This is not a detailed or in-deapth review, as the title suggests, these are just my first impressions. A detailed review will come later, if not on this blog, then on one of the Podcasts I contribute to. In the interests of full disclosure, I also want to mention that I didn’t buy my copy of PSE 8, it was a gift from Victor of the Typical Shutterbug and Typical Mac User Podcasts as a thank-you for the contributions I make to his shows. But, to be clear, it was not a gift from Adobe or anyone in any way related to Adobe. I should also say that, historically, I’ve never had a very high opinion of Adobe or their software. I’ve generally looked at their stuff as bloated, insecure, over-priced rubbish. Perhaps a little over-the-top, but certainly not without valid reasons. However, Photoshop is THE definitive photo editing software, so I’m determined to give PSE 8 a fair try.

I’ve had it for about two weeks now, but only last week have I really started to use it heavily, it took me a while to make myself at home enough with it to really get stuck in. My initial impressions are exceptionally mixed. It’s a constant clash of things I really love, and things I really hate.

The Bad

Lets start with the two most obvious downsides, firstly, this app may run on OS X, but it’s not a Mac app. It doesn’t look, feel, or behave like a Mac app. It’s an Adobe app. I guess if you use other Adobe products you may actually like their unique take on user interface design, but if you’re a Mac user who’s used to, and likes, all apps their apps having a consistent UI, you’re going to hate the Interface. It follows all the worst stereotypes of windows application design. Non-standard user interface elements all over the place, and more clutter than you can shake a stick at. Buttons here, there, and everywhere, many of them very small, and their meaning often far from obvious. I always get the impression that in the Windows world people assume that a cluttered interface is a sign of a powerful app, and conversely, that a sparse interface must be a sign of a featureless app. If that’s true, then Adobe were clearly determined to prove that this really is a very very powerful app indeed!

As well as being cluttered, the interface is also inconsistent, with some dialogues being OS X standard ones, and others not. Also, the app is not properly aware of Spaces, and PSE windows cannot be moved from space to space in all the normal ways. I’ve found myself forced to use the f8 all spaces view to retrieve a window that opened itself in the wrong space. If you use Spaces a lot, prepare to swear at this app!

The other ever-present problem with the app is that it’s intentionally crippled. Adobe have a perverse incentive here not to make PSE too good, because if they do, no one will buy the full Photoshop. This is the complete opposite of a product like Pixelmator which is striving to be the best editor it can be. If you’re looking for features, then save yourself some money and go with Pixelmator!

So far I’ve run into two particularly arbitrary and ridiculous limitations. Firstly, PSE 8 supports layer masks, but only on some layers. If you want a mask on one of the limited types of adjustment later provided, no problem, but if you want a masks on any other layer, forget it! The technology is clearly built into the product, but Adobe have arbitrarily decided to prevent your from using it. The ultimate irony is that people have found way around this, so-called ‘faux layer masking technique’, so really, all Adobe have achieved here is placing a pointless hurdle in the way of their users.

The second pointless limitation I’ve hit so far is the inability to edit 16bit files. If you want to move your files around from program to program it’s important that you lose as little as possible date as you convert the file to what ever intermediate format you use to pass the image around. When you start off with RAW files you have a lot of data to preserve, so Aperture, like many other editors, will export the image as a 16bit TIFF file. If you open a 16bit TIFF in PSE 8 it will display the file without issue, but refuse to allow you do any edits at all until you down-sample it to an 8bit file. In other words, you have to throw away valuable data to use PSE 8.

Ultimately, these arbitrary limitations serve as a reminder that Adobe didn’t want to make a great editor when they made PSE 8, they just wanted to make it a good editor.

Finally, before I get onto the good stuff, I’ve been very disappointed by the view PSE 8 gives of large images. When it re-sizes them to fit them into the editor window they look terrible, very pixelated compared to any other editor I’ve ever used.

The Good

So, what about the good stuff? Is there any? Of course there is!

Firstly, I was shocked, in the good way, at just how many power features have been included in PSE 8. The “recompose” feature is astonishing! It can sense what parts of an image are important, and preserve those while you re-scale the image. You can turn a landscape shot of three people on a beach into a portrait shot by just dragging in the edges. It will sense what’s just sand and sky, and what’s a person, and preserve the aspect ratio of the people, while squashing the sand. This has the result that the spacing between the people shrinks, but the people don’t. This is very complex stuff, and was not added to the full Photoshop all that long ago, yet here it is in PSE 8 now! There are other very advanced features too, like intelligent exposure changes and face recognition. These amazing power features make the lack of simple layer masking seem even more stupid.

Secondly, although the interface is cluttered, inconsistent and non-standard, it does have some very smart aspects to it. In particular the application effectively has multiple interfaces for different user abilities. There are three version of the interface, targeted at complete beginners, intermediate users, and power users. I haven’t really played with the more basic interfaces because they are just not for me, but, if I had to pick an editor for someone who’s not a photo geek and who has no interest in becoming a photo geek, then I’d have to recommend PSE 8 highly. The basic interface is based around tasks that the user may want to do. If you’re not a power user then you can’t do much with Pixelmator, but you’ll get a hell of a lot done with PSE 8!

Another great feature in PSE 8 is support for Photoshop plugins. Many people make fantastic plugins for Photoshop that do really powerful things. Many, if not most, of these will also work in PSE 8. That alone adds real power. I’m a huge fan of the Topaz plugin suite from Topaz Labs, and although they allow you to use the plugins from within Aperture using TopazFusion, you get a much better experience using them from within PSE 8. The integration is a lot cleaner, and because you have the ability to use layers and set layer transparencies, you can easily tweak the result by blending it with the original. I find that no matter how subtle I try to be with Topaz, the effects always come out looking a little too harsh for my tastes, but I’ve found that blending the adjusted version with the original with about a 75% transparency gives lovely results. You can do this easily in PSE 8, but not at all in Aperture. That’s why I now use PSE 8 to access Topaz rather than Topaz Fusion directly from Aperture.

I’ve also found the editing tools very easy to use, and the keyboard shortcuts very intuitive and quick to learn. If you can work around not having layer masks, it’s actually very pleasant to work on images in PSE 8. I’ve particularly fallen in love with the magic wand selection tool.

Some Final Thoughts – For Now

As I get more comfortable with PSE 8 I’m sure I’m going to find more and more gems in here. I’ve installed a Photoshop action that mimics proper layer masking, so that may well make a big difference in how I use the product. I should also mention that, perhaps unsurprisingly, PSE 8 is a memory hog! Open up a few big images, do some serious editing, and you’ll see the RAM usage balloon. At one stage yesterday PSE 8 was using about 5GB of RAM! Since my 1st generation MBP is maxed out with 2GB that meant lots and lots of paging to and from swap, and a very sluggish system. This won’t be nearly as big of a problem on newer machines of course.

As I said in my introduction, this is an app of extremes, ranging from extreme brilliance to extreme stupidity. You are using an intentionally crippled app, and you are going to bump into those limitations. However, right now this second, if my mother asked me what image editor to get, and she was a Windows user, I’d tell her to get PSE 8. If she were a Mac user I’d probably suggest iPhoto as a first app still. If someone is an iPhoto user and they want to go to the next level, then I’d also consider PSE 8 a good choice. However, if you’re a power user looking for an affordable Photoshop alternative, I’d still have to recommend Pixelmator above PSE 8, Pixelmator is not crippled and it’s cheaper. But, as I said, these are just my initial thoughts. I’m going to keep using PSE 8, and keep exploring it’s potential. I’m sure my views will change as I get more and more experience with it.