Before the personal computer, buffing up an old, tattered photograph of Uncle Harry meant one thing: heading to a quality photo shop and paying anywhere from $50 to $300 to pull out the scratches and brighten up his dull brown shirt.
Now, your PC can buff and wax your photos to perfection with image-editing programs that cost less than touching up a single picture the old way.
More properly referred to as graphics editors, programs that allow you to crop, resize, brighten, darken, sharpen and change the colors of photographs have become easier to use with every new release. Some have drawing components that allow you to stretch your creativity, along with filters and other functions that can add sophisticated text to your compositions, twist your images into whimsical or bizarre shapes and whip up textures for your backgrounds.
So sophisticated are the tools today that if you have two photographs of Uncle George from the picnic, you might be able to take his smiling visage from one shot and substitute it for the gummy yawn he displayed in the other.
Before you can work this magic, however, you'll need some sort of hardware and software to get photographs into your PC and some way to get them out. On the input side, digital cameras transfer photos directly to your computer, but they're pricey, at $500 to $1,000 for a 2-megapixel camera that provides near-photofinisher quality. For a lot less money (starting at $100), a good flatbed scanner will turn your normal photo prints into digital images. Try one with a resolution of 600-by-600 dots per inch, which provides good color saturation and crisp images.
Once you've finished editing your photos, you can turn out excellent reproductions on a color inkjet printer. Even inexpensive printers, starting at $150, will produce superb images on photo-style paper, but not very quickly. More expensive models are generally faster and provide at least marginally better quality.
If you don't have a capable printer at home, photo-sharing Web sites such as Club Photo (www.clubphoto.com) and PhotoIsland.com invite you to upload your photographs and have prints made for a fee -- often using commercial-grade printers that will outperform home inkjets.
Another site, eFrames (www.eframes. com), will take your uploaded photograph, put it in the frame of your choice and mail it to whomever you choose.
That said, we put five Windows-based graphics-editing programs, priced at $40 to $100, through their paces to see which were easiest to use, offered the most options and worked best for home and small-business users. None quite match the king of photo-editing programs, Adobe PhotoShop 5.5, which at $600 is designed and priced for professionals. But some are in the ballpark.
Several of the programs, including Canvas 7 Standard Edition, PhotoImpact 5 and Paint Shop Pro 6, offer not only traditional pixel-by-pixel photo editing, but also vector-based drawing tools that use mathematical equations to render images. The big difference for users is that you can resize a vector drawing without the blurring or degrading that occurs with pixel-based images such as photographs.
If you're working on an older computer, be careful which program you choose, because some of these programs require a lot of horsepower. At the low end, PhotoStudio requires only 16 megabytes of memory and 50 megabytes of hard disk space, but others require upward of 64 megabytes of RAM and 200 megabytes of disk space.
Beginners should stick with programs that provide "automatic fixes" and step-by-step help with exposure, contrast, cropping, color balance and ticklish jobs such as removing flash-induced "red eye." These include Ulead PhotoImpact and Adobe PhotoDeluxe. Those who are a bit more computer- and photo-savvy should consider graphics editors aimed at helping small businesses create Web pages and brochures.
Ulead PhotoImpact 5 ($80) takes honors as our favorite all-around graphics editor under $100. Its simple interface makes it easy to understand, but you'll find features that only more expensive graphics programs perform, such as layering multiple images, cloning one part of a picture to another, warping your photos or adding artistic effects such as watercoloring.
Looking for a light touchup? Select Auto-Process and then choose to have the program enhance or correct every part of the photograph. Or, you can choose specific functions, such as sharpening the focus. A step-by-step wizard will explain each tool before you use it.
PhotoImpact also is a good beginning program for anyone who wants to create graphics for homemade Web pages. It won't build the page itself, but it can prepare graphics by cropping them, reducing their file size and lightening photographs for use on the Web. Almost every program reviewed here performs these tasks, but none as quickly as PhotoImpact.
Frequently packaged with scanners, digital cameras and other hardware, Adobe PhotoDeluxe Home Edition 4.0 ($50) does just about everything you need to get a photograph from bad to good shape with step-by-step help.
Its tutorials are to the point if you need a quick start on editing jobs for the family photo album. Crop a photograph with a couple of mouse clicks, pull the red-eye out 30 seconds later and brighten it in another 15 seconds.
PhotoDeluxe is a great introduction to image editing for someone who wants to go on to more sophisticated programs. It will help you convert a scanned picture or an image from a digital camera into a JPEG -- the most compressed and popular photographic format used on the Web -- and then e-mail the photograph to family and friends. PhotoDeluxe 2.0 is available for the Macintosh.
The only downside to Jasc Paint Shop Pro 6 ($100) is that it doesn't have the auto-fix button found in Photo Impact and Photo Deluxe. But PSP has helped many photographers without much money make so-so photos look good.
Although PSP's learning curve isn't steep, you'll have to play with its features to see the effects of brightening, darkening and cloning parts of an image. You can view multiple photographs on your digital camera or on your computer's hard drive through PSP's browse function. This makes choosing the picture you want to edit fast work.
Moreover, amateur graphics editors around the country share their PSP know-how through dozens of Web sites. In fact, its strongest asset is the group of geeks who love to play with it and tell their friends how to have fun.
ArcSoft PhotoStudio 2000 ($40) does a lot of work for very little money. While it impresses by allowing you to create collages, Web graphics and a panoramic picture from multiple photographs with ease, it's a powerful photo-editing program in its own right, with a friendly interface.
For example, if you want to clean acne from a pimply face, PhotoStudio does the job intuitively. The red-eye removal button works better than any of the others reviewed here. But if you don't like to fool around with these things, the program has a one-click fix for adjusting image sharpness, tone, brightness and color.
Once installed to your computer, PhotoStudio places an icon on your desktop that allows you to instantly link with PhotoIsland.com. And like several of the programs reviewed here, an album manager to keep your photographs straight is part of the program.
Deneba Canvas 7 Standard Edition ($100) is similar to Paint Shop Pro in approach. An image-editing and layout program based on the more expensive Canvas 7 Professional Edition, SE's features makes it ideal for more sophisticated home, school and business projects such as newsletters, restaurant menus and stationery. Some 500 fonts and 10,000 pieces of clip art come with the program, which is also available for the Mac.
Just don't expect much automation. A one-step picture enhancement button doesn't exist. You'll have to study the manual to determine which buttons brighten the image or sharpen the focus. On the other hand, if you're graduating to SE from a less expensive program, you'll recognize some standard icons.
We liked Deneba's software because it offered the best interface for working with photographs, drawings and text at the same time -- far better than the less expensive programs.