Motorhead Overkill

An open-ended question like this usually gets an open-ended answer. Something like “it depends.”  And of course it does depend. It depends on what you want to accomplish and how much time you want to invest. Photoshop is an extremely powerful, exceedingly addictive, tons-of-fun program. But don’t expect to install the program, pop it open, and have it make sense. It won’t. Be ready to put in some time.

Photoshop is image-editing software. With it, you can fix up your digital images by cropping, removing flaws, enhancing colors and contrast, and so on. You can alter images, deleting elements (like your ex-spouse) or adding elements from other images. And you can create imagery from scratch, using the built in brushes, pens, and textures. The term “Photoshop” has already crept into our everyday language; it is the golden standard for playing with digital images.

But is it overkill? It costs a lot (although educational discounts can help here) and it’s an uphill climb to learn. And there are alternatives. In fact, there are three distinct levels of image editing software. And what is right for you depends on what you want to accomplish.

The most basic level of image editors are actually still pretty powerful. Examples include Apple’s iPhoto, Corel’s Paint Shop Pro Photo X2, and Adobe’s Photoshop Elements. These programs are the software equivalent of point-and-shoot cameras. They have one-click automatic enhancers, like Auto Color or Auto Contrast, where you click once and you’re done. You can crop, do some basic defect removal, and of course print out or email to friends. Like point-and-shoot cameras, these entry-level programs also have increasingly sophisticated features.

So don’t necessarily turn your nose up at them. Most of these consumer programs are also organizers, assisting in keeping track of the millions of photos you have on your hard drive. If you are a basic family and vacation photographer and would like your images to shine a bit more, these programs might be right for you.

The next level up is actually a fairly major jump and targets the more serious photographer. The best examples are Apple’s Aperture and Adobe’s Lightroom. The jump is in the level of sophistication of the tools and how much they align themselves with advanced photography. If terms like “white balance” or “exposure compensation” feel intimidating, these programs may not be right for you at this point. Aperture and Lightroom are the software equivalents of  “prosumer” digital SLR cameras. They can still be run in a pretty automatic fashion, but the real power lies in their ability to customize and tweak per the user’s photographic expertise. For the most part, these controls are all global, meaning they affect the entire image. Like the basic level, these programs also assist with image organization, but again with a nod towards the serious photographer. If you are that serious photographer, these programs might be your better choice; they are tailored just for you.

At the top of the heap, we have Photoshop. The camera equivalent would be the professional DSLR or medium and large format cameras.  I once heard it said that for any question that starts with “Can you…” and ends with “with Photoshop,” the answer is yes. I believe it. It is an amazing program, limited only by your imagination (and your ability to drive it). Photoshop can do all that the programs mentioned above can do plus a lot more. In addition to image enhancement, it excels at image alteration (goodbye ex-spouse) and even in creating imagery. Most importantly, changes need not be global; you have the ability to select specific areas for targeted changes or enhancements. (The whole organize-your-photos thing is not part of Photoshop but Adobe Bridge, which is included with Photoshop, handles that.)

So is Photoshop overkill? Maybe it is if your needs are not that broad. But a word of warning… Image editing is habit-forming. If you settle for something less, it may just be a matter of time before you give in and graduate to this golden standard.

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