With the advent of good quality, affordable digital cameras, and with colour desktop scanners reaching almost pocket-money prices (£80 and falling), there’s a growing market for consumer-oriented photo editing and image-manipulation tools.
The leader of the pack to date is Adobe’s PhotoDeluxe, benefiting from its genetic relationship with the professional’s choice, Photoshop. But MetaCreations, publisher of the Kai’s Power Tools set of Photoshop plug-ins, is no slouch when it comes to imaging excellence and now offers its own solution in Kai’s Photo Soap version 2.
At first glance, the latest incarnation of Soap is stunning. While the first version scored points for automated correction of many common image problems – scratches, dust marks, red-eye in flash photos, incorrect contrast, and so – it also suffered a number of notable omissions.
Among the most prominent of these were lack of support for Photoshop plug-ins (a bizarre error from the KPT publisher), poor selection tools, and the inability to work on more than one image at a time (precluding the possibility of montaging pictures). With version 2, MetaCreations has fixed all of these problems, and added a wealth of new features that take the application far beyond the realm of a limited consumer photo-fixer.
Built into Soap is a powerful set of image-database functions that make it easy to store sets of images, with associated key words, in virtual photograph albums. A cute addition is the ability to create your choice of album appearances, from strikingly modern to pseudo-antique.
Soap also makes it easy to be more creative in your use of photos: you can print business cards, greeting cards, calendars, invitations and more. There are also a number of features that make it easy to use your images electronically, either in on-screen slideshows or on the Web via a group of export filters that automatically generate HTML, standard Web graphic files, or email.
Of course, the heart of the program must be its abilities in editing your pictures, and Soap 2 is a much more powerful tool than its predecessor. All of the obvious features are here: airbrush, pencil and eraser; colour-correction; contrast adjustment; sharpening and blurring tools; and the ability to crop, rotate, scale and otherwise manipulate to your heart’s content.
In addition, Soap 2 now supports Photoshop plug-ins for the wilder kinds of image editing, and other advanced features include cloning tools, and a well-implemented layering feature that makes it simple to create montages of images and text.
So far, so wonderful. Sadly, while Soap 2 is excellent in conception, the execution leaves a lot to be desired.
The first, and by far the biggest, problem is the interface. MetaCreations, under the guidance of graphics genius and chief technology officer Kai Krause, has been famous (or notorious, according to taste) for its interface design. Soap 2 is no exception.
All visual elements of the interface are non-standard: dialogue boxes, sliders, tool palettes, icon design – everything is different, and often just for the sake of being different. Few of these tools work any better than their standard Mac counterparts, but their unfamiliarity adds an enormous burden to the learning curve. The lack of balloon help is just another irritation: the only way to learn what many of these controls do is to turn to the manual, or select them and try (remembering to choose Undo before you much up your image.
Even worse, Soap 2 dispenses with the standard Mac menu system, so you have to go hunting for common actions like opening and saving files, cutting and pasting, and others. Piling injury upon insult, the program also takes over the entire screen, locking you out of standard Mac tools like the Apple and ‘running applications’ menus.
Finally, there are some technical issues. Even running on a fast PowerPC 604-based system, Soap 2 is very slow with long pauses when switching between toolsets. And on two occasions during the review process, it crashed on quitting.
If you can live with the gratuitously different interface, and you have a G3 Mac, Soap 2 offers a powerful set of tools for handling your digital images. Beyond the graphics editing and effects tools, the features for managing image collections and printing creative documents do away with the need to buy one or two other applications. But if you have any experience with Photoshop, you’re likely to find Soap’s idiosyncratic approach an obstacle rather than an asset.