Adobe Photoshop CS4

On the eve of its 20th anniversary, the world’s most powerful digital imaging program gets a radical new interface that’s easier and faster to use. Adjustment tools that were menu-bound in previous versions are now centralized on an Adjustments panel. With these tools-Levels, Curves, Hue/Saturation, and others-you now actually create or change non-destructive adjustment layers that never affect original pixels. Shown in the Layers panel, they can be stacked, turned on and off, or modified using layer masks. Designers borrowed that idea from the workflow-oriented Lightroom, as they did with CS4’s on-image “click-and-drag” color and tone control and its brush-based local correction of RAW files. There is also a Vibrance adjustment that intensifies hues without distortion. The Dodge and Burn tools are smarter too, altering brightness without affecting color. CS4’s auto-blending even lets you increase apparent depth of field by combining pictures taken with different focus settings, while Content-Based Scaling lets you alter a photo’s aspect ratio while preserving the dimensions of important elements-including human figures! About $700.

Imagenomic Portraiture 2

This speedy retouching plug-in for Photoshop and Aperture puts a mask on your subject’s face-not the Halloween kind, but an automatic selection that isolates skin tones from the rest of your photograph. The standard setting minimizes blemishes and imparts a pleasing glow to your subject’s complexion. You can further fine-tune smoothness relative to detail size or final print dimensions, and the mask itself can be refined using various tools. About $200.

Nik Silver Efex Pro

A brilliant black-and-white plug-in for Photoshop and Apple’s Aperture, Silver Efex Pro was recently made compatible with Adobe Lightroom. It gives you sophisticated yet easy-to-use tools for converting your RGB files into monochrome, plus an intuitive alternative to complex masks and selections called U Point: You simply drag pop-up, on-image sliders to adjust brightness, contrast, and local contrast, both in amount and in the size of the area affected. The program’s “grain engine” convincingly mimics silver halide film by essentially rebuilding image detail with an intelligent algorithm. About $200.

Alien Skin Blow Up 2

This Photoshop plug-in became our resizing tool of choice after we used it to up-res a 12-megapixel D-SLR file for a 17×22-inch fine-art inkjet print. Compared with Photoshop’s standard bicubic sharpening, Blow Up’s results were cleaner and sharper. Credit that to its vector-based processing algorithm, which rendered smooth edges and no “jaggies.” Blow Up 2 can also remove JPEG artifacts from low-quality originals and add natural-looking texture and grain to really big “enlargements.” There are 100-plus print-size presets, with adjustable sharpening actually based on paper type, as well a Batch tool for resizing dozens of images in a single step. About $250.

Apple iPhoto 09

A souped-up version of iPhoto, it has dedicated buttons for uploading pictures to Flickr, Facebook, and Apple MobileMe accounts. Its new Places feature automatically imports data from a GPS-enabled camera or an iPhone so that your library is searchable by place names or an interactive map. Cooler still is Faces, which uses face-detection and face-recognition technology to scan your iPhoto library for pictures of a particular person. You highlight a photo containing the person, click the Name button, and type a name into a pop-up text field. A crop box zeros in on the face, which is saved so that in the future you just click on it to retrieve pictures of that person. About $60 (in iLife 09 suite).