- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 31, 2010

For the low, low price of $1,400, you can order the world’s largest Swiss Army knife, complete with “87 precision-engineered tools, spanning 112 functions,” according to the venerable Hammacher Schlemmer catalog.

For a lot less money — $199 for an upgrade, $699 for the regular boxed product — you can get the world’s largest “Swiss Army knife of photo-editing software,” more popularly known as Adobe’s Photoshop CS5.

In both cases, we’re not talking about a product designed for everyone. The $1,400 knife would probably require a lead-lined pocket, or perhaps a wheelbarrow to carry it around. And Photoshop CS5 is well and truly a very serious tool for very serious photographers.

But if you are one of those, or if you aspire to be one of those, or if you need to work creatively with digital pictures, there is simply no better piece of software anywhere on earth than Photoshop CS5 — at least, none that I’ve seen.

Take high dynamic-range imaging, or HDR, which either merges multiple images of a photo, or digitally tunes an image, to produce a shot with a greater dynamic range of luminances between the darkest and lightest areas of a photograph. Translated into English, you can get a more “photo-realistic” view of a given scene, or, conversely, a more stylized one.

A photography student I know says you can achieve these kinds of results with a few hours of work at a computer. Me? I just clicked a couple of buttons in Photoshop and made a 2006 shot of the U.S. Capitol dome come out in all sorts of renderings. Very cool, I’d say.

Now, move on to what some call “the ex factor,” and what I call the “Trotsky Conundrum.”

If you’ve dumped your significant other — or, if you’re Uncle Joe Stalin and you just had someone dump Trotsky from the Politburo — you may be stuck with all these old photos of the ex (or Leon) that you might still want to use. For Stalin’s minions, this required a razor blade applied to the negatives. For your ex, it’s a new feature called “Content-Aware Fill.”

Highlight the ex, drop them out of the photo, and Photoshop will take notice of the surroundings, such as the brick wall said “ex” was standing in front of, and fill in the missing person’s space with bricks. Another cool item, although Taylor Swift probably won’t release a single about “Just Another Picture to Content-Aware Fill” anytime soon.

The painting effects of Photoshop CS5 are equally breathtaking. You can touch up buildings, or other landscape elements (not to mention people) in all sorts of extraordinary ways, and the result is quite gorgeous. Among the specific painting features, Adobe says, are a “Mixer Brush, which offers on-canvas color blending; Bristle Tips, which let you create lifelike, textured brush strokes; [and] an onscreen color picker.” All I know is, this all packs a lot of power into one application.

At the same time, Photoshop does its normal tasks of straightening, sharpening and adjusting photos, manually or automatically, with ease. And yes, you can process images for the Web, for mobile devices or for use in print publications. As I said, this really is a highly versatile, all-in-one kind of application. It’s something you will want to have on your computer if working with photos is part of your daily life.

Another plus, to this reviewer at least, is that Photoshop CS5 remains a cross-platform application: You can get versions for Microsoft Windows and Apple’s Mac OS X platforms. Diversity reigns!

The bottom line, of course, is whether you really need to spend $700 (retail) for this product. Upgrading, at $199, is almost a no-brainer: Current users get so many new features that the price is, frankly, a steal. For the rest of us, if we don’t have an older version for which an upgrade may be obtained, it’ll take some thought.

But look at it this way: A new camera body or lens is often viewed, rightly, as an investment. Photoshop CS5 promises to repay great dividends to users who invest not only the cash, but also the effort to learn its many features.

E-mail mkellner@washingtontimes.com