As free photo editors have come and gone, and Adobe’s flagship Photoshop app has gotten ever larger and more complex, one stalwart offering continues to reliably improve each year — Photoshop Elements. Once a poor stepchild to its flagship sibling, Elements increasingly offers everything most photographers actually need. With this month’s release of Elements 15, it even features some capabilities that aren’t yet found in Lightroom or Photoshop. I’ve been using both Photoshop Elements 15 and its video-focused companion Premiere Elements 15 for a few weeks now. Let’s step through all the changes.
Elements 15 is designed to let you work faster
The single biggest difference in using Photoshop Elements, versus Lightroom or Photoshop, is that Elements actually helps you figure out how to do something, rather than forcing you to search the web for video tutorials every time you need to learn a new task. This is an incredible benefit, and we’ve written before about its graceful use of Wizard, Guided, and Expert modes to let you get your feet as wet.
With version 15, Adobe has added a number of new guided edits, to further increase the set of tasks you can do easily. They include ones for making photo text, creating “painterly” effects, speed panning effects, collages, and custom frames. In the spirit of working faster, you can now do instant fixes in a batch. And for those with a touchscreen, those and many other portions of Elements — including the Organizer — have been made touch-friendly.
Smart Tags: Pretty cool, but be prepared to pay a performance penalty
One exciting new feature of Photoshop Elements 15 is common object recognition. The software has a built-in, pre-trained AI sub-system that tags images with the names of common objects it finds in them as it imports them.
Perhaps because of the additional overhead of the object recognition — although it and facial recognition continue in the background after images are imported — one place where Photoshop Elements 15 under-performs Lightroom is creating large catalogs. To test this, I pointed Photoshop Elements 15 at a 500,000 image folder hierarchy that resides on our high-performance Synology NAS (connected over Gigabit Ethernet) and let the app catalog it. After a few days (literally) it had gotten through about two-thirds of them. For comparison, Lightroom was able to make it through cataloging all those images in just over a day. Even a couple days later, Photoshop Elements 15 was still using most of my 6-core CPU to run the recognizer in the background on the images I’d imported. Depending on your needs, you might want to turn the recognizer off most of the time, and experiment with it before leaving it on.
Sometimes the object recognizer did a great job, and was quite versatile, such as with these images all coming up when I looked for cars:
Unfortunately, other times I was a little mystified by its results. Here, for example, are the images it told me had both a table and a cat:
Those examples highlight the new-and-improved Search capabilities of Elements 15. Searching by person — once you tag people by name based on the facial-recognition system — is still there, as well as searching by place for geotagged photos. But now there’s a full-on Boolean search that can use image tags, including keywords you’ve manually applied, and Smart Tags that Elements added after running its object-recognition software over your catalog.
Expert mode gets some love, but some rough edges for image management power users
Version 15 extends the photo filter capability in Expert mode, with easy access to 99 filters and previews of the results. The Adjust Faces capability released for Photoshop earlier this year is also available, although in a slickly guided form that actually makes it a lot easier to use.
In addition to the heavy toll the new features take on performance (although both Smart Tags and Facial Recognition can be turned off), there are still some areas that could be improved to help out serious photographers. First, there doesn’t seem to be a way to automatically stack already existing RAW + JPEG images. You can do it on fresh imports from the camera, but not for your existing shots. Second, the Grid display only offers a couple of layouts, so you can’t customize the information you see. Filtering is also much less powerful than in Lightroom (other than the addition of the Smart Tags). Sharing to Facebook and YouTube is now easier than before, and the variety of photo products you can create has been expanded.
Premiere also gets upgraded with some Photoshop-like capabilities
For those not familiar with Premiere Pro, its interface makes Photoshop look simple. So for anyone who isn’t a professional video editor, the much more user-friendly interface (and dramatically lower cost) of the Elements version make it a pretty easy choice. With version 15, Photoshop’s popular Dehaze filter is now available in Premiere Elements. Even more impressively, so are Adjustment Layers. Premiere also gets the new integrated Search capability, and touch support, found in the new Photoshop Elements.
There is one new, interesting Guided Edit that allows you to create a “signature look” for your videos by applying effects across a batch of clips or an entire movie. People-centric quick videos can be created by leveraging the built-in face recognition. Smart Trim gives priority to footage featuring people. Similarly, pan and zoom filters can help create those popular “Ken Burn’s style” video clips from your photos. To go along with that, the music mixer can now intelligently remix your audio clips to match your movie’s length. Like the new Photoshop Elements, Premiere Elements also offers integrated sharing to Facebook and YouTube.