Today’s Question: Is the ability to work in 16-bit per channel mode important enough to justify subscribing to the Adobe Creative Cloud in order to get Photoshop, or is 8-bit per channel (and therefore Photoshop Elements) adequate?
Tim’s Quick Answer: I would not consider 16-bit per channel mode to be reason enough to opt for Photoshop CC over Photoshop Elements, keeping in mind that Photoshop Elements does provide some support for working with 16-bit per channel images.
More Detail: Photoshop Elements actually does support working with 16-bit per channel images, but only on a very limited basis. For example, you can’t use adjustment layers with 16-bit per channel images in Photoshop Elements, while Photoshop CC supports the majority of features for 16-bit per channel images.
Working in 16-bit per channel mode (as opposed to 8-bit per channel mode) is mostly important when you need to apply very strong adjustments to an image, especially for a black and white interpretation of a photo. For images that only require a modest degree of adjustment, the advantages of 16-bit per channel mode are relatively minor.
Because Photoshop Elements provides limited support for 16-bit per channel images, you can most certainly make use of those capabilities for images that require strong adjustments. You can convert a raw capture to 16-bit per channel mode using the version of Adobe Camera Raw that is included with Photoshop Elements. You can then perform key adjustments (such as using Levels to refine overall tonality and color balance) directly on the image, since adjustment layers are not supported for 16-bit per channel images in Photoshop Elements.
Once you’ve applied the most important adjustments directly to the image in 16-bit per channel mode, you can choose Image > Mode > 8 Bits/Channel from the menu to convert the image to 8-bit per channel mode so you can continue using adjustment layers and layer masks to fine-tune the image.
In other words, if you don’t find any of the other features of the “full” version of Photoshop compelling, the expanded support for working with 16-bit per channel images isn’t something I would consider to be critical. Working with 16-bit per channel images in Photoshop Elements requires a workflow that does not use layers, but otherwise you still have considerable flexibility when working with these images. And again, images that were properly exposed and only require minor adjustments will not achieve a significant benefit by working in 16-bit per channel mode in the first place.