Corel PhotoPaint X4
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Feature: Corel PhotoPaint is the bitmap photo editor half of Corel Draw X4 Suite
Idea:This how-to shows how to use Corel Paint Shop Pro version 11 to prepare those images

Corel has owned an enviable series of bitmap photo editors - Micrografx Picture Publisher, Eclectic Painter, Jasc PaintShop Pro, and most recently Ulead's Photo Impact. But preceding all of these photo editors, Corel purchased and then developed PhotoPaint which helped pioneer many of the features now used by most photo finishing tools.

These features include broad capabilities for color correction, image alteration,filter effects plus masking and layering tools for photo finishing and image compositions. But for reasons unknown, PhotoPaint got the IE treatment - only minor upgrades for several years despite being a part of the Corel Draw Suite. But I am happy to report that things have changed of late as there are a number of new features in PhotoPaint which suggest the old Corel GUI magic.

The PhotoPaint GUI

PhotoPaint deserves credit for pioneering the typical photo editor layout as shown in the screen shot above. The toolbar on the left is a PhotoShop innovation but the flyout icons indicated by the black wedge where extra tools are available is a PhotoPaint idea. Likewise the Status bar on the bottom having a pulldown of optional info plus additional hint help are PhotoPaint's ideas.

But perhaps the two most influential improvements to GUI photo editing made by Photopaint were the interactive property bar along the top of the screenshot and the removable dockers in the right panel. Previously each time a user selected a new tool from the toolbox, they had to go hunt down the panel containing all the properties they might want to set before using the tool - for example in the case of the Fill tool being used in the example - the Fill type, its transparency or blend mode among others. The PhotoPaint innovation was to have the property bar change as soon as the next tool was selected - and thus the user had a regular and convenient place to go to ready the current tool for use.

The interactive property bar along the top of the screen, spread to most other graphics programs and even to development tools like Visual Studio or Borland's JBuilder. The second innovation, dockers started small. PhotoPaint was one of the first to allow for panels to be collapsed to a single title bar saving precious screen real estate. The next PhotoPaint novel idea was to have those panels dockable in a right tabbed panel as seen in the screenshot - just click the tab name to bring that panel to the fore in the docker. Or drag the tab and bring that panel out to standalone for more immediate convenience. Photoshop has finally given in and just recently added a variation on PhotoPaint's dockers idea.

In sum, PhotoPaint has been the origin of same great ideas in GUI design for graphics programs. But they borrow as well - unfortunately the color bar drawn from Corel Draw is one this photofinisher world have left behind.

Image Corrections

I did not realize how often image corrections like cropping, resizing, straightening, flipping, perspective corrections, panorama stitching and lens corrections are needed until I used some of the rash of new online photo editors like Adobe Photoshop Express or Picnik where there are either spectacularly good image correction features or none at all. When nothing is available online but you know a tool is available in a photo editor - you begin to appreciate how valuable a full featured desktop photo editor like PhotoPaint is.

Take for example the new Adjust | Straighten Image dialog as seen in the screenshot:

Before users had to make guesses of the adjustment angle, particularly of scanned images but also landscapes where the horizon line had gone tilted. The process is many steps and tedious. Now look at the dialog above. Just adjust the slider as highlighted in the upper right of the screenshot - and you get the precise straightening you want in short order. You even have the choice to crop or crop and then restore to the original image size.

PhotoPaint has the full gamut of image correction tools. I like the cropping tools modes of operations and pulldown of presets like 8x10" or legal size, etc. For Resampling/Resizing I like the different measures but miss the ability to set the algorithm as in PaintShop Pro for resizing. Likewise the new Image | Stitch command allows for creating panoramas not with all the automatic features of Photoshop; but with the ability to create stitched objects from the original photos which then can be individually corrected with more precise color and feature fits.

As well the transformation and perspective corrections were an early innovative feature in PhotoPaint and the Object Pick tool allows objects to be transformed (and a duplicate can be auto- created so that the original stays in place). PhotoPaint has some camera filter features; but lacks lens distortion corrections like vignetting and speckling. However, perhaps most annoying is that the image correction features are spread all over the PhotoPaint interface - the toolbox and then the Image, Adjust and Filter menu commands.

Color/Exposure Corrections

The emergence of Adobe's Lightroom and Apple's Aperture with their "smart" exposure and color correction features such as Vibrance, Black Point, Recovery, Flash Fill and the like has changed photo editing. Flash Fill had already appeared in in programs like Photoshop and Paintshop Pro but not the full range of smart color/exposure corrections which take into account surrounding pixels HSL-Hue saturation Luminosity values when making an overall correction.

PhotoPaint still does not have many of these new color features; but it has added a new Lab Adjust | Image Adjustment Lab dialog as seen in the screenshot below:

This tools brings many of the exposure correction tools together that allows Photopaint users to approximate some of the Aperture and Lightroom features. For example, the Highlight, Midtone and Shadow sliders allow approximations of the Black Point and Fill Flash corrections. However, best of all, the Lab works on masked areas which Aperture and Lightroom are not able to do. But the Lab is missing some very useful corrections such as Gamma and Intensity which are available in PhotoPaint's Adjust menu of commands.

But of even more concern is the fact that PhotoPaint has so many different Color and Exposure control commands. I count 16 among the Adjust menu commands alone. The problem is rampant among top of the line photo editors: Photoshop has 22 and Paintshop Pro has 18, etc. many commands overlap in functionality - Photoshop has 4 ways to convert a color image to B+W. Each command has its own nuances and operational methods - so users are reluctant to give up "their favorite color/exposure adjustment feature". The result is that color and exposure adjustments have some of the highest learning curves in photo editing. Something is going to have to change - perhaps deprecation - where a tool is assigned a survival time and the vendor highlights in their documentation why and how the replacement tools are better.

Masking Tools

The mark of a top of the line photo editor are the masking and layering capabilities (layers = objects in Corel PhotoPaint parlance). PhotoPaint has been one of the pioneers in masking. The capabilities of its Lasso and Magnetic Lasso tools were masking leaders in early photo editors. But in the great frozen feature era of PhotoPaint, it fell behind especially Photoshop with its Mask Mode and now CS3's brilliant new Quick Selection tool and Refine Edges masking commands.

Now PhotoPaint has a complete set of masking tools including Magic Wand for color-based mask, Lasso tool for point and click or drag masks, the Magnetic Lasso tool, and Brush mask.
But PhotoPaint has comeback with a simplified clone of its Knockout masking plugin which appears as the new Image |Cutout Lab . Many times masks are applied to cutout a figure from a busy background. That is where Cutout Lab excels. Users mark the outline of the figure they want to cutout in green marker being careful not to touch the figure. Then with the masking eraser tool they make corrections to the mask - applying a fill helps in this operation. After Preview one can make final corrections with +or - brushes. And then as seen in the green highlight, users have a choice of cutout, cutout with original left intact and a clipping mask. This tool works best with a

PhotoPaint also has a wealth of menuing commands. First, feathering can be applied to almost all of the masking tools in the Property bar. But if you forget there are Mask | Mask Outline | Feather or Mask | Mask Outline | Expand commands (Feather trails off the transparency of the mask to the edge while Expand takes a full mask to the new edge).

In addition one can Paint on a Mask, place a mask on user selected colors, create channel masks for specific colors, Save and Load masks including channel masks - in short the complete regalia of masking features. Masks become particularly useful when they can be a) manipulated using the Mask Transform Tool and b)converted into cut or copied objects as in the Objects | Create | Object: Copy Selection command. Once a mask and its contained bitmap is made into an object - the full range of transform, duplicate and filter commands can be applied to that object - this is the whole artistic world of photo composition. Photo Paint prepares you for this with its robust masking commands.

Objects or Layers

I don't know why Corel insists on calling Objects what everybody else refers to as layers. Graphic objects to me are grouped combinations of bitmaps, vector, and text which we see more often in tools like Corel Draw, Fireworks and Xara. be that as it may, the layering ... uhhh object commands and tools in Photopaint are first rate if not the towering achievements of Photoshop.

One can create regular Layer objects, Text objects, Mask Objects, and Lens Objects (the latter apply non-destructively effects and color/exposure corrections to the objects below them in the the object/layer stack). And one can also control the Blend mode and level of transparency between each layer as well as the fill of each layer. So PhotoPaint's Objects provide a wealth of layering capabilities but certainly not all the Brobadingnang features available in Photoshop. But this photofinisher is still mixed about Smart Objects, Layer Styling, Conditional layers and all that Jazz possible in Photoshop.

The following is an example of what can be easily done in PhotoPaint with its Objects/layers. This consists of three objects - a background that has been converted to Black and White, a cutout mask layer that has been smoothed and posterized, and a top character layer in which I tried several colors and effects but then simply reverted to simple white, anti-aliased text. And I am a happy camper with this simple use of objects. In other compositions I have used close to two dozen layers - but somehow I have never been able to achieve the 100's of layers in masterworks of some colleagues.

Filter and Effects

One of the reasons I stuck with PhotoPaint for such a long time was its Effect - Alchemy.

Alchemy is the Corel bought version of Paint Alchemy, one of the most powerful and intriguing of Adobe plugins - Virtual Painter 5 has some of its features but otherwise there is not any plugin or filter that comes close to Alchemy. As you can see from the screenshot above Alchemy allows the user to control the stroking and fill of an image (or masked area of the image) by Brush, Color, Stroke Size, Stroke Angle, and Transparency. Those in turn can be controlled by the Hue, Brightness, Saturation, Vertical position, Horizontal position, Radial position or randomly from the underlying bitmap. This plugin is intoxicating to use.

But another pioneering feature of PhotoPaint is the conveniences while using the filters. First there are three preview modes - full image preview, close-up in the filter dialog box or before and after in the dialog box. In addition, PhotoPaint remembers your last filter settings so you can repeat easily a filter during an editing session. But if you hit the Reset button, the filter's controls return to default settings. This is a convenience that Adobe Photoshop and Corel's own painter still have not implemented uniformly across their Adjust and Filter/Effect tools.

But PhotoPaint has just as many filters and effects as its siblings PaintShop Pro and Photo Impact with filters for Artistic Strokes, Blurs, Camera, Color Transform, Contour, Creative, Custom, distort, Noise, Sharpen, and Texture. Over 4 dozen effects. Perhaps the most important are the Blur and Sharpen tools. On the Blur side, Photo paint has all the regulars - Motion, Gaussian, Directional, Radial, Smooth, Soften, Zoom. Plus new ones like Low Pass and Jaggy Despeckle. But the one I find I am using most often is the Smart Blur. This filter detects the edges in an image and preserves them while smoothing the content between the image - I have used that to smooth the color layer in the Ked image above.

The next important filter is the sharpen tools. I like the Unsharp filter because I can control the amount of edge thickening and jaggy creation the closest of all the tools I use. however, I am really not yet satisfied with the sharpening tools in any photo editor - and so I have ben prospecting around for a good tool. So far the best I have found to date is Topaz Vivacity.

Summary

In doing this review two things should become obvious. First, PhotoPaint is no longer in Limbo - see all the new features that I was able to highlight and there are many more. This is very welcome. Second, even with its relatively simpler set of features relative to say PaintShop Pro or Photoshop, there is still a big learning curve associated with PhotoPaint. However, just like Corel Draw, PhotoPaint provides Hints. This is a docker that changes just like the property bar whenever a new tool is chosen from the toolbox. The Hints are not hundreds of lines but just the most important points to effectively use the chosen tool. This is very handy, particularly when using some tools only on occasion. Instead of hunting through the Help files - there is the most important help right on screen.

PhotoPaint has also beefed up its helps files and in the welcome screen offers Insights from the Experts in Adobe PDF tutorials. Not quite the same as the 2 dozen or so how-to movies offered by Xara; but nonetheless helpful - and Corel has movies and other assists at Corel Support. In short, as printed manuals all but disappear from graphics programs(talk about fueling the O'Reilly Missing Manual franchise), Corel is taking the lead in providing other effective support. This is critical because as noted in this and other reviews, graphics programs are becoming more powerful but also more complex.

On the other side of the ledger, PhotoPaint no longer challenges for the state of the art in photo editing. It is quite good in image and color corrections but just par in masking and layering. Its filters and effects have some outstanding features and conveniences but also lags behind in other areas. And on performance speed I found PhotoPaint a notch slower than Paint Shop Pro and Adobe Photoshop for some object and masking tasks.

However, if you look at value, the art styling above is testament to the type of results Photo Paint can readily produce - well beyond most online programs and many bitmap photo editors. Also PhotoPaint is tied in closely with Corel Draw - it is a button press in Corel Draw that brings a bitmap into PhotoPaint for full power editing and then return to Corel Draw. As the bitmap half of the $300 Corel Draw X4 Suite, PhotoPaint contributes well to the Suites top price performance rating.




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