Adobe is taking orders for its annual upgrade to Photoshop Elements and Premiere Elements, the photo and video programs for consumers. Over the years I’ve found it hard to know what to suggest to people for working with photos. Photoshop Elements 7 might be a perfect fit for you but don’t take it casually – if you’re not prepared to enter into a significant long-term relationship, then it will go unused.

photoshop7 Photoshop Elements has an organizer for browsing through photos that works fairly naturally. If you are obsessive and tag the photos (assign keywords or categories to each photo – “Mom,” “Our house,” “vacation,” “Obama”), then it’s easy to display just the photos that match certain tags. It takes some discipline to get in the habit of tagging photos, so many people use the organizer to do nothing more than look through thumbnails.

When it’s time to edit photos or use them in projects, Photoshop Elements is tremendously powerful but frankly, it’s almost as unintuitive as its older sibling, the full version of Adobe Photoshop. There are several different ways in the program to begin photo editing that expose or conceal various editing tools – “Quick Fix” and “Guided” in addition to a full-blown set of complex tools, plus different panes to begin different kinds of projects and ways to share photos. I used Photoshop Elements 6 to put together a photo book this summer; the result was glorious but “learning curve” doesn’t begin to express how long I spent figuring out dozens of unintuitive quirks of the program.

The new version, Photoshop Elements 7, apparently does not change the interface significantly. Instead it adds an additional layer of complexity built around an upgraded set of online services, Photoshop.com. The new program insistently presents advertising about the service until you pony up fifty bucks for a year’s subscription, guaranteeing a flow of income to Acrobat even if you decide not to buy next year’s upgrade. There is a free connection to a limited set of online services but you can bet that there will be an unending series of advertisements and popups and blinking headlines about the joy of upgrading to the paid service.

The online service includes online storage for photos, syncing with the collection on your computer, making photos accessible from anywhere, which is nice. Photoshop.com also backs up your photos and gives you many options to share them, including connections to Facebook, Flickr, Photobucket, and Picasa. It does not reassure me that most of the online features are built around the “albums” that can be created in Photoshop Elements, since I’ve never used “albums” in the last five years of running the program consistently. Using an online service is similar to installing a new piece of software – it does nothing for you unless you understand it, learn its quirks, and use it regularly. The link to Photoshop.com might become a critical part of your relationship with your photos, but if you’re not dedicated and diligent, it will be just one more bit of clutter in your technology landscape. If you’re already feeling overloaded by the annoyances of computing in 2008, this won’t help.

Photoshop Elements 6 has bugs (I’ve had to recover the “catalog” – the database that drives the program – from backups on numerous occasions after the program has crashed and the database has been corrupted), and its performance is glacially slow. So I’m disheartened by the online reports from people testing the beta releases of the new programs that performance is slow and the betas are unstable. Maybe they’ll get better.

If you’re just getting started with photo organizers and editors, install Microsoft’s free program Windows Live Photo Gallery. The organizer for thumbnails is quite nice, there are simple tools for cropping and removing red eye and adjusting lighting, and you can easily upload a photo gallery for sharing online.

On the other hand, if you’re a veteran or good with technology (i.e., young), Photoshop Elements 7 is still the leader and this is a lot of power for a hundred bucks. Put it to good use!