Photoshop Elements could be more basic

It's a great program for midlevel photo editing, but is the new version worth upgrading to? Seth Rosenblatt takes a look through Elements' lens.

Photoshop Elements 6 is a good tool for those addicted to Adobe. It streamlines Photoshop's toolset for photograph editing and organizing, but like its antecedent, it's got some unwieldy bulk and it could be simplified even further. Is it worth upgrading?

Adobe always gets a lot of credit in my book for giving limitation-free trial versions of their programs, and Elements is no different. You get 30 days to play around in this sandbox, and there's no doubt that there are a lot of toys in this midrange photo editor.

Although the Editing tools are good, and the mouse-over tool explanations will be useful for beginners, this new version of Elements doesn't really improve on its toolset. Most of the built-in editors rely on sliders and presets, which is a big change in workflow from those used to freedom of Photoshop. The one new tool of note is Photomerge, which can create smooth composite images, both of faces for group shots and landscapes for panoramas. Elements' more unique strengths lie in its organizational tools.

Even if the dual Editor and Organizer workspaces can get annoying at times, it's easy to switch between the two with a button in the upper-right toolbar. Organizer's a strong midlevel replacement for those not ready for Adobe's Lightroom, and has presets to help create a Web gallery, book, calendar, collage, and slide show. It also contains batch edit functions for red eye, contrast, and others, although I think those would be easier to access in the Editor.

The Organizer also allows for extensive tagging, for viewing by the date the photo was taken by accessing the EXIF information, and for "stacking" photos. This last feature works by letting you group together similar images, but keeping the best or most relevant ones at the top. You can access it when you import new images, killing the clutter before it begins.

The Flash slide show can be exported to your Web site from within the program, and you can burn photo CDs or DVDs without opening up external burnware. Although Elements lacks the ability to upload directly to Flickr or some other Web-based image gallery and sharer, you do get 25 free galleries at Adobe's Photoshop Showcase site.

Despite the stripping of more complex features from the full Photoshop, navigating Elements remains quite complicated. The tutorials and help tools do a great job of demystifying the labyrinthine interface, but if you're looking for a basic tool for common graphic tasks there are plenty of lower-priced or free options that are much easier to master. Also, if you've already got Elements 5, I'd consider holding off on an upgrade until Elements 7 and hope that it introduces more than just new ways to organize.

CNET's Stephen Shankland looked at Photoshop Elements back in September, and you can read his review here.