Adobe Photoshop Elements 2019 review: Trapped in the photo-editing middle ground
Just as you can rely on the Christmas decorations arriving in the supermarkets every October, so too can you can count on a new release of Photoshop Elements.
The consumer-friendly version of the industry-standard photo editor has been, frankly, trundling along for many a year. A scattering of new features are added every autumn to justify a fresh version, but in an era when tablet and smartphone apps are getting ever-more sophisticated and enthusiast-grade editors are getting cheaper, it's getting harder to justify Photoshop Elements' very existence.
Does the 2019 version do anything to pull Elements back from the brink?
Adobe Photoshop Elements 2019 review: Price
Elements is something of a black sheep in the Adobe stable. While almost all of the company's other apps have been sucked into the monthly subscription model, Elements remains one of the very few pieces of Adobe software you can buy as a one-off, perennial licence.
And while we have long bemoaned the lack of striking new features in Elements releases, it's easy to forget how much editing power lies beneath the software's consumer-friendly surface. Plunge the software into Expert mode and you'll find many of the power features that are in full-blown Photoshop. Finding a justification to upgrade for those who own a recent edition of Elements, however, is a tougher challenge.
Elements' launch price of £81 is steep, but this software does tend to tumble during sale season, so bear that in mind if you're looking to purchase.
However, at full price Elements starts to butt up against Adobe's own Photography Plan, which includes both Lightroom and full-blown Photoshop. For sure, those tools are overkill for casual photographers taking holiday snaps and pics of the kids, but if you're even faintly keen on photography, the Photography Plan is a tempting option.
More pertinently, Serif's Affinity Photo - which again lacks that beginners' hand-holding but surpasses the tools on offer in Elements' Expert Mode -- is less than £50 for a one-off purchase.
Adobe Photoshop Elements 2019 review: New features
So what's new in Photoshop Elements 2019? The majority of the fresh features come in the form of Guided Edits, where Elements takes you step-by-step through procedures that add effects such as motion blur, removing scratches and blemishes, or popping a colour in a black and white image.
It's fair to say most of the new additions fall into the novelty category, or what Elements cringingly describes as 'fun edits'.
Arguably, the most impressive of these is the 'multi-photo text' process. Here you select a background image, add some large text over the top of it, and then fill each of the letters with a different photo. As with all of the Guided Edits, Elements makes this process practically foolproof, but it only gets you halfway there. For example, there are no instructions on how to move the photos within the frame of the letters, leading to awkward crops like the chopped-off face in the first O of our test image.
Then there's a 'partial sketch' tool, where you can select part of a picture to look like it's been drawn in pencil (coloured or greyscale). This is the kind of edit that tips over into the 'easy way to ruin a nice photo' category, especially as the pencil sketch effect isn't particularly convincing. This is also one of the few times we've seen a Guided Edit fail -- the final step is meant to allow you to flip the parts of the image that are sketched and which aren't, but in our test it simply turned the whole photo into a sketch. (On the, ahem, flip side, that mistake vastly improved the quality of the overall image.)
Further Guided Edits let you overlay a frame and text on a photo, while another lets you create 'fun memes' (we're applying for an injunction to prevent Adobe ever using the word 'fun' again, by the way). These are the type of memes that were popular circa 2012, with the photo in the middle and bold text above and below the image. The Guided Edit works perfectly well, but you do wonder where Adobe's developers have been for the past few years? What are they planning for next year: MySpace support?
In Adobe's defence, it at least makes sharing these memes and other Guided Edits simple -- our 25MB image was automatically resized below Twitter's 2MB hard limit without any user intervention. But the social networks you can share with are restricted to Flickr and Twitter. Again, it's all a bit noughties. Not supporting Instagram, at the very least, is utterly baffling.
Aside from Guided Edits, other new features are desperately thin on the ground. There's a revamped system for making collages. You select the images you want to use from Elements' rather tired looking Organizer, hit the Create button, choose Photo Collage and have a selection of different layouts to choose from. This time it's easy to move the photos around inside the frames and Instagram-style layouts are also included here - although there's still no way to upload directly to that network.
The new features are rounded off with a revamped home screen and a pretty insipid feature that uses "AI" to automatically create slideshows of events such as birthdays and weddings. There wasn't a great deal of the 'I' being used in the slideshows it created for us - pictures seemed to be plucked at random and were often repetitive.
Finally, there's now support for the High Efficiency Image Format if you're running Elements on a Mac.
Adobe Photoshop Elements 2019 review: Verdict
Elements finds itself trapped in an awkward middle ground. If you want to make collages, flashy graphics or to smash your photos with a dozen different filters, there are all manner of free apps available to do it with: Google's Snapseed, Over, Enlight, even Adobe's own Photoshop Express.
If you want the high-end features, such as layer-based editing, the ability to wipe errant objects out of photos or to add gradients to boring skies, then Affinity Photo is perfectly capable and much cheaper -- both on desktop and tablet.
Which leaves us wondering what the point of Photoshop Elements is in 2019. The Guided Edits are very good at steering you through tricky processes and it's lost none of its power, but its competitors have got better and cheaper, while Adobe still clings to an £80 price ticket.
Elements feels like a piece of software that's run out of steam. Will it even make it into the next decade? We wouldn't bet on it.