Adobe’s Photoshop Elements 4.0 (Windows & Mac); Is This Latest Version Worth An Upgrade?

Is a new upgrade on software merely an excuse for a new revenue stream for companies? One could take that somewhat cynical view, but on the other hand I wonder if it is any different than any new model of a product that is made attractive by new and improved features. When we trade a still running car in for a new model we expect it will have better performance and new beneficial features the old one lacked. And so it goes with Adobe's Photoshop Elements 4.0. It has many new features, and even more improvements in performance. Whether or not these are worth the price of an upgrade depends more on the individual user than anything else. If Version 4.0 provides more of what is needed and will be used to achieve a better photographic experience, why not make the move?

Adobe's Photoshop Elements remains a slimmed down derivative of the full version of Photoshop with much of the professional media production capabilities missing. Gradually, through the version upgrades, Elements has become a more proficient application from a purely photographic perspective, making it not just a more affordable choice for photographers, but one that makes photo correction, adjustment, and editing easier and more effective than even with the latest Photoshop CS2.

As both applications, CS2 and Elements, have evolved, they have become more distinct and different from each other. Part of the impetus for differentiated development is due, in large part, to the wildly increasing popularity of point-and-shoot digital cameras, a market Adobe would of course like to include as part of the Elements family of users. So in Version 4.0 there are more features for the snapshooter. Fortunately, the tools that a serious enthusiast needs and wants in Elements have not been slighted or ignored.

Indeed, they have been substantially enhanced. Those are the tools I will focus on in this report.

Although developed separately in different time frames, the only significant difference in function or features between the Windows and Mac Adobe Photoshop Elements 4.0 is the Windows version continues with Explorer and the Mac version provides a simpler version of Adobe Bridge from CS2. The functions that can be performed and applied to image files directly from the Tools menu of Bridge include: Contact Sheet II, PDF Slide Show, Photomerge Panorama, Picture Package, Process Multiple Files, and Web Photo Gallery.
All Photos © 2006, David B. Brooks, All Rights Reserved

Mac And Windows XP
Adobe's Photoshop Elements 4.0 was first announced and released for Microsoft's Windows XP, followed by the Apple Mac version. I waited until both release versions were complete and evaluated both separately, although there is really only one significant difference between them. The Windows version continues the use of an image management module called Organizer; the Apple Mac version now has a slimmed down version of Adobe Bridge, adapted from the current full version of Photoshop CS2. The full price of Adobe's Photoshop Elements 4.0 for Windows XP is $99, and the Apple Mac version is $89. Upgrade prices and more detailed information is available on the web at or call (800) 492-3623.

Camera Raw Upgrade

Adobe's Photoshop Camera Raw has been upgraded to provide support for all of the latest digital camera raw file formats. The utility has been refined but is otherwise carried over with the same configuration as Version 3.0. However, it should be noted that to avoid raw file thumbnail generation in Bridge being automatically adjusted, and so they appear as shot by the camera, turn off the four Auto adjust checks in Camera Raw and then, from the small arrow to the right of Settings, choose to save as default.

Features And Improvements In Elements 4.0
Adobe assumed that users want to "get started faster," so they created a one-stop download that does not even require Elements to be running. And they have also put an automated redeye removal function into the download process. For the novice snapshooter the opening mechanics provide an advantage, but, like Explorer in the Windows version, if you have already established your own individualized way to handle and organize your digital photo files this method can just get in the way.

Before & After View

The large side by side (top/bottom) before and after comparison image feature in Elements QuickFix provides a perceptual advantage for making critically refined adjustments to images.

I was much more impressed by the larger effort Adobe has put into "making your photos look their best." At least that corresponds fully with the interests expressed in the feedback I obtain from Shutterbug readers. These features include new capabilities and existing functions that have been refined and made more effective. Some of the new features include a Magic Selection Brush. This new brush has a bit of identification intelligence built-in and combines with some manual Photoshop selection capabilities, all of which makes selecting a complex image object easier and more efficient. Just pass the Magic Selection Brush over the area you want selected, and the object/area outline will be precisely identified. And, even if it does not select just what you want perfectly the first time, leaving something out or including too much, it is easily refined and corrected. A parallel tool is the Magic Extractor, which includes a refined auto-edge-defringe function, and makes grabbing image objects for making composite photos or adding an image object to a document project like a greeting card much easier.

Photoshop and Elements have had Rotate as well as Transform utility tools that make straightening images possible for some time now, but it required selecting the right tool and sometimes guessing how many degrees of correction was needed. Once straightened you had to crop the image so the frame included just the image. Now all of these steps are included with automatic sensing of the horizon to both level the image and automatically crop it to fit the frame.

Of all of the colors in photographic reproduction, skin tones are the most important. They should be as close as possible to your subjects' features and should not have a green or purple cast. However, the tools we have had to adjust skin tones, like Color Balance and Hue/Saturation, do not lend themselves easily to adjusting flesh tones if too pale, too ruddy, or pink. Elements now has a tool with the ability to identify what the skin tone is by using a color picker to sample what you want to adjust, and sliders that easily adjust the complex colors in flesh tones on two logical dimensions of common differences.

CS2-Like Adjustments

Many of the key image adjustment tools from the full version of Photoshop CS2 like Levels are continued in Elements 4.0, providing critical color correction utility.