One of the great things about digital photography is that you don't have to live with your mistakes. If you turned somebody's eyes red with your camera's flash, you can fix that goof with the right program. Better yet, that same software can organize your shots, share them online and even weave them together in slide shows.
One of the bad things about digital photography, though, is the quality of the programs that perform those tasks. Many of them perplex users with an overload of features and commands, while some try too hard to keep things simple.
Adobe's Photoshop Elements 3.0 (Win 2000 or newer, $100; Mac OS X 10.2.8 or newer, $90), Microsoft's Digital Image Suite 10 (Win 98 or newer, $129), and Jasc Paint Shop Pro 9 (Win 98 SE or newer, $129 box or $119 download) strive to land between those extremes.
Don't let the name of Adobe's Elements fool you -- this suite is far friendlier to beginners than the professional Photoshop package after which it's named. Its Editor program can repair many photo problems using nothing more than automated functions and simple slider controls. A Smart Fix one-click repair does a superb job of adjusting the lighting, color balance and sharpness in most photos.
Should Elements' quick fixes not handle the job, the program provides a set of such advanced editing tools as the Healing Brush, which makes blotches disappear, and image filters included in Photoshop itself. But if you're new to these options, Elements doesn't offer much help beyond basic tutorials and a thin manual.
A versatile Organizer program, new in Elements 3.0, offers the same thoughtful, flexible cataloguing features as Adobe's older Photoshop Album. You can put pictures in albums, assign keyword-based tags, sort them by various criteria and display them in a clever timeline view. (The Mac version of Elements leaves out the Organizer.)
A Share program can put your shots into greeting cards, Web pages, Portable Document Format slide shows and video CDs.
Unfortunately, switching among these three separate applications disrupts your work flow. Overlapping tools in Editor and Organizer add to the confusion.
Microsoft's Digital Image Suite 10 demands less of a beginner, thanks to a reasonably thick manual, tutorials, videos and how-to instructions that demystify its features.
Digital Image Suite offers one-button fixes for contrast, exposure and color -- there's even one to address common flaws of camera phone shots -- but it doesn't have a "fix everything" shortcut like Elements' Smart Fix. Nor does it provide a before-and-after view of proposed edits, a huge problem considering the power of its more complex effects and filters. A helpful batch-editing command will apply the same edits to a group of pictures.
Suite's Library program is not nearly as flexible as Adobe's Organizer, with fewer sorting options, no timeline view and no way to put the same photo in multiple albums.
Microsoft's output options include the same basic choices as Adobe, except for a crafty Photo Story feature that builds terrific slide shows with zooms and dissolves. But there's no built-in uploading of photos to Web sites, an inexplicable omission that puts Elements ahead.
Jasc's Paint Shop Pro 9 came in third. Photo fanatics will appreciate its advanced image-correcting tools, including artistic effects that can make photos look like paintings or carvings, selective undo and batch processing of pictures. A detailed 500-page manual, the best of the bunch, and a Learning Center that walks you through some actions can help keep beginners on track.
But Paint Shop Pro can't make slide shows. It also doesn't even offer an image organizer -- even though Jasc's decent Paint Shop Photo Album 5 comes bundled with the company's cheaper, far less capable Paint Shop Pro Studio.