Photoshop Elements 11 was just announced and I wanted to write a quick post about it, because I just got finished updating the Photoshop Elements Book for Digital Photographers (I co-write it with Scott Kelby each year). From working on this book, and the new version of Elements each year (for the past 6 years), I’ll make the call now… Photoshop Elements 11 is the biggest upgrade for photographers that I’ve seen yet.

Photoshop or Photoshop Elements?
The biggest question I hear is should I buy the full version of Photoshop or get Photoshop Elements instead. Years ago, it was pretty clear for me to tell most people that they need Photoshop. But over the last few years, I’ve found myself telling more and more people to buy Elements instead.

What Does Photoshop Offer That Elements Doesn’t?
Okay, so what does Photoshop have that Elements doesn’t. The list is actually huge so I’m not going to list it all. I’m sure there’s hundreds, if not thousands, of features. However, as a photographer, just starting out and wanting to make your photos look better, I think the list of which features you’ll actually need becomes MUCH smaller.

  • Better Camera Raw: Photoshop CS6 has A LOT more features in Camera Raw. Now, I probably don’t use 60% of those extra features, but I do use some of them often (like Vignetting and Lens Corrections). That said, I do my raw editing in Lightroom. So if you’re a Lightroom user, you don’t care much about camera raw in Elements, because you’ve got access to all the same Photoshop CS6 stuff in the Develop module in Lightroom.
  • Smart Objects: I gotta admit… I do use smart objects in CS5/CS6 a decent amount. Not every day, but I do use them often enough that I miss them when I’m in Elements.
  • Channels: Photoshop has a Channels panel and Elements doesn’t. We used to use channels for selections and various color correction or sharpening techniques. But honestly, I haven’t opened the channels palette in Photoshop in over a year (other than to do tutorial demos). As a photographer, I think channels are pretty much dead. I know lots of people still use them, but trust me… there’s better ways to do most things you’re doing in that palette.
  • HDR: The full version of Photoshop has built in HDR merging. It’s actually well done too. For me, I don’t do a lot of HDR anymore so it’s not a huge selling point for me. Elements does have an “Exposure Merge” feature which is HDR-ish. But honestly (sorry Elements), it is nothing close to HDR and it doesn’t even merge exposures that well so I’d recommend to never use this feature.
  • Certain Content Aware tools: Photoshop CS6 came out with some improvements in Content Aware technology. It’s got a content-ware move and extend tool now. Since CS6 came out, I have yet to use them in my real world photography editing. That’s not to say I won’t. I’m sure I’m going to come across a photo they work perfectly for, but right now they’re not vital tools in my photography editing toolbox.
  • Adaptive Wide Angle Lens Correction: I shoot a lot of wide angle photos so this feature (which is new in CS6) is very useful for me. Right now, Elements has the same Lens Correction adjustments that Photoshop had before CS6.
  • Paths and the Pen Tool: Not a photographer thing. So unless you draw, no need to worry about this one.

What’s the Same Between Elements and Photoshop?
Okay, so that’s the things that are different (well at least the ones I think are really important to a photographer). So what’s the same?

  • Sharpening – Elements has pretty much the same sharpening tools that Photoshop does.
  • Camera Raw Basic Panel – the Basic panel in Elements 11 is the same as the Basic Panel in CS6 and Lightroom 4. Remember, 80-90% of the work I do to my photos is done in the Basic panel. It’s got the same new sliders (which I think are considerably improved over earlier versions).
  • Selections – This is my favorite enhancement in Elements 11 (probably because I wrote a book on the topic in CS5). Before Elements 11, selections in Elements were horrible. There was no way to make complex selections like we can with the Refine Edge dialog in Photoshop CS5 or CS6. However, now in Elements 11, there’s a killer Refine Edge dialog, and selections are now just as powerful as they are in Photoshop CS5 or CS6.
  • Retouching Tools – Yep, Elements has the same Clone, Healing and Spot Healing Brush tools as Photoshop does – even the same Content Aware option too.
  • Layers – Layers and layer masks are pretty much the same in both.
  • Image adjustments – Elements has most of the same image adjustments that Photoshop does. At least most of the ones I use a lot like Levels, Photo Filter, Hue/Saturation. And you can even add them as Adjustment Layers with masks.
  • Creating Panoramas – Elements let’s you create panos just as easy as Photoshop.

Elements for Beginners
Before Elements 11, I would have said I didn’t care for the “Quick” and “Guided” stuff that Elements had. I barely covered it in my book each year because I just didn’t think it was a good place for a beginner to be. I always felt that by the time you figured out the Quick or Guided Edit modes, you could have learned to do everything in the main editor window instead. But I have to say that they changed the whole look, feel and layout of Elements in version 11. And I think the “Quick” and “Guided” modes are much more intuitive. If you’re a beginner, I think the Quick mode is a great place to start. But I also think you’ll progress to the Expert mode much faster than you think.

My Advice to Some One Looking to Buy Elements or CS6?
I get the question many times during the day at my Lightroom seminars. “Should I get CS6 or Elements”? My first question back to them is what do they want to do with their photos. For starters, they already have Lightroom which is what I think all photographers should start with. At that point, they usually say they want to do some quick retouching, maybe some more focussed dodging and burning with the Brush tool and a few adjustments. Honestly, coming from a guy who makes a good part of his living teaching Photoshop CS6, I have a hard time telling them to buy the full version of Photoshop. If all you want is layers, cloning, healing, brushes, masks, sharpening filters, and maybe panorama stitching then Elements will work just fine for ya’.

But the one thing I always recommend… there’s a free 30-day trial. Download it and give it a spin for 30 days and see what you think.