The holiday season is here, and that can mean only one thing - lots of really bad photographs. Thanks to the latest scanners and digital cameras, it's almost inevitable that those bad pictures will be posted on the World Wide Web for the entire world to gawk at.
Digital photo software gives those bad pictures a second chance. Using your PC, you can get rid of that red eye, crop out Aunt Ruth's bunny slippers or even put your middle-aged face on your (or someone else's) slim teen-aged torso. It doesn't take a degree in graphic arts.
Armed with my digital and conventional cameras, a flatbed scanner and absolutely no sense of composition, I set out to turn lead into gold with a couple of the latest photo editing programs.
With these products, reality is no longer the limiting factor in getting a good picture. But if you want to pull off really stunning effects, you'll need to invest in extra memory, and have plenty of hard disk space to hold those images while you work your magic.
If you own a digital camera, scanner or color printer, you probably got a basic image editing program in the package. One of the most common is Adobe's PhotoDeluxe, which came bundled with the Epson Stylus 600 color printer I recently bought.
You'll also find a variety of shareware image editing programs on the Internet, the most popular being Paint Shop Pro (www.jasc.com). The feature sets of all these packages can vary widely.
At the top of the heap is Adobe's PhotoShop 5.0, a favorite of professional graphic artists and photographers for its superb control and fantastic effects. In fact, the odds are good that any photo you see in this newspaper was processed with PhotoShop.
As you would expect, PhotoShop has a steeper learning curve than bundled software packages - and at $649, it's definitely not free. But simplified sets of PhotoShop tools are included or can be added into the generic PhotoDeluxe, as well as two new enhanced versions - PhotoDeluxe Home Edition 3.0 for home use and PhotoDeluxe Business Edition for the office.
Fortunately for those of us with limited software budgets, Adobe has included a good selection of basic PhotoShop functions in the PhotoDeluxe line.
Microsoft has begun to make its foray into the image editing market as well. While Windows has included basic image editing software for years (Windows Paint), Microsoft went full-force into the market last year when it acquired Image Composer, a package that combines the basic elements of PhotoShop with rudimentary versions of the drawing and text formatting features you'll find in high-end illustration packages such as Adobe Illustrator or Freehand.
Early next year, Microsoft will release PhotoDraw 2000, an even more powerful tool that can be used both for photo editing and creating graphics for documents and the Web.
With all these choices, it helps to get an grip on the basics first before wandering into the deep end of Salvador Dali-like photosurrealism. There are a couple of things you can do with almost any image editor to improve sub-par photos.
The first is cropping - trimming the image to focus on a specific part of the photo and get rid the extraneous stuff that finds its way into your pictures. Most image editing tools let you select a part of the photo and remove everything outside it with one or two easy steps.
Next on the list are adjustments to contrast, brightness and color balance. If you're taking pictures with a small flash or in a marginally lighted room, these features will save many images from the digital trash can.
Some packages, such as Sierra Imaging's Image Expert, have a single mouse-click "auto fix" feature that corrects common problems, as well as interactive tools for all three common adjustments.
Many image editors bundled with hardware include a set of elementary special effects. For example, the Image Expert packed with my Epson PhotoPC 600 digital camera includes distorting effects like "fish-eye" and "glass block," and a color inverting feature to create digital "negatives." Use these sparingly, unless you want to induce seasickness or faux acid flashbacks.
PhotoDeluxe Home Edition, which retails for $99, includes EasyPhoto, a basic image editor. But the PhotoDeluxe add-ons include special effects such as image repair, which automatically removes scratches from scanned photos and red-eye from flash pictures.
You can apply artistic touches, such as "colorizing" an old black-and-white picture, adding textures or creating effects such simulated motion. There's even a step-by-step menu that takes you through more complicated tasks, such as grafting your head onto someone else's body.
Once you've mastered techniques using Adobe's "guided activities," you can strike out on your own to create new effects with PhotoDeluxe's advanced menus.
I used PhotoDeluxe's "Smart Select" tool to do some creative cropping, cutting people out of a photo and deleting the background. Once that was done, I could relocate my subjects in more exotic locales, or put them in a setting with people they'd never be seen dead with. If you've ever had trouble getting people together for a family picture, PhotoDeluxe is your answer.
Another attractive feature the PhotoDeluxe Home package is a collection of templates (predesigned documents) for turning photos into greeting cards, calendars, posters and other simple desktop publishing projects, as well as a library of professionally prepared images and clip art.
PhotoDeluxe can also copy images to your personal Web site or drop them into Adobe's PageMill Web page editor.
Microsoft's PhotoDraw 2000 is similar to PhotoDeluxe in its image editing capabilities, but it includes a larger selection of effects, the ability to add freehand drawings and a greater range of options for manipulating the look of images and text.
By itself, PhotoDraw can handle most simple desktop publishing tasks, and can turn just about any image into a professional-looking Web graphic.
PhotoDraw should hit the market early next year - just as those holiday photos get back from the developer. It will integrate well with other Microsoft software such as Word, Publisher and the FrontPage Web editor. Beginners can used its pre-configured settings, while advanced users can tinker to their heart's content.
When starting a new PhotoDraw project, you can select a number of pre-set output sizes in sizes ranging from full-screen images to mailing labels. You can insert your photos into these or open the photos up directly and resize the work area as desired.
Once your picture has been through basic editing, PhotoDraw can apply a number of effects ranging from "outlining" images to creating 3-D "pop-outs." You can even create frame effects with PhotoDraw's PhotoBrush feature, which wraps a photographic image along the outline of a shape or image.
The images in the pre-release version's PhotoBrush feature included snakes, eight-balls, rulers, chains and a host of other eccentric objects suited to frame duty.
PhotoDraw's text effects are also flexible. Once you've added text to your image, you can resize it, change its color, wrap it around your picture in a circle or arch and generally do anything to it that you can do to images and drawings.
Like PhotoDeluxe, PhotoDraw includes generic templates for documents such as certificates, mailing labels, postcards and greeting cards. A "wizard" on the left side of the screen guides you through the use of the template, allowing you to replace the images and text used in it with your own.
Both PhotoDeluxe and PhotoDraw are powerful tools with their own natural constituencies. If you're more apt to color outside the lines, Microsoft's product will give you a little more creative latitude. But either way, your photos need never collect dust in a photo album again.
For information on PhotoDraw, surf to www.microsoft.com. For PhotoDeluxe, surf to www.adobe.com.
Sean Gallagher is managing editor of Information Week Labs. He can be reached at seawkbaltlab.com.
Pub Date: 12/07/98