Software Review: Elements XXL 2

by Stan Sholik

May 29, 2014


Using the 16-bit workaround in Elements XXL 2, I was able to apply adjustments to the original RAW file and output a flattened 16-bit image that retained all of the smooth gradations in the sky for an inkjet print. All photos © Stan Sholik.

Adobe Photoshop Elements remains the most popular imaging program among enthusiast photographers and has a growing number of professional photographers checking it out as an alternative to Adobe Photoshop CC. However, for many professionals, without layer support for 16-bit images, smart objects, a pen tool and paths panel, the full complement of adjustment layers, smart filter support and more, Photoshop Elements isn’t powerful enough to meet their needs.

With the release of Elements XXL 2, it may be time for pro photographers to look even more closely at Photoshop Elements. Elements XXL 2, from Harald Heim’s The Plugin Site, adds 230 features to Photoshop Elements, over 100 of which are new to this latest release of Elements XXL.

The available features are dependent on the version of Photoshop Elements you have installed. For our purposes, I’ll assume you’re using the current version, Photoshop Elements 12, which makes available the full complement of Elements XXL 2 features.

Full Integration
Unlike many plug-ins that hide the interface when active, Elements XXL 2 integrates completely into the Photoshop Elements user interface. For users unfamiliar with Photoshop, this may not seem important, but for Photoshop users it presents a workspace that looks very familiar. Integration is so complete that if the additions were not highlighted in blue, you would have difficulty knowing they are there. Once you become familiar with the additions, you can disable the highlighting.

Photographers who have tested Photoshop Elements and decided to stick with Photoshop generally do so because it lacks one or more essential tools in their workflow. For me, Photoshop Elements 12 lacks the full complement of adjustment layers, especially Curves, and it lacks support for 16-bit images. These needs are answered with the addition of Elements XXL 2 to Photoshop Elements 12.

Elements XXL 2 not only adds the Curves adjustment, it also adds Exposure, Vibrance, Color Balance, Channel Mixer, Black & White and Selective Color. With the adjustment layers already in Photoshop Elements, the only adjustment missing is Color Lookup. Those few who have figured out how to use it will need to stick with Photoshop.

16-Bit Raw Power
Although you can open a RAW file as a 16-bit image in Photoshop Elements, support for 16-bit images is lacking for many tools. Elements XXL 2 performs a workaround, making a wide range of tools and filters available to adjust 16-bit images. The plug-in does this by converting a 16-bit image to a special 8-bit document with embedded 16-bit data. You can then apply smart filters and add layers, make adjustments and finally render everything to a new flattened 16-bit image.

Access the Elements XXL 2 16-bit workaround from the new Render menu. This converts the 16-bit file to and 8-bit file with embedded 16-bit data. 

When you are finished editing, convert the image back to a flattened 16-bit file from the Render menu.

You can save the 8-bit workaround image and return to it at a later time, make further adjustments and render a new flattened 16-bit image. There are 29 tools available to use on 16-bit images in Elements XXL 2, as well as the ability to switch between 8-bit and 16-bit modes as needed. The workaround is a compromise, as the final rendered image may end up with an actual bit depth of less than 16 bits. The Render menu of Elements XXL 2 includes a Check Bit Depth command that you can use to see the actual bit depth of the image. Because of the lack of full 16-bit support in Photoshop Elements 12, you are forced into this compromise, but at least Elements XXL 2 offers greater freedom when processing 16-bit images.

By using the Elements XXL 2 Color Range feature to create a selection based on colors and tones, and the Quick Mask mode to create a mask from the selection, it is possible to perform sophisticated masking on 16-bit images. The Curves, Channel Mixer, Fade and Apply filters are also available for 16-bit images using the workaround.

Some Compromises
Elements XXL 2 also adds a Pen tool at the bottom of the Tools panel and a Paths panel in the Window menu. As with 16-bit support, these, too, are compromises. The Pen tool actually activates the Photoshop Elements Text on a Path tool. Elements XXL 2 has modified its behavior so that the path is no longer deselected when you switch to another tool. 

Elements XXL 2 adds a Pen tool to the bottom of the Tools panel.

You access the Paths panel and its options for naming and working with the path from the Window menu.

In the Tool Options bar for the Pen tool, you click the Modify button, and dots (anchor points) appear along the path. Drag these dots individually to modify the path. To reposition the path, activate the Draw icon, hold down the Control key and drag the path to a new position.

A major compromise with the Elements XXL 2 Pen tool is the inability to draw curves. You cannot add an anchor point in the direction of the curve like in Photoshop. You must draw segments and later drag the dots into precise position around curves. It is slower to do in Elements XXL than in Photoshop, but it works.

The Path panel in the Window menu works in conjunction with the Pen tool. A path you create is a temporary Work Path until you make it permanent by giving it a name. The Path panel provides options for saving, duplicating, deleting and renaming the path. You can also convert the path to a selection or a shape, fill and stroke the path, and make it a clipping path from the Path panel. All of these options are unavailable in Photoshop Elements 12.

Elements XXL 2 moves the Actions panel above the preview window. The 20 actions from Photoshop Elements 12 are included, and you can load others that you create.

Additions to Photoshop Elements provided by Elements XXL 2 are highlighted in blue. They are present throughout the interface and add functionality deep into the menu structure. 

With Elements XXL 2 installed, you have the ability to covert an image to a re-editable Smart Object from the Layers menu.

After converting the image file to a Smart Object, I masked the boring sky, replaced it with a new one, and made adjustments and sharpened the image using Smart Filters.

There are hundreds of other additions in Photoshop Elements introduced by Elements XXL 2. There is even a separate Elements XXL 2 preferences panel. From it you can decouple Elements XXL 2 from Photoshop Elements without uninstalling it, restoring Photoshop Elements to its original form. You can easily reactivate it from File>Automate.

Final Thoughts
I found only a few downsides to Elements XXL 2. For example, it is coded as an 8-bit program to make it compatible with versions of Photoshop Elements prior to 12, so it slows the opening of Photoshop Elements and exacts a slight performance penalty.

Unlike with most other plug-ins and programs, each Elements XXL 2 license only allows installation on a single computer. But with a cost of $49.95 for a huge gain in functionality, I don’t see this as a big issue. With the street price of Photoshop Elements at $60 as I write this, you end up with a Photoshop competitor for $110. A bigger issue is the unavailability of Elements XXL 2 for Mac users not running Windows emulation software. A Mac version is promised soon, and I’m hoping there will be a 16-bit Windows version available soon.

Elements XXL 2 still lacks a few Photoshop features such as CMYK, video and 3D, but if you never needed these in Photoshop, the Elements XXL 2 plug-in for Photoshop Elements may be an economical alternative to your current imaging software.

See this story in the digital edition.

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