Review: Adobe Photoshop CS4

Body: 

Pros: Well-designed new interface; selective editing in Camera Raw; Collections in Bridge; improved dodge, burn and saturation tools; amazing content-aware scaling; interactive brush resizing.

Cons: Bridge still not well-suited for refined comparisons of images; no histogram display in Bridge; Loupe in Bridge still has technical problems; no dedicated straightening tool in Photoshop; Camera Raw selective editing doesn’t let you selectively apply white balance.

Score: 95

This is what a must-have upgrade looks like:

* New features you'll use regularly
* Fixes to old features
* Performance and stability enhancements
* Interface improvements (that don’t interfere with the stuff you already like)

Tick off every one of those points and you get Photoshop CS4.

Whether you’re a photographer, designer, special effects wizard, or any other kind of Photoshopaholic, this upgrade could have a bigger impact on your work life than a major upgrade to your computer’s operating system.

There are lots of things to explore in the standard edition of Photoshop CS4. I'll introduce you to the changes as you might encounter them in a typical photography workflow.

Bridge CS4
Bridge is a media browser bundled with all versions of Photoshop CS4. It lets you view thumbnails of media in a folder, including most popular video and animation formats. Within Bridge, you can view very large previews as well as thumbnails, sort and rate files, add keywords and metadata, and even copy and move files from place to place.

Not only is Bridge your starting point to find images you want to take into Photoshop (or any other Creative Suite application). It's also a good replacement for your operating system’s file management system when you're organizing images.

Figure 1. Bridge CS4 is the latest update to Adobe’s bundled browser. Like Photoshop itself, Bridge CS4 sports some big interface changes. Click the image to see a larger version.

Read about the welcome changes to Bridge CS4.Camera Raw 5
If you shoot photos as information-loaded raw files, the next step in your Photoshop workflow -- after you’ve used Bridge to find a raw image you want to process -- is to open the image in Camera Raw. Like its predecessors, the latest version of Camera Raw is a plug-in that launches automatically when you open a raw image. For years, raw shooters have joked that Photoshop is more of a plug-in to Camera Raw, since they’ve been able to perform so much essential editing in Camera Raw. The new version 5 adds even more image editing functionality to Camera Raw.

Camera Raw retains its single-dialog interface with tabbed panels of controls, and it fits into your workflow just as it always has, although the Camera Raw dialog box has seen quite a few changes. There are new tools in the toolbar and new sliders in the Basic editing tab.

Figure 2. Camera Raw’s interface remains largely unchanged, but for a few tool additions. Click the image to see a larger version.

Read more about Camera Raw's improvements.The App Itself
While Photoshop CS4 has a lot of important new features, you’ll first notice the interface. An Application Frame now encloses all panels and open documents. This single window with a gray background is intended to provide a unified working environment.

Multiple documents are displayed in a tabbed array, so you see one document at a time and switch to others by clicking their tabs. The document window is flush with the panel windows, and you can drag the border between to resize your document and panels simultaneously. Resizing the Application Window preserves the size of the panels while shrinking your document.

Figure 3. Photoshop CS4 defaults to enclosing your whole workspace within an Application Frame, which houses individual documents in tabs. Click on the image to see a larger version of Ben's extraordinary footwear.

The Application Frame includes a new Application Bar, which sits above the Control Bar and has buttons for some commonly used functions: launch Bridge; show Guides, Rulers, and the Grid; and zoom the current window. The Hand, Zoom, and new Rotate View tool are accessible from the Applications Bar, and a pop-up menu has options for tiling the currently open documents. I like the ability to show the same location in each document with matching zoom levels. You can easily switch back to a normal tabbed view at any time.

Adobe moved the Screen Mode controls from the main tool panel to the Applications Bar and changed them fairly dramatically. Full Screen mode now shows the current document on a completely black screen, with no interface of any kind. If you mouse to the left or right edge of the screen, the toolbox or tool panels appear, or you can go into Full Screen mode while preserving the menu bar.

On the right side of the Applications Bar is a pop-up menu for selecting any of Photoshop’s Workspaces. This is the same as using the Workspace controls under the Window menu.

At first, you may find the new interface cumbersome. For example, if you're used to floating windows, the tabbed interface can be a hindrance when you need to quickly copy and paste between documents. Also, the Application Bar takes up extra screen real estate.

If you just can't adapt, you can deactivate the Application Frame and Applications Bar to restore the interface to its more traditional arrangement. You’ll lose access to the full screen pop-up menu, but F still cycles through the different full screen modes.

However, it’s worth giving the new interface a try because it's such a clean environment for working. Photoshop is a panel-heavy program, a problem that Adobe has tackled in many ways over the years: customizable workspaces, the ability to hide unwanted features, dockable panels, and now the Application Frame. You might decide you want to use combinations of each of these.

Brush, Zoom, Zip, Pow!
Adobe has tweaked Photoshop’s Brush and Zoom tools to great effect. While you can still change brush size with the [ and ] keys, you can now interactively change brush size by holding down Control and the right mouse button under Windows (Control and Command on a Mac). With these modifiers held down, you simply drag the mouse to re-size the cursor. Photoshop shows the cursor in red, including blurred edges to represent feathering. By holding down the Alt or Option key in addition to the other modifiers, you can change the hardness of the edge by dragging.

Once you learn the modifiers, you’ll quickly adapt to resizing your brush while painting. It's a much easier method than using the keyboard.

With CS4, Adobe finally decided to leverage the power of the graphics processing units in almost all modern computers. In previous versions, when you clicked with the Zoom tool, Photoshop re-drew the image at the next pre-set magnification level. While the Zoom tool still works this way, you can also simply hold down the mouse button to see a smooth zoom in, with an accompanying pan to center the image around the Zoom tool.

In addition to looking really cool, this behavior makes precise zoom amounts much easier. At around 500% magnification, Photoshop begins superimposing a pixel grid over your image. This can facilitate individual pixel edits, but if you don't like it, you can deactivate the grid.

The improved zooming is also more accurate. You’ll no longer see jagged edges on high-contrast lines when zoomed to odd percentages.

If you zoom into a particular magnification, then hold down the H key and click with the Zoom tool, Photoshop zooms out to fit to window, and a small rectangle appears next to your cursor. This indicates the crop of your last zoom. Position the rectangle somewhere else on your image, click the mouse, and Photoshop automatically zooms that area in to the same magnification. While it's an interesting addition, I don't use it much in real-world work. However, different users work in different ways, so some of you might find it more compelling.

If you release the mouse button while quickly panning over a document, the image zips across the canvas, then slowly coasts to a stop. It's a little more effective with a stylus and tablet than with a mouse, though not necessarily any easier than using scroll bars.

If you use a tablet, you’ll love the new Rotate View menu, which lets you rotate the view of your image within the document window. It's not a rotation of the image on the canvas, but simply a virtual equivalent of rotating your computer monitor. I’s like rotating your drawing surface so you can more easily draw along a particular axis, rather than drawing at 90° angles relative to the sides of the tablet. Double-clicking on the Rotate View tool returns the image to its normal orientation.

Corel Painter has had this feature for years, and I'm happy to see it in Photoshop. Rotate View is the only feature besides Zooming that's GPU-accelerated. It’s great to see Adobe taking advantage of this extra processing power; it bodes well for future innovation and acceleration. Your graphics card must be OpenGL-compatible, but most GPUs are these days.

More Tool Changes
The Clone Stamp and Healing Brush tools have new behaviors. Where previous versions showed the size of your cursor, CS4 shows the image data that will be cloned into the area where you’re painting. It's an on-the-fly preview of your cloning efforts before you ever lay down a stroke.

Adobe also improved the Dodge, Burn, and Sponge tools in ways that are difficult to describe but easy to feel. Perhaps the best way to describe the changes is that the new tools are not as blunt as before. As you dodge and burn, Photoshop does a better job of maintaining the original color, and your strokes don’t become over- or underexposed too quickly.

Because the Dodge and Burn tools are destructive, many people prefer to use a non-destructive approach built around Adjustment layers. However, the improved Dodge and Burn deserve a second look. (You can always use them on a duplicate of your image layer.)

In Photoshop CS3, Adobe introduced a new Black and White Adjustment layer that let you click and drag within an image to tone specific colors lighter or darker. Happily, Adobe has added this same functionality to CS4's Hue/Saturation and Curves Adjustment layers.

Easier Adjustments
Photoshop’s Layer Masking interface is greatly improved in CS4. Previously, when you added an Adjustment layer -- a non-destructive layer that lets you apply a specific image-editing adjustment to all underlying layers -- you had to configure the adjustment's parameters in a modal dialog box. To change those parameters later, you had to double-click on the Adjustment layer and re-open that modal dialog box.

Those bad days are gone, thanks to the new Adjustments panel. Just click on the layer in the Layers panel, and its controls appear in the Adjustments panel.

Figure 4. The new Adjustments panel is a non-modal interface for all of your Adjustment layer chores.

There's a large assortment of presets for each adjustment type. When no Adjustment layers are selected in the Layers panel, the Adjustments panel shows a selection of Adjustment layer types. Click on a type of Adjustment layer and its presets appear. Double-click on that preset and Photoshop adds a new Adjustment layer to your layer stack, pre-configured according to the preset.

Buttons at the bottom of the Adjustments panel are shortcuts to hiding and showing layers, and to grouping Adjustments layers with underlying layers to constrain their effects.

Adobe has added the Vibrance adjustment from Camera Raw to Photoshop itself, so you can now do a Vibrance edit as an Adjustment layer or as a normal destructive edit.

Keyboard Shortcuts
The big problem with major interface changes is, of course, change. Once you’ve learned a specific method for doing things, alterations to panels or tools can throw a wrench into a smooth workflow. So do yourself a favor: If you’re in the middle of a job, or about to take on a high-pressure assignment, don’t switch. Instead, wait until you have a few hours to get familiar with CS4. It won’t take long, and many of the changes are worth exploring, rather than just deactivating.

However, there are some keyboard shortcut changes that may annoy you even after the initial adjustment period. Because Adjustment layers are no longer implemented in self-contained dialog boxes, the keyboard shortcuts you once used for those controls may not work anymore. For example, changing channels within the Levels adjustment using Control/Command-1, 2, or 3 no longer works because some of those shortcuts have other functions within the application.

There are some ways around the broken old shortcuts, which you can read about in a very handy post from John Nack.

On the positive side, Photoshop now supports the standard Mac and Windows keyboard shortcuts for switching between documents. And while the zooming keyboard shortcuts remain the same (whew!), Adobe has added Control/Command-1, which sets the zoom level to 100% and makes Photoshop zooming behavior consistent with the rest of the CS4 suite.

There’s also an important modification to Photoshop’s toolbox shortcuts. In previous versions, you could select tools through keypresses -- B to select the Brush, G for the Gradient tool, and so on. CS4’s tool shortcuts are spring-loaded. For example, if you’re painting with the Brush and need a quick dodge, you can hold O to activate the Dodge tool. After painting your dodge strokes, let go of the O key and you’ll be back to your Brush. And since you still have the spacebar for panning, and several commands for zooming, it’s as if you have four or five tools in your hand at once.

One other keyboard change really made me happy: You can delete a layer by selecting it in the Layers panel and hitting the Delete key. You may very well find changes you’ve been itching for sprinkled through the program.

On page 2, Ben demonstrates CS4's jaw-dropping new tool with before-and-after images.

Liked This? Read These!

New panel makes saving Photoshop layers as separate files much faster and easier than before. Read More
This story is taken from Real World Adobe Photoshop CS. Very few of us shoot the perfect photograph right off the bat. Even traditional photographers employ a variety of techniques in the... Read More
In a new video posted this week on the official Photoshop YouTube channel, Adobe gives users another taste of what's to come in version CS6 of the image-editing application. This is the fourth video... Read More
I have been using the Hue and Saturation Adjustment tools that Photoshop provides for a long time. Usually I am just making overall image adjustments, but from time-to-time there is a specific area... Read More