Beginning photographers often ask what the difference is between Photoshop CS5 and Photoshop Elements. I have never taught a beginner photography class without “the Photoshop question” popping up at least once. So here is my (not so quick) answer to the oft-answered question: What is the difference between Photoshop CS5 and Photoshop Elements 9?
Before we begin, I know some of you hate Photoshop and digital image editing. If that's you, sound off on our debate page on that topic.
First of all, understand that if you don't know much, or anything, about Photoshop, it will most likely take a year or two before you know enough about the program to really “need” the full version of Photoshop. So for most people, I recommend buying Photoshop Elements and learning it for two years before buying the full version, since there will be a new version by that point.
Features found only in Photoshop CS5
Here are a few of the more notable Photoshop features available in CS5 which are not available in Photoshop Elements 9: channel Mixer, recording custom actions, color balance (NOT white balance, this is different), CMYK coloring, web-prep of photoshop files (such as slicing), puppet warp, etc.
How useful are those tools? Honestly, not very. I rarely use those most of those features.
Features available only in Photoshop Elements 9, but not in the full version of Photoshop
It may surprise you that there are some features available in Photoshop Elements 9 that are NOT available in the full Photoshop CS5. Most of the features are little fun things to do with your photos, but some are actually quite handy. For example, multiple canvas files, cute little templates for crafts like calendars or invitations, built-in sharing to facebook and flickr, the really useful Group Shot Photomerge mode, and Style Match. Style match is an interesting feature in which you can find a photo with a certain texture, color, or other characteristics and then Photoshop will determine the style of that picture and apply it to your own photo. Very interesting feature. There is one more feature in Photoshop Elements which is VERY handy, a built-in photo organizer and viewer.
So should I get Photoshop or Photoshop Elements?
You're probably wondering why ANYONE would choose Photoshop CS5 at this point. There are a few reasons to choose CS5 that we haven't yet discussed. First, CS5 usually gets the latest-and-greatest features first. For example, Photoshop's improve noise reduction, HDR abilities, and content-aware fill all came to CS5 first. However, ALL of those features are now in Photoshop Elements 9.
Another reason to choose Photoshop CS5 is that more of the tools and features use the graphics processor and the computer's 64-bit processors, which gives improvements in speed. Also, Photoshop Elements does not include as many tools in Camera Raw.
For me, I use the full version of Photoshop, but if I had to use Elements, I'm not sure how much I would mind. It seems that about 95% of photographers start out using Photoshop Elements and are perfectly happy for several years before they decide they want to step up to the full version of Photoshop CS–and by that time, a new version of Photoshop will have been released.