Photoshop Creative Suite vs Elements – Part 1

Ever since Tom Hogarty came on the podcast and I’ve had some time to dive into Lightroom, I am thinking more and more that this is a much better solution for managing all of my photo assets.  Since I’ve found myself spending more time in LR and less time in PS CS3 (Extended), I started debating if I really needed so much horsepower under the hood.  After all, CS3 Extended is quite the workhorse, from performance, to functionality, to footprint, and of course, price. It left me wondering about my upgrade path.

In all honesty though, I think the term “upgrade” may be a misnomer – after all, am I really using all the features of the full version of Photoshop Cs3?  If not, what’s the point in upgrading?  Perhaps I should be looking at a downgrade.  After all, I really do spend less time post processing these days.  So, what are the differences between CS3 and this thing called Elements?  Well, for the loyal readers of this blog, I decided to find out.

First up, I downloaded a trial version of Elements 7.0 from Adobe’s website.  The download is about half the size  of the Photoshop Cs4 download (400+ MB for Windows Elements, and over 800 MB for Photoshop Creative Suite on Windows).  To the geek in me, that means a smaller footprint on my hard drive, and less consumption of system resources.   Something to consider…

Anyway, I decided to really do a side by side comparison, and loaded CS3 and Elements in their default work spaces, then compared notes.  Here’s what I found (CS3 is first, Elements is second):

Photoshop CS3 Default Workspace
Photoshop CS3 Default Workspace
Default Elements Workspace
Default Elements Workspace

Wow!  Quite a difference.  I first noticed the much darker color of the work space for Elements.  Not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things, but something that I would necessarily have to adjust to.  So, what else is there?  Well, rather than go over each painstaking difference of the two applications, I decided to just give a quick overview here.  And, with the quick overview, I figured the best place to start would be the toolbars, since that’s what we really need to use in either of these anyway, right?  So, let’s look at them side-by-side:

Photoshop CS3 Extended Toolbar
Photoshop CS3 Extended Toolbar
Photoshop Elements Toolbar
Photoshop Elements Toolbar

They actually don’t look too diferent when you look at them side by side, do they?  I didn’t think so, and I set out to count the various tool bars.  Know what?  On a quick overview of the 22 tools in CS3, I counted 17 commonalities between CS3 and Elements 7!  That’s a lot of overlap!  Are there more buried tools in CS3?  Most likely.  On quick count, I found 60 tools throughout the CS3 Toolbar.  In elements, 48!  Even still, not a lot extra.  From a percentage perspective, that is 20% additional functionality in CS3 Extended versus Elements 7.0  My guess is CS3 Regular would have less of a difference still.

The question is though – how often do you go searching for some buried tool in CS3?  As a photographer, in all honesty, not that often.  If you think about it, as photographers, we crop, re-size, perhaps straighten an occasional horizon, add some sharpening, and if we want to get really serious with a photo, we’ll do some dodging and burning.  All of these functions are present in Elements 7.0

So, why would you want to go with the CS3 or CS4 version of Photoshop – truly if you want to take your photos to the Nth degree, or do serious work like graphic design, web design, or photo restoration, I can totally see the need for some of the more advanced tools in the Creative Suite.  But more and more, I find myself using CS3 less and less.  Take a look at the commonalities listed below – these are identical features in both applications!  It took me a little by surprise when I noticed the similarities even in tool names.  See if you can find the common tools from the listing below:

Common Tools between CS3 and Elements
Common Tools between CS3 and Elements

So, what other important factors go into an image editing program for me?  Well, having been working in the Creative Suite for a long time – I do enjoy the benefits of layered files for different purposes.  Well, guess what – Elements does that too!  That means you can edit and save files as PSD’s!

I also like using actions to automate my work flow.  Uh Oh…from my initial glance, it does not appear that Elements 7.0 has this functionality built in.  But, can it be added?  Well, a Google search on the topic of “Elements Actions” says yes, so I think I could probably figure it out enough to eek the process to my needs.

The other major functionality I have an interest in is the ability to edit and manage raw files from my camera.  Can I see the raw files?  Sure enough, the ACR converter has made its way into Elements as well!

Adobe Camera Raw Converter in Elements
Adobe Camera Raw Converter in Elements

In fact, a lot of the preferences settings seem to have migrated over from Photoshop CS3…look at the same screen from there:

Photoshop CS3 Preferences Settings
Photoshop CS3 Preferences Settings

As similarities continue to mount, the last major thing to consider is price.  Retail, CS4 runs at $700 for the full price, an upgrade runs $200.  Elements?  Well, I think y’all know where this is headed:  Retail $139 and upgrade for $119.  I don’t know about you, but that is a HUGE cost savings.  It almost seems too good to be true, and given my penchant for not taking things at face value – I will take a look at the image processing capabilities in greater detail next week.  We’ll take a look at noise handling, speed, performance, and see how it does with a variety of images from my Canon 40D.

The biggest downside that I can see is that you don’t have the color management capabilities in Elements that you have in the Creative Suite – I like making some LAB adjustments from time to time, and filters may suffer in availability too – but more on that next week.

For the time being though, given the similarity in apparent functionality, the reduced price for Elements, and the proportionate footprint on my computer – Elements is definitely a contender.  For all I know – as I learn more about Lightroom after the workshop from Scott Kelby and NAPP on Wednesday, the idea of a separate application for image editing may go by the wayside too, especially when the cost for the CS product is 400% that of Elements.

So, what do you think?  Anyone out there using Elements?  Any other downgraders care to share their thoughts?  Have you enjoyed downsizing?  Found things you missed?  Workarounds?  Add-ons?  Tell me more as I continue to explore Elements next week – I’ll add reader observations there too!  In the meantime, happy shooting, and we’ll see you back here tomorrow after the NAPP workshop!

Monday Musings – Reducing Noise in your photos

Before I even start on anything photographic today, this is a great day to be alive.  Not only is it the first installment of MNF (Monday Night Football), but it is my own beloved Denver Broncos!  Having been a fan since the age of 8, and cried through the first 4 Super Bowls in sadness, and then in exhilaration for the next 2 in happiness, let’s just say GAME ON as the season gets underway with us revving up against the Raiders (yes, I’m a Raider hater like nobody’s business!) tonight at 8pm!

Okay, now having set the stage for tonight, let’s shift back to the photography theme of the day – reducing noise in your images.  Let’s start with a little background:

From even the early days of film, photography as a medium has always had noise as a factor.  Before digital came of age, this was actually referred to as grain rather than noise, and the speed of the film was directly proportional to the amount of noise that you would get.  Higher ASA values meant you could capture images in lower light, but at the expense of grain.

As most major forms of photographic expression have moved to digital, we now are looking at this issue using more current semantics, that being noise rather than grain.  Digital noise is introduced as we increase the ISO levels within our digital cameras.  This has been a major advantage to digital photography, because you can change the noise/grain tolerance from one frame to the next, whereas with film, you had to choose your tolerance level when you put the film in.  If you put in too high a film speed, and you wound up with a lot of noise in images that otherwise did not need it.  Alternatively, if you put in too low a speed film, none of your pictures would turn out.

Some of us try to introduce grain/noise for artistic effect, while others try to minimize it to achieve clean smooth color transitions without any granularity.   Each of these could merit its own discussion, so today I am going to look at 3 of the ways that you can reduce noise in your photography:

  1. During capture – if you want to minimize noise, one of the best ways to do that is to ensure you are shootig with the lowest noise tolerance in your camera.  This means ensuring that your ISO is set to its lowest possible levels.  Most point-and-shoot cameras allow for this type of adjustment these days, as do practically all SLR cameras.  As a general rule of thumb, the better the camera, the lower the ISO.  Most consumer grade SLR’s will allow you to adjust ISO settings down to 100.  As you price into higher quality SLR’s, some can drop this value further to 50 or even 25.  At that level, expect to pay about $2000 or more for the SLR body that can accommodate this.
  2. In your photo editor – There are many options here for reducing noise if your in camera settings did not minimize noise enough for your tastes.  Everything from Photoshop Elements, to Lightroom, iPhoto, Corel, and of course Photoshop CS3 have internal controls that allow you to make adjustments to compensate for noise in images.   Some methods perform noise reduction better than others and even some programs excel at this better than others, but by and large, variances in the quality of noise reduction will be a function of the cost of the software itself – iPhoto is free, so the noise adjustments will not offer much in the way of malleable controls.  Elements, at about $75 is a little better at handling noise, while Lightroom and Photoshop round out the higher end of photo software programs both in their price and in their handling of noise.
  3. Specific Noise Reduction programs – Because there is such an interest in managing noise, a growing body of software caters specifically to this function, and this function only.  Software developers have seen a need for this and specially designed programs are now made to handle just the management of noise in images.  Most offer as a part of their programs, a way to incorporate their algorithms into larger photo editing software by means of plugins.  Some of the most common and well-known noise editing programs include Noise Ninja, Noiseware, NeatImage, and Dfine.

As you can see, there are many ways to manage noise, including in camera options, within your photo editor, and with free standing noise reduction software.  I have found that the best results lie in a combination of all of the above.  I try to remember to make necessary adjustments in camera for the type of images I am capturing.  From there, as I move into my photo editor, if noise is present but not excessive, I will use the built-in noise reduction measures.  For images where the noise levels are high, I use Noise Ninja and have been happy with the results.

But, just like haircuts, there are more opinions out there on what constitutes effective management of noise in photos.  So, let’s hear it!  What methods do you use to manage noise in your photos?  Feedback, thoughts, and discussions are always welcome in the Comments section.   Well, I guess that means tomorrow I will probably have to do a tutorial on noise management in images.  So, until then, happy shooting and watch those apertures!