Light touch in the virtual darkroom

Joseph Gallivan discovers that even a novice can improve his image with Adobe Photoshop 4.0
Nothing gets design freaks and font fetishists more excited than a new version of Adobe Photoshop, the "virtual darkroom", and when 4.0 came out in November, it proved to be no disappointment.

For desktop publishers (now including thousands of Web page owners), Photoshop is the killer application for retouching anything flat enough to scan. And with 200Mhz chips and a few score RAM cheap enough for Joe Public, the program has spread beyond the art rooms to the home. Whether you want to create Jesus's-face-in-the-smoke images for supermarket tabloids, or just replace your ex with a laurel bush in family snaps, this program is for you.

Photoshop 4.0 comes with many new features. Being a design tool, the interface has been tweaked again, making it look more 3-D on a Mac. Screen real estate is a burning issue that Adobe has not dodged. (Many professionals use two linked monitors, one for tool palette, one purely for artwork.) The tool palette that runs in a narrow strip down the side has been rationalised: the little-used "crop" tool is hidden, and a polygon lasso for free-hand selections, and a type mask (for making those zebra-patterned words), have arrived.

Many of the changes are ergonomic. To avoid tedium and tennis elbow, there are now "Actions", macros that record frequently performed tasks. You can even apply an Action to a batch (a folder of files you do not have to open). Come back from lunch, and all your chrome ducks are in a row.

Photoshop's great strength is the way it enables digital images to be broken down into a infinite number of layers. You can select part of an object and copy it to a new layer, then play with the colours or texture. You can copy an image to a new layer, skew it, colour it grey and place it under the original. Hey presto, a shadow. When your work is done, you can flatten all the layers together to make the file smaller.

If layers are like sheets of animators' acetate, they've just got more functional. In 4.0, you now have Adjustment Layers, which store just the change you wish to make. After much shuffling, if you don't like it you can still delete it. That helps to get around the old problem that, unless you constantly save to the hard drive, you can still only undo one previous command because the work takes place in that virtual space called RAM.

Of which you need plenty, for three reasons. Copying an image takes two to three times the file's size in RAM. Then you have to add another five to 10 megs to run the program itself. On a clunky old 60Mhz Pentium with Win95 and 24MB RAM, I find that 4.0 performs tolerably well, although most pros have at least 64 MB RAM and a Jazz or Zip drive for transporting files.

It may look more like an early Terry Gilliam than a Dali, but the above image shows how easy it is to create a simple montage. The figure of the woman was copied and inverted; the fossil was faded and smudged where it met the cloud swirl; other objects were clipped from stock photographyn

Adobe Photoshop 4.0 (pounds 399), Adobe Systems (