More and more small business owners are discovering they don't have to pay a photographer or graphic artist to create images for their Web sites, brochures and flyers. They can do it themselves using a PC and photo editing software such as VicMan Software's VCW VicMan's Photo Editor 7.0.
Granted these tools won't turn you into a skilled artist or photographer overnight, but they will let you salvage less than perfectly taken pictures, create an amazing array of fancy visual effects, and perform more mundane tasks such as re-sizing, cropping and rotating images.
VicMan is a freeware alternative aimed at consumers and small businesses. Its closest commercial counterparts are programs such as Microsoft's Picture It! and Adobe's Photoshop Elements, which typically sell for between $50 and $100. The basic VicMan program is free. The "pro" version — which you probably don't need — is only $30.
Free is always nice, of course, but VicMan can't really compete with the commercial packages. The user interface, though attractive, is not always well thought out or easy to use. Some of the functions don't work particularly well. And we found at least one glitch.
The program does, however, have a fairly complete set of features, including a couple the commercial packages don't have.
Filters and Special Effects
One of its strengths is that it offers a full suite of special effects "filters." It will also accept Photoshop plug-in filters.
Image filters are mini-programs that automatically change a picture or a selected part of a picture to create a visual effect. For example, if you select the "Fisheye" filter, VicMan distorts your image so that it looks as if it was taken with a fisheye (extreme wide angle) lens. Select the "Mozaik" filter and it breaks the picture into many facets like a ceramic mosaic.
VicMan inlcudes a generous number of built-in effects, many of them fairly standard — twirl, blur, find edge. Some don't work very well, though, and a couple not at all as far as we could tell.
One that can be useful is the "Sharpen" filter, which makes a slightly fuzzy picture look more sharply focused than it actually is. But unlike the "Sharpen" filters in commercial programs, VicMan's allows no adjustment of the amount of sharpening.
That's a common failing of the filters in this program — no adjustment or variation in the effect.
VicMan also comes with a collection of "plug-in" filters. Plug-ins are filters, typically created by third-party developers, that can be added to an imaging program. You can buy or in some cases download free plug-ins from the Web.
This is a nice-to-have feature. It means if there is a particular effect you want to create — making your picture look like an old black and white TV image, for example — you may be able to find just the plug-in you need and add it to the program at minimal or no extra cost.
Special effects filters are fun to play with and good to have for the odd time you need them, but they are not the most important feature of an image editing program.
Color and Balance
The more important thing photo editors help you do is renovate images that were not taken perfectly in the first place. VicMan lets you adjust color balance, saturation, hue, as well as contrast and brightness.
The program doesn't make these essential tools easy to find or use, though. You access them by clicking on a small button buried at the bottom of a left-of-screen control bar. Or you can select them from the "Effects" menu on the main menu bar at the top of the screen — even though they're not really effects.
This is fairly typical of VicMan's interface design: important functions buried, less important ones front and center.
Some of the basic color correction tools are also not as well designed as they might be. The Gamma Correction tool (more typcially called color balance) is an example.
Most programs offer different ways to adjust color balance, including input of numeric values or sliders that let you see the color pairs — red/cyan, green/magenta, blue/yellow — and adjust the balance between them clicking and dragging the slider.
VicMan provides only a linear graph. You click on the diagonal line and drag it top left or bottom right to increase the amount of one the colors in the pair. It works, but it's not easy to make fine adjustments and not as intuitive as color balance tools in other programs.
The contrast, brightness and saturation controls are better designed with Windows-standard sliders and plus-minus buttons.
Can You Picture This?
Another crucial image editing function is selecting one area or object in a picture so you can make changes to it without effecting other parts of the image. VicMan offers a "lasso" tool, which lets you trace around the edge of a selected area.
But it's too simple and imprecise to be very useful. Unlike the selection tools in other programs, you cannot click at multiple points around an area to gradually build up the "marquee," the visible perimeter around a selection.
In VicMan, you can only select by clicking at a start point and dragging continuously round the area and back to the start point. This technique makes it almost impossible to accurately select an area.
Missing altogether is a "magic wand" tool that lets you select areas of similar color by clicking on them. VicMan's "Tolerance by channel" does allow you to select areas by color, but then all you can do is replace the selected color with another color. Not terribly useful.
We found one intermittent glitch. Sometimes after you've made changes to an image file, the "Close [file]" button on the main control bar at the top of the screen will become greyed out. When that happens, you cannot close the file.
Except for the rare business operating on an absolute shoe-string budget that really can't afford $50 (or sometimes as little as $30) for Picture It!, VicMan is a poor bet for anything beyond basic photo editing.