healing brush tool. This means you can’t make precise selections around intruding objects,  but you can dab a brush over the offending area, achieving much the same effect.

The content-aware fill works best when its asked to deal with relatively small objects. Take this photo of a back garden, for instance:


Even in this relatively low-res photo, we successfully removed the patio lights (although not their shadows!), the leaf in the foreground of the lawn and the flower basket on the barbecue at the back, simply by dabbing the healing brush over the relevant objects.


You can see the software makes a pretty good stab at successfully replicating the grain of the decking where the lamps used to be, for example (click on photo for full-res version).

However, things start to fall apart when you attempt to remove larger objects, such as the flower pot in the foreground:


Which results in this rather untidy, Dali-esque shambles:


We had more luck when we attempted to remove the fingers that are intruding on the girl’s face on the bottom of this picture:


Elements’ first stab at removing the fingers, using a thick brush with the picture zoomed out at 100% resulted in a blurry mess. However, when we zoomed in and took a little more care to trace around the fingers carefully with a finer brush, the results were pretty impressive:


You could argue that the results are no more impressive than anything you could achieve with careful use of the clone tool, but with content-aware fill you don’t have to bother with manually selecting the target area or ensuring the shadows/highlights are perfectly blended. The software does it for you, making relatively simple edits such as this the work of seconds rather than minutes.

Content-aware fill is far from perfect, though, especially on complex backgrounds. Take the chap on the park bench of the background of this shot, for instance, where the software has to deal with areas of high contrast, as well as several different texture, such as the park bench, the bushes and the grass beneath his legs:


The content-aware fill makes a relatively decent stab at matching the grass beneath his feet and the bush behind his upper-body, but there’s a distinct whiff of The Invisible Man left behind on the bench.


So, our early tests suggest that Photoshop Elements 9’s content-aware fill works splendidly on small areas of detail, such as the garden lamps or the child’s fingers. On bigger items, however, it’s far from a miracle cure.

Photo-merge group style

The quirkiest new feature in Photoshop Elements 9 is photo-merge group style. This allows you to copy the style of another photo or photographer and apply it to your own work. So if you’re a fan of Ansel Adams’ moody black-and-white landscapes, or Martin Parr’s over-saturated portraits, you can “borrow” inspiration from the masters.

Photoshop Elements arrives with a small selection of styles to copy, or you can perform a Google Image search for your chosen photographer, save the image (respecting all due copyright laws, of course) and have Elements copy the style.

Applying the new style is simply a matter of opening your photo, choosing Style Match from the Guided Edits menu, and dragging and dropping the chosen style onto the left-hand panel:


The results are fairly impressive when it’s copying a very distinct style, such as Adams’ or high dynamic range photography, especially if you copy the tones (which is a checkbox in the menu) as well as the style itself:


However, the harsh contrast in the photo above introduced a lot of artificial noise into the skyline of our landscape, which means you may need to tweak with the settings to achieve printable results.

Fun edits

Photoshop Elements 9 has also introduced a selection of what Adobe rather sickeningly brands “fun edits”. These are essentially an extension of the guided edits that have been a staple of Elements for many years now, where the software takes you step-by-step through procedures that an amateur might struggle to figure out by themselves.

Included in the fun edits is the now rather clichéd Andy Warhol-style Pop Art, an old-fashioned Lomo Camera effect and an option to emulate Vogue’s airbrush artists by whitening the teeth, masking the pimples and brightening the eyes of people in portraits. So far, so predictably dull.

The one fun edit that does raise a glimmer of interest is the “out of bounds” effect, which creates magazine-style photos that pop-out of their frames, converting this snap of a lighthouse:


Into something with a little more impact:


Photoshop guides the user through the process of creating and distorting the frame, making a selection, adding the drop shadow and inserting a gradient in the background (we’ve used the dull, default grey gradient in this example).

The effect can also be used to make action shots a touch more dynamic, although you’ll need to take greater care with the selection tool than we did with this rather rushed example:


The pop-out pics are going to have limited utility, but they’re spot on for bespoke greetings cards or sharing on Facebook (which, incidentally, is much easier with Elements 9).

We’ll have more detail on additional new features in our full review – but in the meantime, Adobe Elements 9 has made a promising start.

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