Can a software program sell for less than $80 and still be all things to all people? That’s the challenge for Corel PaintShop Pro X4, as it tries to straddle the fence between offering much of the power of the high-end photo editing applications, while still being easy enough for novices to use without any training. PaintShop Pro X4 doesn’t include as many professional-level features as Adobe Photoshop CS5 or Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3, but given the much lower purchase price, you wouldn’t expect that. Yet, what's compelling about X4 is how much it does offer. It provides just about everything you need for high quality photo editing through an impressive collection of creative tools and filters.
This latest version has a restructured user interface (UI) that more closely resembles the workflow structure in Lightroom. Corel has also added some highly useful editing features. These include Fill Light and Clarity (for bringing out the darker portions of a photo), HDR Tools (for combining multiple photos to achieve a higher dynamic range), Photo Blend (for swapping out sections of similar photos), Selective Focus (for creating narrowly focused photos), and Vignette (for darkening the edges of a photo).
Best of all, Corel has sped up the program significantly. It’s fair to say that previous versions of PaintShop were often sluggish and sometimes infuriatingly slow. That had been a big problem for notebook users, who generally need to settle for moderate processor speeds, slower hard drives, and less RAM compared with desktop users. Corel PaintShop Pro X4 can perform quite well on today’s typical notebook, especially if you give it at least 2GB of RAM and spool your files from a 7,200-rpm hard drive or an SSD.
Enhanced User Interface (UI)
The redesigned interface is divided into three distinct workspaces: Manage, Adjust, and Edit. Like the Library, Develop, Slideshow, Print, and Web workspaces in Lightroom, the three sections in PaintShop Pro X4 are meant to follow the natural progression of your workflow.
X4 retains the Organizer palette from the previous Corel PaintShop Photo Pro X3 version. Located at the lower portion of the screen, it acts as a thumbnail display for the currently selected folder. The Organizer appears by default in the Manage and Adjust workspaces, but not in the Edit workspace, where you would want the selected image to display as large as possible. Within any of the workspace sections, you can press Shift+F9 to add or remove the Organizer. I used that key combination often when running X4 on my notebook, because I frequently wanted to get a closer look at the image I was editing.
The Manage workspace lets you review and organize your photo files. Using the navigation palette, you can select an entire photo folder on your computer, narrow the selection according to one or more tags that you’ve given to your photos, or narrow the selection according to the ratings that you’ve given to your photos. An info palette lets you add the tags and ratings to the photos. The palette also shows basic information about the selected photo (drawn from the photo’s EXIF data). By default, this workspace previews the selected photo at only a moderate size, although you can hide or alter the size of any of the palettes. Unfortunately, you can’t rearrange the placement of the palettes. As with Lightroom, you can switch back and forth between a Preview Mode, where a single photo is prominent, and a Thumbnail Mode, where many small thumbnails are featured on the screen.
After sorting through your photos and selecting one, you’re ready to move on to editing. The names of the two remaining workspaces can be confusing because both offer a selection of editing tools. The Adjust workspace has the usual correction tools for optimizing color balance, adjusting the brightness and contrast, managing tone mapping, sharpening the image, and removing digital noise. This section also has a handy Smart Photo Fix, which can analyze your photo and suggest adjustments to the brightness, shadows, highlights, and saturation settings. Smart Photo Fix is a good place to start if you’re not sure exactly what might be wrong with the photo.
New Edit Workspace
The Edit workspace is where you’ll find the more complex editing tools. These would appeal to photographers who are willing to spend extra time to bring out the best in their photos. In this workspace, you’ll find a rich assortment of effects, including artistic effects (such as Magnifying Lens and Aged Newspaper) and illumination effects (such as Sunburst). You’ll also find geometric, edge, reflection, texture, and art media effects. Many of these will distort your photos in ways that won’t be appealing. However, there are some hidden gems. Standouts include a Time Machine module for browsing through historical photographic styles, a nice Glowing Edges effect, and a powerful Lights tool with a full set of lighting controls. There’s also a comprehensive set of Photoshop-like drawing tools that you won’t find in Lightroom.
One of the more useful correction filters in the Adjust section is the new Fill Light/Clarity filter. It lets you lighten dark areas of a photo and give the overall image a little extra crispness. If a person’s face is too dark in a photo compared with the surrounding scene, fill light can help you bring out the face without overblowing the highlights in the rest of the image. The Fill Light/Clarity filter consists of two slider controls: one for fill light and one for clarity. You can optionally preview the effect in real time in the Adjust preview window. If you hit on a combination you especially like, you can save the fill light and clarity settings as a preset that can be quickly applied to other photos.
New HDR Tools
Compared with the Fill Light/Clarity filter, the new HDR (High Dynamic Range) Tools feature is far more sophisticated. You can access it from either the Manage or Edit workspace. By combining photos shot with bracketed exposures, you can create a composite photo with a wider dynamic range than would be possible otherwise. PaintShop Pro X4 makes this potentially complicated process relatively simple. You select the exposure-bracketed photos, choose HDR from the File menu, and then choose Exposure Merge. You can have the program auto-select the proper settings for the camera response curve, type of alignment, and crop placement. Alternatively, you can manually adjust those settings yourself. Unfortunately, you can’t preview in real time what those settings would do.
Once you press the Process button, you’ll be able to adjust and preview other HDR variables, such as highlights, contrast, color temperature, midtones, shadows, and strength. Here the large preview window lets you see clearly what the result will be. The resulting HDR photos are very good, and the various controls allow you to apply as much or as little of the HDR effect as you like. Corel also provides a handy Batch Merge option, which lets you process multiple sets of photos with the same HDR settings so that there will be a uniform look across the resulting images.
If you’ve been seeking a quick-and-easy way to try out HDR (perhaps in conjunction with your camera’s auto-bracketing setting), you might consider purchasing X4 just for the new HDR toolset. It’s that useful
New Photo Blend
Have you ever wished you could combine the best parts of two photos to create a more perfect composite photo? Let's say you have two shots of a group of people. The better shot shows a person blinking, but in the less optimal shot the same person is not blinking. With the new Photo Blend feature, you can copy the non-blinking face onto the blinking face. The module helps you align the two photos and select the areas that you want to preserve or remove for the composite photo. With the right photos, the end result can be impressive.
Yet there’s the rub. You need the right photos. Photo Blend works best when the two photos are nearly identical, except for the differences that you want to exchange. If you use a tripod and nothing else shifts within the frame, Photo Blend will be able to perform its magic. However, if you’re shooting handheld and either the camera or the subject has shifted significantly, the blending results will be less than perfect. Bottom line: It’s a cool feature that you may not be able to use as often as you'd like.
Another powerful new feature in PaintShop Pro X4 is the Selective Focus effect, which lets you throw portions of the photo out of focus. Sometimes referred to as a tilt-shift effect or depth-of-field effect, this popular technique is great for isolating a subject from the background or making a busy street appear like a toy set. Corel makes the process fairly easy. The screen shows before and after images, along with moveable bars that position the center point and outer range for the in-focus area. There are slider and numeric controls that let you further pinpoint the effect. You also get the option to preview the result on the larger Edit workspace window. With this kind of effect, where the change is applied differently to different portions of the image, it’s important to view the preview as large as possible, especially if you’re working on a smaller screen.
Being able to darken the edges of a photo is a basic function that should be available in any photo editing application. With X4, Corel has added a full-featured Vignette effect with control over where the darkened area will be placed, how gradually the effect will be applied, and the corresponding shape of the light versus dark areas. Going well beyond the basics, this module allows you to vary the amount of blur outside the unaltered area, add a diffuse glow to the entire photo, and apply a feathered transition between the vignetted and non-vignetted areas. Like the HDR Tools, this is an impressive module with the kinds of settings and controls you would expect from a professional photo editing application.
Other New Features
There are too many other new features to cover here in detail, although some are worth brief mentions because of how much they increase the value of the application. For one thing, PaintShop Pro X4 now supports dual monitors, which could prove useful if your notebook supports a second monitor. Meanwhile, Corel has extended 16-bit color support to a wider range of tools and adjustments than in X3. More than 20 tools have been upgraded to 16-bit color.
Also, X4 makes it simple to upload your photos directly to Flickr or Facebook by providing a one-click sharing button in the Organizer palette. Furthermore, the Camera RAW Lab now has a larger preview window. Unfortunately, PaintShop still handles RAW files more clumsily than Adobe Lightroom, an application that doesn’t require user intervention when editing RAW files. In addition, Lightroom is compatible with a larger number of RAW file formats.
But there’s more (as the late-night television announcer used to say). You can purchase X4 in an ultimate edition. Corel PaintShop Pro X Ultimate includes Nik Software’s Nik Color Efex Pro 3.0 filters plus a collection of KPT filters. Both filter sets install as plug-ins that you can access within the Edit workspace. These filters are well worth the additional $20 that you would pay for the ultimate edition. Corel also throws in a custom Blurb photo book and royalty-free images.
Minimum System Requirements
Even with the redesign, Corel PaintShop Pro X4 still requires a fair amount of horsepower, as well as enough RAM and hard drive space to support the multitude of filters and effects. While X4 costs less than a third of Lightroom3, the system requirements are roughly the same. Minimum system requirements for PaintShop Pro X4 are:
The 1GB hard drive space requirement for X4 now matches the hard drive space requirement for Lightroom. The previous X3 version required 3GB of hard drive space, which shows you just how bloated and unwieldy PaintShop had gotten before this redesign.
X4 still lags behind Lightroom in speed, although the performance gap has significantly narrowed. On a three-year-old desktop computer with 2GB of RAM, some of the processor-intensive tasks, such as HDR Tools and Selective Focus, took as long as 16 seconds to complete. However, on a new Lenovo X22o notebook with 4GB of RAM and a speedy SSD drive, I experienced no appreciable delays. Most of the actions were instantaneous. On both systems, X4 was slower -- but not dramatically slower -- than Lightroom 3.
Despite the improved UI, Corel PaintShop Pro X4 can still feel like a collection of disparate elements packaged together primarily to increase the number of features. Corel provides a decent help system, but it can sometimes be a challenge to find that tool or filter you used only a couple of days ago. That said, X4 is a heck of a bargain if you’re looking for an inexpensive yet powerful photo editing program. It’s easier to use, offers a broader range of creative options, and costs $20 less than Adobe Photoshop Elements 9. Even Lightroom 3 owners might consider adding Corel PaintShop Pro X4 just for its new HDR Tools and Selective Focus filter.
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