Photoshop Elements brings much of the visual magic pioneered by Adobe Photoshop to nonprofessional consumers. Adobe’s consumer photo editing software continues to make splashy Photoshop effects possible for novices to accomplish. Like Adobe’s Creative Cloud applications, new features in the 2021 version—including face tilting and photo animation—take advantage of Adobe’s AI technology, called Sensei. What’s more, Elements provides many of Photoshop’s tools and capabilities without requiring you to sign up for a subscription, as its big brother does. With its wealth of tools and ease of use, Photoshop Elements remains a PCMag Editors’ Choice winner for enthusiast-level photo editing software.
How Much Does Photoshop Elements Cost?
You can either purchase Photoshop Elements together with its enthusiast-level video-editing companion, Premiere Elements, for $149.99, or buy it alone for $99.99. A 30-day trial version is available for download, too. Note that the app’s installer is not small, at 2.4GB, and the installed program takes up 2.5GB, so make sure your PC (or Mac, for which Elements is also available) has enough free disk space. The software requires an Intel 6th Generation or newer processor or AMD equivalent with SSE4 support runs on Windows 10 version 1903 or later, and on Apple macOS versions 10.14 through 11. I installed Elements on my test PC, a 4K touch-screen Asus Zen AiO Pro Z240IC all-in-one PC.
What’s New in Photoshop Elements?
New for the 2021 version is AI-powered Moving Photos (which turns static pictures into animated GIFs) and face tilting. Three new Guided Edits bring the total number to 58. New choices let you create social posts with text overlays, perfect landscapes (complete with enhanced skies), and create duotone images. The 2021 version adds support for Adobe Creative Cloud online storage so you can share work between Elements and Creative Cloud apps such as Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop proper. It also lets you back up the database catalog that keeps track of all your edits.
Recent years’ updates have progressively added powerful improvements and tools, often inherited from Photoshop itself. Notable among them are Subject Select, Automatic Colorization, Object Removal, one-click skin smoothing, pattern objects, and the astounding Open Closed Eyes capability. Adobe has also gradually made improvements to the interface as well as underlying performance and image format support, such as adding support for the HEIC format used by recent Apple iPhones.
The Organizer App
The main photo editing program is joined by two utilities, the Start window and the Organizer, which you generally pass through before opening the actual editor. In the past, I’ve lamented the delay in getting to the editor, but I do see value in both. The Start window is not only your portal to both Photoshop Elements and Premiere Elements, but it also presents some extremely useful features. On it you see tips for how to use new editing tools, links to most recent files you worked on, and Auto Creations—slideshows and collages the program automatically generates from your content.
The Organizer application, as its name implies, is where you import, group, tag, and output your photos. You don’t have to use it, but it offers a lot of capabilities that would otherwise clutter the main editing application. Its powerful search, auto curation, and sharing tools can be useful additions to the standard organization tools. Competitors like Corel PaintShop Pro and ACDSee dispense with the extra application and do everything in one interface. Four main mode choices appear at the top of the Organizer’s window: Media, People, Places, and Events.
The Organizer search bar lets you filter content by people, place, keyword tags, media type, date, and folder. You can combine search criteria to narrow down the results, too. Smart Tags automatically identify what’s in the photo—an animal, a face, a landscape, a flower—following the artificial intelligence and machine learning trend we’ve seen in Flickr, Google Photos, and OneDrive. This cutting-edge technology saves you from having to explicitly apply tags to photos, though you can still do it yourself if you want more control.
Organizer’s Places mode showed my iPhone photos’ location based on their embedded GPS data, but the Places section on the Search page told me there were no Places tags to search by—you have to enter location tags manually for anything to show up here. It’s annoying when one part of a program has information that’s not accessible in another feature. Also, I prefer the way the built-in photography apps in Windows 10 and macOS let you see a small map in the Info panel while viewing an individual photo.
To search based on faces, you must first supply names in the People module. The program detects all faces and tries to match them to any you’ve already identified, but it’s not 100 percent accurate and sometimes is fooled by profiles or weird angles. It’s easy to add photos to a face tag by confirming the program’s proposed images. Once you do this, though, you can search for all photos that have Jordan and Max in them, or for all photos with Jordan or Max, which is nifty.
Below the search bar is the Auto Curate check box. The first time I tried to check this, it said Auto Curation was in progress—understandable, since it analyzes your entire photo library. A few minutes later I could see the chosen images, with a slider to increase or decrease the number of photos shown. The fewer you choose, the higher the quality of the photos that appear. So, for example, you can see what the program thinks are your 50 best photos or your 100 best (10 is the minimum). The app looks for things like lighting, composition, focus, and even emotional impact. Most of my results understandably included humans, and the tool did turn up a bunch of good shots I’d forgotten about. You can even apply Auto Curate to a search, so you could find, for example, your best shots of mountains or cats.
I have a couple of quibbles with the interface, however. One is that you can’t double-click on a photo in Organizer’s search results to launch it in the editor. The second is that there’s no option for smart albums, such as Last Import, like those you get in Apple Photos and Adobe Lightroom.
Speaking of importing, Photoshop Elements trails other software in the speed of this operation. I tested import performance with a batch of 146 raw images on an SDHD Class 4 card from my Canon EOS 80D to a Core i7 PC with 16GB RAM and an SSD. The import took Photoshop Elements’ 5:29 (min:sec) compared with the pro industry standard Lightroom Classic’s 4:09 and direct competitor CyberLink PhotoDirector’s 3:58. I have yet to test import speed on more photo applications on my new work-from-home system for more comparison.
After I had Elements import about a couple hundred photos and video clips, the home screen showed me more than a dozen Auto Creations it had produced from my content. From photos shot around the same area and time, it produced pleasant collages, which benefited from a bit of editing and photo swapping. The feature also produced several slideshows of varying interest from my test media, with effective transitions and backgrounds. The background music was usually well chosen to fit the image subjects, but it often stopped abruptly, rather than fading out. Some were so short as to be pointless. In any case, the project can provide starting points for your own creativity.
Elements still lacks one feature found in Apple Photos, Google Photos, and Windows Photos—automatic album creation. Those products group photos from locations and time periods and automatically suggest albums. Though these don’t always hit the mark, they can be a good way to get you started with albums.
Photoshop Elements really comes into its own when you move from the Organizer to its full editor app. The program makes many of Photoshop proper’s high-end image manipulation capabilities but without the same degree of difficulty. Many of the tools—particularly content-aware ones that let you do things like removing areas or objects without disrupting the background—are unique to Adobe software.
Elements Effects feel like Instagram squared, with controls that the mobile app simply can’t match. The Smart Looks tool chooses an effect based on image analysis, with four variations. These matched the image types of my test shots well. And Quick mode’s FX options offer four variations on the standard Vintage, Cross Process, and Toy Camera options, among seven others. I like how this tool shows your actual image under the influence of the effect, rather than just a sample image, as some programs do.
When you choose the crop tool, you see four proposed crops in the bottom panel, based on faces found and other criteria. It works impressively, framing group photos and suggesting creative looks for landscapes. The crop tool, too, is suitable for many professional use cases, letting you specify standard aspect ratios and even a target size in pixels.
Expert mode offers near-Photoshop levels of control, complete with filters, layers, actions (the ability to run preset Actions like resizing and effects, not to create them), histograms, and tons of artistic and graphic effects. As with Photoshop, you get an array of tool buttons along the left, and edited files are saved in Photoshop PSD format. For web producers, there’s the Save for Web option, which optimizes (that is, reduces the file size) of images for online display.
Comic, Graphic Novel, and Pen & Ink are among some of the more noteworthy filters you can apply to your images. These don’t appear in the Filter Gallery, but must be chosen from the Filter menu directly, which may be an oversight. That said, they can produce some pretty amazing effects.
Expert Mode also has a generous selection of content, such as backgrounds, frames, and shapes to spruce up a photograph. The Text tool lets you wrap text around a shape, so it doesn’t overlap important parts of an image. Character-styling options are far less extensive than those in Photoshop, however.
Select Subject is simply a button that appears at the bottom panel when you’re using the selection brush; it’s also available from the Select menu. It worked admirably on all but photos with backgrounds that blended in with the subject using similar colors.
The Recompose tool is one of the program’s most impressive features, letting you change the aspect ratio of an image without stretching or squashing faces and the like. You can even remove selected objects and mark others for preserving. Recompose did a good job letting me move my big head closer to a friend without distorting a test picture, though I did have to crop the photo to remove a duplicate head.
You can also do standard Photoshop things, such as blur, sharpen, and add imagery. There’s a good selection of clip art, too. The spot-healing brush does an excellent job at removing blemishes. I also removed a sign in the background of a photo by brushing in the texture from a forest in the image with the healing brush.
When you open a raw file from a DSLR or high-end mirrorless camera, the program starts out in a separate Adobe Camera Raw window, where you have access to color, exposure, and detail, controls. It does include Adobe’s raw Profiles—such as Color, Portrait, and Vivid—along with noise reduction, but Elements has no chromatic aberration correction. There are also lens distortion corrections, but they don’t use profiles to base automatic corrections on your equipment the way Lightroom and DxO PhotoLab do. The raw importer has red-eye reduction and cropping, which seems like an unnecessary duplication of what’s in the editor app.
Most portrait photographers are adept at smoothing skin, and Element’s Smooth Skin enhancement is designed to simplify the process. It identifies faces, overlays a circle—not an ellipse—and lets you smooth or blur the area; you can adjust the intensity of the smoothing. It’s a quick fix, but I think you’re better off applying Gaussian blur to a selection or using the Spot Healing brush.
The Adjust Facial Features tool is accessible from the Enhance menu. Open this, and a window pops up with all the faces circled. A right-side panel offers adjusters for Lips (with Smile and related sub-choices), Eyes, Nose, and Face. The last lets you change the forehead height, jawbone shape, and chin height. Just as with the similar tool in Photoshop, you can have a lot of fun with this. It does a great job identifying the facial features and convincingly modifying them. It’s probably best to use these tools sparingly unless you want your friends looking like strangers.
A new face feature for 2021 lets you change the tilt and direction of multiple faces in a photo. It works well for subtle adjustments but can’t help you if the face in the original is in profile.
Open Closed Eyes is a cool tool that debuted in the 2018 version. You find it under the Enhance menu in either Quick or Expert mode. When you open a photo in Open Closed Eyes, you see circles around any faces in the image, with the closed-eye faces highlighted. Then you have to choose an eye source—the fixed open eyes needn’t come from the same person’s face as the one with closed eyes! Believe me, if you do this with the glamor model sample eye source photos Adobe provides, you’ll be in for some laughs.
When using the same person’s eyes, the results are decent; the closer the shot of the source eyes to the shot you want to open eyes on, the better. I still wish Adobe included some type of refinement tools for getting the lighting and detail closer to the original’s. If nothing else, Open Closed Eyes is a fun trick.
New with the 2021 version of Photoshop Elements is the Moving Photos effect, found at the bottom of the Enhance menu. Creating animated GIFs can be tricky without tools designed specifically for them. This feature creates a very specific type of animation, in which the photo subject or the whole photo zooms, pans, or rotates.
There are 11 movement options, with thumbnails that preview what they do for you. You double-click one of them to apply them to your picture, which took about 20 seconds for some photos in my tests. You can play the effect with a standard play arrow button.
The 3D option is probably more impressive, as it selects the photo’s subject and only moves that. If you turn off the 3D Effect slider, the whole photo moves, rather than just the subject. If you choose a photo without a clear subject, the 3D can still be cool, making it look like the camera is moving in a circle.
I like that the tool lets you choose export file size, since one image I tried to share was over 25MB, which Facebook Messenger didn’t accept. That said, it would be nice to have more options when creating the animation, such as looping, refining the selection of what moves, or adjusting the distance of the motion.
This tool makes impressive use of AI to colorize black and white pictures. After converting your image from monochrome to RGB and churning for a while, Auto mode presents you with four versions of your photo colorized. The top two choices skew towards warm tones, and the bottom two cool. It handles various skin colors with aplomb. I do wish you could adjust the intensity of the colorization within the tool, but you can always tweak colors with the separate Hue/Saturation tool.
Colorization is especially adept at identifying water bodies and vegetation for correct color rendering. The Manual mode is completely different. It lets you select areas of an image that you want to out and out change the colors. You can turn a blue shirt red, for example. This works better with solid colors than for patterns, though it handles varying lighting on the selected areas well.
Guided Edits are one way that Elements helps novices create advanced, pro-level Photoshop Effects. They’re basically wizards that use tools within the app. If you knew what you were doing, you wouldn’t need the Guided Edits to create these effects, but we don’t all have MFAs. Meme-Maker, Partial Sketch, Text and Border Overlay, and Multi-Photo Text appeared in the 2019 update. A gallery of Guided Edits shows sample images of what they do, and swiping the cursor over these reveals the before and after. There are also tabs for different effect types, like Basics, Color, and Fun. There are now over 50 Guided Edits in all (enough that it would be nice if you could search for them). Below, I take you through a few of the newer and cooler Guided Edits.
Perfect Landscapes. Photoshop recently got the Sensei AI-powered one-click sky replacement tool, and it makes loads of sense for Elements to have it, too. It’s included in the Perfect Landscapes Guided Edit, which also suggests cropping, straightening, and dehazing. It did a bang-up job of beautifying my originally drab shot of the Vatican plaza.
Object Removal. This Content-Aware capability has appeared in many photo apps in the last few years. Now we get a Guided Edit to simplify the process. You use one of the selection tools, and then you simply hit the Remove Object button. You can fine-tune your results with the Spot Healing Brush and Clone Stamp tool after the initial removal.
Duotone Effect. This Fun Guided Edit new for the 2021 version creates a time-honored effect that back in the film days was accomplished with dye toners during enlargement developing. Of course, digital photography and software make it a snap, and far more customizable. It’s one of the simpler Guided Edits: Crop options optimized for social posts get you started, and after that, it’s a simple matter of choosing which color tone you want to apply. Adjust the opacity, and if you want, use two colors separated by a gradient. Shape masks are another option that work for some images. It lives up to its name as a truly fun exercise—and an easy one to use.
Pattern Brush. Corel PaintBrush Pro has long offered what it calls Picture Tubes—shapes like stars or hearts that you can spray onto your image. This Elements Guided Edit is pretty much the same deal. It may sound cheesy, but it’s actually fun. If you’re making a gift card or poster, it could be just what the doctor ordered. You simply select a pattern from the right panel (there are 15 of them, including fireworks, footprints, and leaves as well as hearts and stars) and go to town on your photo. Extra niceties are that the tool can automatically protect the subject from being covered in patterns, and you can blur its edges to make it stand out.
Meme-Maker. Not everyone is a fan of memes, and I realize that this definition of the term—to mean a photo with big text—is a dumbing-down of what the word actually means. But those images with the big text can be effective. Element’s Meme-Maker tool puts a colorful radiating background to your photo along with adding that big block-letter text. You can change the background and optionally apply a few different filters, including newsprint and one similar to the famous Obama Hope poster designed by Shepard Fairey using a photo by Mannie Garcia.
Multi-Photo Text. A while back the video editing programs were all adding features that could create text using your video content. The twist with this image tool is that you can use multiple photos for the letters in your text. You can either add a photo for each letter or preload the Photo Bin and have them flow automatically into the text. You can then choose a solid background color. I could see this being an effective tool for organizations’ flyers and posters.
Painterly. I’m far from being an artist, so if this tool can make me look like one, it has accomplished quite a feat. In fact, Painterly doesn’t require any artistic ability at all. What it does is to use your existing photo for brush strokes. You get five brush styles, and, after applying one (and removing unwanted areas), you can choose a background canvas texture and optionally apply a painterly filter, such as watercolor. Again, this is a fun, easy way to create a more compelling image than your typical snapshot.
Many Photoshop effects involve selecting objects precisely, and either adding or removing them to or from an image. With the Auto Selection tool, you draw a rectangle or shape over the object you want to select, and the tool determines your object’s edges. The earlier Quick Selection tool has you scribble on the object you want to select. I still prefer Quick over Auto, since getting the right shape size and placement is trickier than simply scribbling over the object.
All the selection tools offer a Refine Edge option, which uses a circle with inner and outer selection circumferences. The brilliance of the tool is that it switches between adding and subtracting from your selection depending on whether you’re inside or outside the original selection. You can also hover the tool right over the edge to have Photoshop Elements refine the selection for you—that usually means adding those stray hairs to it. The tool worked impressively on a photo of my niece’s Shih Tzu puppy.
The Photomerge Group Shot tool lets you get the best expression on each person from a series of group shots. You can, for example, give one person’s face their eyes from another shot. Scene Cleaner lets you remove passers-by from a landscape or famous site. Exposure, also called high dynamic range (HDR), fixes by using two or more shots to combine the best version of, say, the clouds in the sky from one picture, and a forest below from a second shot.
The Photomerge Panorama tool offers lots of control, creating a full panorama rather than one with twisted edges. It even fills in empty areas left by the photos and stitching—to impressive effect in my testing—but it can take a long time to do its work. You won’t find that filling option in other software.
Another photo-enhancing tool, Smart Brushes, let you paint effects and adjustments onto specific areas of a photo, including B&W, color, lighting, special effects, and artistic treatments like drawing. These offer a really cool and easy way to make a sky bluer or darken areas of an image.
One trick missing is CyberLink PhotoDirector’s Multiple Exposure, which can automatically build impressive action images with multiple instances of your protagonist.
Finally, one tool that has come down from Photoshop is Shake Reduction. This can automatically sharpen shots in which you shook the camera slightly. It gives you the same control as the Photoshop tool, letting you select the area you want to correct.
Sharing and Output
Elements offers the most output options of any consumer photo editor—whether you’re into creating slideshows, sending picture emails, printing via Shutterfly, burning discs, or uploading to web galleries. You can directly upload to online photo sites, including Flickr and Twitter. I would like to see more social outlets here, such as Instagram, Pinterest, and Tumblr. One minor disappointment is that Elements’ own keyword tags don’t carry over into Flickr, though you can add tags when you do the uploading. Others include the lack of direct sharing to Facebook Messenger, Skype, or WhatsApp. If Adobe had produced a UWP app, all this sharing could be built-in via Windows’ standard Share button.
Elements’ photo slideshows are actually videos. You can start creating one from either the Organizer or by selecting images in the editor and choosing the Create drop-down. You get six templates, including WaterColor, Woods, Pan and Zoom, and Classic. You can change the background music and add or remove images to taste, but the slideshow is generated automatically and starts playing right away, so your layout choices are limited. The tools in Apple Photos and Microsoft Photos offer more customization at this point, with more canned music choices and control over slide duration.
A new option for 2021 in the Create menu is Quote Graphic. It’s basically templates that look sort of light greeting cards that are for use on social media. You can choose a shape that works for stories or posts on Facebook and Instagram primarily. Shapes and graphics can adorn your image as well as text. You can even choose an animation style like those in the Moving Photos discussed above.
A final quick word about help: I’m not a big fan of Adobe’s Web-only help system. I’d love to be able to search within the application for help on tools and techniques. Even a user-guide-type offline help document would be an improvement.
All the Elements You Need for Your Photos
For amateurs who want to get creative with their photos, Adobe Photoshop Elements is still the best game in town. Professionals, of course, can do all this and more with the full Photoshop application, but that comes with a high learning curve and recurring price tag. Elements makes a lot of the coolest Photoshop effects accessible to laypeople. It offers a generous subset of the pro editor’s features in a simpler package.
Competitors can’t match Elements’ array of photo effects, organizational tools, and sharing and output options. With best-in-class tools for getting creative with your digital images, Adobe Photoshop Elements wins our Editors’ Choice for enthusiast photo editing software. Those who are only interested in photography without the extra creativity tools should look to our photo workflow software Editors’ Choice winner Lightroom, and pros will certainly want Photoshop, our Editors’ Choice for professional image editing software.
The Bottom Line
Adobe Photoshop Elements is an excellent option for photo hobbyists who don’t want to pay a subscription or learn complex Photoshop techniques.
Adobe Photoshop Elements Specs
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