If you've already invested in a serious digital SLR camera, you might as well toss another 100 bucks toward decent photo-editing software, especially when you can get one as affordable as ArcSoft's PhotoStudio Darkroom. One of the main advantages to DSLRs--besides lens quality--is their ability to shoot in high-information RAW format. Darkroom is well suited for those who want to take advantage of the RAW data but are inexperienced with photo editing at a more professional level.
This versatile program allows for full color and exposure manipulation in a completely nondestructive format; changes are exported to a new photo file, keeping the original digital negatives intact. This isn't new--Apple's own iPhoto offers similar functionality--but the ease of use with ArcSoft's software is addictive.
Installation and Interface
Loading Darkroom onto our PC was simple, and the software takes up only 50MB of your hard drive. ArcSoft's software installs on both Macs and PCs and is forgiving to those with older machines; the Mac install works even on non-Intel processors and G4 chips. Darkroom recognizes every major manufacturer's RAW formats, including those from Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm, and Pentax. Besides RAW, the software is also compatible with JPEG, TIFF, and BMP files, although the noncompressed data in RAW is essential to unlock what Darkroom can bring out in a photo.
Darkroom's interface is simple enough; it uses a simple side menu of expandable control panels that offer different editing features, including White Balance, Color Effect, and Lens Correction. You can import photos with a thumbnail browser window that can stay open during the editing, and the user manual is easy to understand and very direct.
Once a photo is opened, it's time to explore the available tools. To amateur photographers, the galaxy of end results that can branch from Darkroom's deceptively simple set of tools can be intimidating. Fortunately, the Undo command is prominently placed, so novices can try features out and undo their effects easily. Likewise, an ever-ready Restore box in Darkroom is comforting and encourages experimentation with exposure, saturation, and color effects. You can save your work as a new photo or as a quick macro that you can apply again to any other photo in the future.
In the Darkroom
Effects were pleasantly astonishing. While we're not professional touch-up artists, we were able to correct overexposed and washed-out shots easily using Exposure, White Balance, Saturation, and Hues. Each tool has slider controls, and a very useful side-by-side comparison toggle allows for instant comparison with the original image, which made changes instantly apparent. Besides color and exposure correction and red-eye reduction (now offered in nearly every photo-editing package), lens-related corrections include adjustments for vignetting, perspective, and barrel/pincushion distortions. Learning how these problems occur in photography could require a course on its own, but playing around and diving right in is less intimidating than an amateur would expect.
Despite Darkroom's ease of use, not all of our edits were as clear and crisp as our final photos of dogwood trees in bloom along Manhattan's West End Avenue. Unfortunately, since new versions of Apple's iPhoto lock up photographs in its library, we were unable to access photos stored there easily; we had to export them manually before we could work with them in Darkroom on our Mac. PCs don't suffer from this problem, however. Also, Darkroom's offerings, while professional, don't seem particularly extensive when compared with such freeware as Photoshop Express and Picnik. For $100, we would have liked to see more a few more Photoshop Elements-style, graphic-manipulation tools in addition to tools for simple corrections.
While the similarly priced Photoshop Elements is geared toward non-RAW photo manipulation and offers a pretty complete package, Darkroom is geared to RAW native work, and its sharper software focus could result in more professional benefits for the price. Elements would probably be a better purchase for most, but Darkroom makes your DSLR photos look better--something we wish all photo-editing software did.