There's a lot to like about the latest version of PaintShop Pro (X4) from Corel. Corel has been steadily improving the product since its acquisition from Jasc software, and this version is undoubtedly its best iteration.
As in previous versions, Corel has packed the software full of features. They've spent a lot of time redesigning the interface to make it more user-friendly and added some cool new capabilities.
It's a Love-Hate Relationship
Few people will debate that the interface in the X3 version of the software was a bit tedious to deal with. You could easily get lost in the tools and features menus trying to move through the editing process. Like any other tool or skill however, once you got used to it you could navigate fairly easily. Having achieved a relative level of comfort in the X3 interface, and bringing it up on our screens to refresh our memory before we embarked on the new review, imagine our surprise when we found it had been completely revamped!
Like most human beings I'm not big on change. When I get used to something, I appreciate the level of comfort that familiarity provides. Instinctively, my first reaction was to hate the product. Not in the visceral sense, but in the knee-jerk "there goes that warm fuzzy feeling" reaction when we realize we have to learn something all over again.The good news is, that feeling didn't last. I can't say that I'm in love with the new interface, but it is most assuredly an improvement over the previous version. Corel structured the workspace into three distinct areas navigated by tabs: manage, adjust, and edit. The purpose of this is to attempt to mimic the workflow of the average user.
By default, this is where the program opens (this can be modified if you click on the 'View' option and slide down to 'docking options'where you will get a box that prompts to change all of your preferences). In the Manage area you organize, tag, rate and select your photos. In whatever way you choose to file them, you can click on a folder in the navigation section and immediately open all of the photos within it to the organizer tray at the bottom of the screen. This is the same tray feature that was in the X3 version. On the right side of the screen, is an info box with general and technical information about a selected image. This includes any tags or ratings and EXIF (exchangeable image file format) data.
The size of the thumbnails at the bottom of the page is adequate, but if you need to enlarge them you can resize the tray. You cannot, however, rearrange the Windows.
This tab will allow you to take your selected image and tweak...enhance...beautify (let's face it, salvage) it with the most common tools. One of the nice conveniences Corel offers is the Smart Photo fix. By selecting this and clicking on the "suggest settings" the program will automatically modify the picture and show you, on sliding bars, what has been modified. You can then play with the settings and see the results on the picture.
The adjust section also goes into a lot more depth with advanced features such as the new Fill Light/Clarity. How often have you clicked a quick snapshot only to find later that someone's face or a significant object in the picture is much darker than the surrounding light? The Fill light/Clarity tool allows you to bring out that object without turning the rest of your image into a scene of a polar bear drinking milk in the snow.
The Edit section gives you full access to all of the tools in Adjust plus all the toolbars and effects we're familiar with from the X3 version. To augment the already long list of capabilities in the program, Corel has added some powerful new tools for the more advanced photographer. There are four in particular that catch your attention right away. The first is a new HDR (high dynamic range) tool. This is a wonderful tool to use if you take bracketed exposures. It allows you to make a composite photo using an exposure merge feature. This can lead to some dramatic results to improve the overall image.
The second tool, photo blend, allows you to overcome that age-old problem of "Bob blinked". We have all learned over time that when you're taking a group picture, take several, because we all know, in at least one of them... Bob blinked. Photo blend allows you to pick the best aspects from several pictures and distill it into one composite where everybody smiled with their eyes open...at the same time.
The other features worth mentioning are the new selective focus and vignette capabilities. Selective focus gives you the ability to take portions of the picture and put them slightly out of focus. This is a similar look to that which you get from a change in depth of field. It's a great way to emphasize or isolate an object in a photo.
Another trick for achieving attention or focus on a particular subject is the vignette. The PaintShop Pro X4 version gives you a terrific set of tools for not only doing simple things like darkening the edges of the picture, but also the ability to control where those darkened areas will be as well as the shape and the graduation of the effect.
A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
The PaintShop Pro products are often looked at as the less expensive, simpler tools one gets when the high-priced spread seems like too much to handle and too much to spend. Don't be fooled. This program has a lot of tools and effects which will let any photographer, no matter how much of a beginner, turnout some very impressive images. But, and I add this caveat not as a warning but as further recommendation; Pro X4 has the depth necessary for the serious shutterbug. If you want to get the best results out of the software, make sure you start with images from a good camera and a tripod. Pro X4 can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, but it can turn decent cloth into a fine tapestry.
PaintShop Pro X4 comes in three varieties: Pro X4, Pro X4 Ultimate and Photo & Video Ultimate bundle. The Ultimate version includes a whole lot of extras including Nik® Color Efex Pro™ 3.0 filters, which includes over 250 professional effects and styles, as well as access to royalty free high resolution photos and the ability to create a custom photo book from Blurb®. The Ultimate Bundle includes everything we've mentioned plus Corel's VideoStudio X4. Each successive version comes with about a $20 increase in price. We have found Corel's PaintShop Pro X4 on sale for under $50. This means that you can get an extremely robust photo and video editing suite for under $100.
If the thought of jumping in scares you a bit, Corel has a wonderful 30 day trial available. It's a terrific way to find out just how great looking your pictures can be.