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Adobe Photoshop Elements 11 is the all-around gold medalist

Many hobbyists, businesses, digital scrapbookers and even pro photographers say they use Photoshop Elements, which takes the essential elements of Photoshop and turns them into a scaled-down, more user-friendly version of itself. Elements users will not be disappointed with PSE11. There are not many new editing features from version 10 to 11, but what is new is impressive. The redesign of the layout and look, which is more pleasing to the eye and easier to work through, was long awaited and makes a big impact. Almost all reviewers praise the brighter and easier-to-use interface. Users of older versions shouldn't worry about relearning anything on the new design; it's assuredly painless.

Photos and videos are more easily catalogued with a new sorting mechanism. The mapping feature is fun, especially for those who like to travel. You can also organize photos and pull them up by events like weddings, birthdays and holidays. Auto facial recognition tagging can be a little suspect (baby nephew was identified as grandma? Really?). The Organizer is considerably faster but suffers some performance issues, and there have been some complaints about it running in the background and using a lot of memory. PSE11 might not be the best tool for cataloging, organizing and storing photos. It has a lot of capabilities, but just opening the application caused noticeable slowdown.

Photoshop Elements users have always enjoyed playtime with filters, and there are several new ones in this version, including pen and ink, graphic novel and comic effects (nerds take note). Some new collage and graphic design features, and custom templates for calendars, cards and scrapbook pages also offer a great way to showcase your favorite images. This new version gives users more of an opportunity to explore the many available options.

Three editing modes allow PSE11 to do the work for you, or you can take full creative control. A new and notable feature is the Refine Edge tool, which allows you to add or move people around in your photos without it looking so obvious that they've been "Photoshopped" in. And enhanced actions make it easy to process photos in bulk.

"Whereas previous updates have coasted their way to a Best Buy award, this one feels like a significant step forward, particularly for people who need a photo manager alongside sophisticated layer-based editing," says Ben Pitt of Expert Reviews. Full Adobe Photoshop is still the king for professionals, but it comes with a hefty price tag compared to Photoshop Elements 11, which is $100 and $150 when bundled with Premiere Elements 11, which has video-editing capabilities. GIMP, covered in the free photo-editing software section of this report, is another alternative.

Adobe Lightroom 5 is the best photo organizer and editor

A step-up from Photoshop Elements is Lightroom 5, which offers features to help organize your photo collections in addition to editing tools. The introduction of Lightroom 5 puts its editing capabilities nearly on a par with full Photoshop. Photographers on the go will love Lightroom 5's Smart Preview feature, allowing for editing of smaller files on laptops or devices then applying the edits to the original large format files stored on a bigger drive with more disk space. New content aware and healing brush tools will make toggling from Photoshop to Lightroom almost completely unnecessary, except for very advanced edits. Lightroom 5 is simply the best tool out there for converting RAW (unprocessed) files and processing large batches of images.

As veteran users know, Lightroom combines browsing and editing, allowing you to edit your files without altering the original. For simple workflow purposes, Lightroom is probably enough for most photographers, but those doing serious post-processing (removing power lines from a complicated landscape scene) might still need Adobe Photoshop CS6's high-powered content awareness and retouching tools. N-Photo magazine editors write, "The integration of image organizing and editing tools, its non-destructive editing and its ever-improving image enhancement tools make [Lightroom 5] a real alternative to traditional image editors like Photoshop."

Experts had high regard for Lightroom 4, and love Lightroom 5, but most agree that Lightroom 4 users can easily skip the upgrade this time around, especially since there is still no facial recognition capability, HDR editing or panorama stitching, and because the new version doesn't support Windows Vista and Mac OS X 10.6.8 and earlier. But for new users on newer operating systems, Lightroom 5 is definitely the way to go. Lori Grunin for CNET says, "A nice, but not necessarily must-have update, Adobe Lightroom 5 remains a strong program for working with raw images."

Lightroom 5 is $150 for single copy, $80 for an upgrade, and available to members of Adobe Creative Cloud, the company's new subscription service ($50 per month), which also includes Photoshop, Illustrator and several other Adobe tools. For those resistant to moving to a subscription service, downloading Lightroom 5 on its own is a viable alternative. Pricing is in the mid-range between competitors like Apple Aperture ($80 ) , Corel AfterShot Pro and DxO Optics Pro Elite Edition (Est. $200) . CNET says, "That's about right, as its capabilities fall in the middle of the pack as well." For more information about Adobe's Creative Cloud, click on the Buyer's Guide tab.

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