Despite quirks, Photo Soap can heal digital pictures' blemishes

YOU LITERALLY cannot believe your eyes. At the touch of a button, your wrinkles vanish. The gloomy skies of your vacation brighten and turn cloudless. Your attractive rival suddenly disappears from the scene.

Programs that help make pictures lie or at least fib politely, better known as photo editors, are becoming almost as common as word processors. Most scanners and digital cameras toss one in at no extra charge, and you may even get one with your printer. The retail price is usually about $50.


Because images can amount to multiple megabytes and modifying them involves complex calculations, these programs are typically the slowest you are likely to use. No matter how fast your machine, editing photos will sometimes slow even a fast machine with lots of RAM to a crawl. A big hard disk is mandatory, since these programs can be as greedy for space as the images they manipulate. Patience helps, too, since every program has its own way of befuddling users.

The newest photo editor, Kai's Photo Soap (from Metatools Inc., for Windows 95 and Power Macintosh), concentrates on cleaning up digital photos. Its tools that let you adjust a picture's overall color and sharpness are not radically different from what other programs offer. The real gems here are brushes that can magically "heal" scratches and spots, smooth wrinkles or correct the red-eye effect found in many flash photos.


The trick is figuring out how everything works. Soap has an interface all its own, with lots of on-screen gimcracks, gizmos and gadgets that act in ways cavalierly inconsistent with principles you have learned from other programs and even with each other.

Soap's concept of "rooms" makes you "move" to a new area for each set of functions. Brightness and contrast controls, for example, are in the tone room; smoothing tools are in the detail room. In some rooms you can undo your work before you leave for the next; in others, the instant you switch tools, your recent efforts are set in stone unless you start from scratch. And the program itself can be your undoing; if you quit the program, shut down your machine, or merely switch to a new file, all the work you have done on the current image disappears with no mention of your unsaved work and no chance of recovering it.

There are other unfortunate aspects. The small "slate" that serves as your work space does not get bigger even if you increase the screen resolution. When you zoom in or out, the image is out of focus. Text is limited to a single drop-shadowed font.

Each of the other major photo-editing programs has its own quirks. Livepix (from Live Picture Inc., for Windows 95; includes a copy of Print Shop Deluxe III) has many rough edges, but offers at least one brilliant feature that may make you willing to forgive them. The program lets you undo every change you have made to a photo, right back to the very first, until you save your changes. You can restore a picture's original color and tone any time at all.

The trick? Instead of directly modifying the original image, the program stores only instructions about how to change it. The drawback? Assembling composite pictures from their components can take awhile, and if you move or delete an underlying image, the program can get confused. Although the instruction files can be understood only by Livepix (and its fancier, more expensive brother, Livepicture), you can also save images in standard formats.

The program's use of a new format called Flashpix, which stores images in a way designed to speed screen display, making many operations with very big files comparatively quick. Livepix offers color correction features, but although it does have a "red eye" fixer, it lacks tools for correcting spots, scratches and other problems, making it virtually useless for touch-up work. Its tools for compiling photographic collages are significantly better.

Like LivePix, Picture-It (from the Microsoft Corp., for Windows 95) is short on retouching and long on "creative" collage-making and also uses the Flashpix format. Its step-by-step interface uses commands like "Get it!" and "Just add it!" but still manages to be confusing, and once the hand-holding gets irritating, there is no "Stop it!" command to turn it off.

Picture-It's interface, like Microsoft's late, unlamented Bob, violates many of the company's own rules. On-screen buttons to cancel operations are on the left, those to accept on the right, contrary to virtually every other program except, of course, Soap. And by making the menus virtually useless, the program imparts the feel of a death by a thousand clicks.


Also worth noting are two programs that work with both Windows 95 and Windows 3.1. MGI Photosuite (from the MGI Software Corp.) offers a mixed bag of tricks and special effects; the grandfather of the genre is Adobe Photodeluxe (from Adobe Systems Inc.), which was recently upgraded to version 1.1 and is also available for the Macintosh. It remains by far the most versatile of these programs, though, like Photosuite, it handles really big files with all the swiftness of a glacier and sometimes cannot print them at all.

Pub Date: 6/02/97