Photoshop Elements 5 is really two packages in one: a picture organiser, and a sophisticated photo editor.
Getting your pictures into Photoshop is a matter of plugging your memory card, or the camera itself, into your PC, and Photoshop imports them automatically. While doing this, it recognises similarities between pictures and makes `stacks' of similar looking pictures. This is not particularly successful because it fails to stack pictures of the same subject taken at different zoom levels, different orientations (portrait or landscape) and so on. Adobe perhaps needs to work on this. More successfully, Photoshop automatically recognises red eyes and corrects them before you even touch the pictures. You can also do this by hand once the pictures are in.
The importing software recognises most image formats, including RAW formats for most cameras. You probably won't need to use the picture-grabbing software that came with your camera.
Once the pictures are in the organiser, you have many ways of viewing them, by filename / folder location, date and time, and even by geographic location, since Photoshop lets you pin your pictures to a world map. A nice touch for globetrotters or international agents. The organizer also lets you `tag' pictures with key words like people's names, type of subject, and so on. Useful but not essential, unless you have tons of pictures that you want to search by picture content as opposed to just the date they were taken. Additionally, a couple of clicks will bring up the picture info showing the camera setting you used like aperture size, shutter speed, white balance settings and suchlike.
The really impressive and magical part of Photoshop is the magnificent photo editor, for which no hyperbole would be unjustified. From the organizer, you can call up two editing screens - the quick fix editor, and the full editor.
Most basic corrections can be made via the quick fix screen. These include contrast, sharpness, lighting (darken highlights, lighten shadows), and colour (saturation, colour temperature, green vs. pink tint). Editing is achieved very, very simply using slider controls. You can undo every step in your edit, or revert to the original picture in a single click. There is also a `smart fix' control that will do the whole lot for you in one go. Despite my scepticism, this function works very well indeed. The great majority of pictures can be improved on the quick fix screen in a matter of seconds.
The most enchanting part of Photoshop though is the full editor. Here, tons of point and click tools will apply blur, enrich colours in selected parts of pictures, smooth out blemishes (a VERY clever and useful tool), and level skewed horizons. The menus are mind bogglingly deep, with each option having several sub-options. You can fine-tune colour, lighting and contrast to your hearts content using very accessible colour / brightness curves, and even perk up skin tones. Don't like that picture of you in a green shirt? Change it to a blue shirt, or any other colour you like. Photoshop makes these alterations amazingly convincingly if you take a bit of time over your pictures. It also makes crisp black-and-white pictures with presets for portraits, landscapes, newspaper-style greyscales, etc. All these presets, like most everything else in Photoshop, can be tweaked by the user.
The most fun is to be had in the `Filters' menu. This includes a rich range of photographic filters such as solid colours and gradients, which can be fine-tuned in terms of the tint and density. The only filter you will need to attach to you camera will be a polarizer, for which there is no simulator in Photoshop. There are also many brush, texture, blur, smudge and other artistic and darkroom effects to make your pictures look like they're out of a magazine.
My absolute favourite has to be the Camera Distortion filter, which lets you correct curvature at the edge of the picture when you've used a wide lens, and pinch-in the `bulge' you sometimes get with zooms. This is a splendidly simple process: you tilt the picture to straighten uprights, adjust the bulge / pincushion effect, lighten the lens vignette effect if it's visible, re-crop the white bits out of the picture, and the job's done, all with a few sweeps of the mouse.
After all this playing about, Photoshop will clean up the speckles, noise and jpeg artefacts that sneak in when you take digital pictures. Far from looking phoney or `touched up' after using Photoshop, the pictures look more natural, more like the eye saw the scene, than they did when they came out of the camera. Unless of course you WANT your pictures to look like brass rubbings viewed through frosted glass, which it can also do!
Editing pictures is easy and absorbing with Photoshop. It enhances your enjoyment of your pictures and the whole process of photography, as well as perhaps making you more aware of how to compose and frame your shots for the next shoot. It is dangerously easy to spend hours tinkering with your pictures on Photoshop!
And still there's more. You can make slide shows or interactive albums and burn them to video disks or e-mail them to your friends. You can even get prints if you want (how quaint).
The only omission I've found so far is that there's no easy way to calibrate your monitor brightness and colours to the prints you get from your selected printer / developer. While this can be done using the monitor hardware settings, it's a pain to do it like this, and it surely wouldn't have been too much trouble for Adobe to have included some screen brightness and colour setting options. At present the only way I can compensate for this is to make the on-screen images a tad brighter, because the prints come out a bit darker. Also, printed documentation is sparse, although the Help pages are extensive and user-friendly.
Overall though, this is a superb package. It's comprehensive, very easy to use, and good value for money given the huge number of things it can do. If you've got a digital camera, you need this software.