Review: Adobe Photoshop CS6
Pros: Dramatically improved Camera Raw; simple but useful video editing; great new Crop tool; improved performance; improved typographic controls; great wide-angle distortion correction
Cons: Bridge sees no discernible improvement; interface changes may bother some
It's been a year since the last update to Adobe's Creative Suite. CS 5.5 shipped in May of 2011, but that update offered little to Photoshop users. The last major changes in Photoshop came in April of 2010, with the release of Photoshop CS5. Since that time, much has changed. DSLR users have gained more video capability, the ascension of the iPad has brought a divided focus to people's computing tasks, and Adobe's own Photoshop Lightroom has complicated the choices for digital photographers. CS6, then, is a welcome update, and an exciting one. Adobe has added some great new features, and managed to revamp the 22-year-old program's interface in a fairly substantial way.
One Window to Rule Them All
Sometimes it's hard to notice what's new in a software update, even a major one. That's not the case with Photoshop CS6. CS6's interface has been dramatically re-cast in gray, with dark backgrounds and re-designed widgets throughout the program. The result is a feel that's very like Lightroom, and which creates a neutral environment well-suited to color correction.
Of course, you can't please everyone, and some people will find the switch difficult. It is a very different look to the application, but Adobe has provided preferences that let you choose from several different shades of gray, though there's no option to return to a completely non-gray interface.
Bridge CS6 has also undergone the gray treatment, but otherwise its interface remains the same. As with CS5, you can choose to have Photoshop contained within a single window, or keep its palettes floating, like a normal application. Choosing to eschew the single window will eliminate the gray background, if you find that annoying.
Figure 1 - Photoshop CS6 sports a radically different look, with color-friend neutral gray behind all of its windows and menu items.
With CS4, Adobe turned Bridge from a simple file browser into a truly powerful photo workflow tool. With the addition of Collections and Smart Collections, it became possible to use Bridge for organizing offline images, and to perform long term library management. Since then, Adobe seems to have abandoned the program. CS5 added little to the application, and CS6 doesn't see any significant improvement.
Adobe claims a performance boost, but the program is still way too slow at building thumbnails, and scrolling is still unusable while the program is working. Nor have they added needed features such as a histogram display. However, Bridge provides better Photoshop integration than Lightroom does, so it's not like Lightroom is a good Bridge replacement. It's frustrating, but the state of photo workflow is very poor right now.
Camera Raw has not seen the gray interface change that the rest of the package has received, but it does have major changes. With version 7 (which is what bundles with CS6) Adobe has brought the same controls to Camera Raw that were already present in Lightroom 4. This is the third major revision to the Camera Raw engine, and it's the best yet.
Adobe has completely re-written the processing engine, and the result is a Camera Raw that yields better overall results. On some images, the difference over previous versions can be dramatic. I opened up some images that, with the old Camera Raw, had clipped highlights, and found that they yielded no overexposure in version 7.
The Camera Raw sliders themselves are very different now. Whereas, in previous versions, many sliders used different scales - some with 0 in the middle, and some with it on the left edge - now all sliders are normalized. On every control, zero is in the middle and dragging up or down either adds more or less effect.
Figure 2 - The new Camera Raw sees dramatic changes over previous versions, both in its controls, and in the quality of its output.
But the most important change is the function of the sliders themselves. Gone are the Fill Light, Brightness and Recovery slider, and in their place are new Shadows and Whites sliders. You can still perform highlight recovery, using the Highlights slider, but the new combination of Shadows, Blacks, Whites, and Highlights give you tools for attacking four different parts of the overall tonal range.
It may take you a few edits to understand what tones these sliders affect - just watch the histogram to learn - and how they interact, but once you do, you should find that you have dramatically more control than you did in previous versions. I've been amazed at both the fine degree of control that I have, and at how much dynamic range I can pull out of an image with the new engine.
Note that Clarity is a little more aggressive than it used to be, in terms of contrast. A little clarity adjustment adds a noticeable contrast bump.
The Selection Brush has also seen very important changes. Far more parameters are now paintable with the selection brush, including white balance! This provides a simple way to correct white balance in mixed lighting situations. For example, if you shoot flash at night, you can now brush different white balances into the foreground and background.
If you're a raw shooter, the new Camera Raw, alone is worth the price of the upgrade.
It's taken a long time, but Photoshop finally has a decent Crop tool. Cropping may not be the most technically exciting feature, but it's one of the most powerful image editing tools at your disposal, and Photoshop's cropping implementation has always been a little weak.
With CS6, the Crop tool sees a number of nice improvements. You can still use the Crop tool the way you used to, by clicking and dragging to define a Crop rectangle, but now you also have the option of dragging crop boundaries in from the edge of the image. The cropped portion is zoomed and panned so that it always remains in the center of the image. This is just like the Crop tool in Lightroom, and it's a very nice way to work.
The Straighten feature remains in the Crop Control Bar, along with options for constraining the crop, and for whether to save or delete cropped pixels. You can also now save crop parameters as presets, for easy application to other images. Finally, a new crop with perspective correction feature lets you automatically correct perspective while cropping an image.
All-in-all, the new Crop feature is very good, and catches Photoshop up to the cropping features in applications like Lightroom and Apple's Aperture.
Figure 3 - Photoshop finally has a modern Crop tool, which provides full featured cropping, straightening, and even perspective correction.
Photoshop CS5 introduced Adobe's amazing Content-aware Fill technology, which can often automatically fill a selected area with appropriate content. I say "often" because it's not always perfect. Nevertheless, it's can be a great time saver. With CS6, Adobe has added this technology to a special move tool. Select an area, then click and drag on it to move it with the Content-Aware Move tool, and Photoshop will automatically fill the area left behind. This is nothing you couldn't do with CS5, Adobe has just added a step-saving level of convenience.
You also have the option of using Content-Aware technology with the Patch tool, to get more precise patching options, and both Patch and Content-Aware Move have several options for refining their quality.
If you shoot with a wide-angle lens, especially fish-eye, you'll appreciate CS6's new Adaptive Wide Angle Correction feature, which does an amazing job of correcting optical distortion in an image. You can define areas in an image that are supposed to be straight, or even define simple polygons, and Photoshop will warp and bend the image until those lines are rendered straight.
What's especially great about this technology, is that in correcting distortion, it doesn't introduce new distortions. Your image will need a heavy crop when it's done, (and therefore may not end up being as wide as you'd hoped) and this is not a feature you'll use every day. But like the content-aware features, when you need it, these technologies are real life-savers.
Does this filter make me look soft?
Blur may not seem like that big a deal - in fact, you'll spend a lot of your photographic life trying to avoid blur. Nevertheless, blur has it's uses in focusing attention to a particular part of your image. Photoshop has had blur filters since version 1, but these didn't create the same types of blurs that a lens creates. Lens blurs have very specific characteristics - such as the way they handle highlights - and Photoshop's new Blur Gallery does a good job of simulating lens blurring effects.
Iris Blur lets you simulate shallow depth of field effects. By manipulating an oval shape with special control handles, you can try to place blur precisely where you want it in your image. The quality of the blur is very good, thanks to the bokeh and lighting controls that the feature provides.
Figure 4 - Iris Blur provides a useful, but not perfect interface for controlling blurring in your image.
The downside to Iris blur is that it's difficult to control. True depth of field blur doesn't necessarily land in your image the way the control applies it. So, to get realistic blur, you may have to apply the effect to different layers, and then mask them together to create a realistic shallow depth of field effect.
Tilt-shift lets you mimic the extreme depth-of-field effects of a tilt-shift lens. This allows you to create the now-trite "toy camera" effects that make large scene look like miniatures.
Field blur simply blurs the current selection, allowing you to select an area and apply a blur to it.
It will take work to get your blurs constrained the way you want, so in that regard the Blur Gallery filters aren't too much different than the blurs that Photoshop already provided. The difference is that the quality of the highlights, the overall luminance, and other properties of the blur will appear much more like the blurs you get from a lens.
The Color Range command now has a new Skin Tones option, as well as face detection, both aimed at making it easier to automatically select skin tones. In theory, this should make it easier to select people when you want to blur out backgrounds. But, as has always been the case with Color Range, your selections will need a lot of clean-up. The new option just specifies a particular color range, and while it usually does a good job of grabbing faces, it will also grab any other flesh-colored objects in your scene.
Video is now a common part of the working photographers life, as more shooters find themselves tasked with generating video content as well as still images. Photoshop's Timeline palette has been dramatically re-vamped to provide a full-featured video editing environment within Photoshop.
You can easily add clips (in multiple video formats) to the Timeline, trim them, re-arrange them and add transitions. But the coolest thing about video editing in Photoshop is that you already know how to use all the effects tools. Most of the things you can do to a still image can be done to a video track, so it's easy to use normal Photoshop tools to alter and adjust your images. You can apply Adjustment Layers, many filters, and even destructive adjustments such as Shadow/Highlights.
Figure 5 - Video editing is simple and intuitive, and you can easily use effects and adjustments that you're used to applying to still images.
You can add Text layers for creating titles, as well as use vector tools to create overlay artwork. There's no rendering required for playback, though you won't necessarily get full frame rate. On my Mac Pro, playback off of an SSD, with a single Levels Adjustment Layer, was around 9 frames per second. While not perfectly smooth, this was plenty quick to assess the effect.
When your clip is done, a Render command will spit out finished, compressed video. Adobe has provided a full set of preset size and compression options, making it easy to output video without having to hassle with compression settings.
Needless to say, Photoshop's video editing tools are no substitute for a full-featured editor. I was dubious about video in Photoshop. After all, it's an image editor, why use it for video? And while cutting a long project would be tedious, for massaging quick clips, and applying simple adjustments, Photoshop's new tools are surprisingly effective.
Performance and Tweaks
Photoshop has seen a lot of under-the-hood improvements. A new graphics engine makes for noticeable performance boosts in many areas. It's now very difficult, for example, to out-paint the Liquify brush. Where it used to lag a little behind your paint strokes, it now feels completely real-time.
Another long-awaited feature is the ability to save in the background. Now, when you choose to save a document, you won't be put into a modal dialog box. Instead, the document will remain open, and begin saving, freeing you to move on to other work. It can take a bit to get used to this - when you close a document and hit Save, the window won't actually close - and it means you can no longer wander away from your computer to goof off while a long document saves, but overall this is a great, time-saving improvement.
Photoshop also now includes options for background saving, to prevent accidental data loss in the event of a crash.
Finally, web designers will appreciate the dramatically improved type engine in Photoshop CS6. Adobe has pulled the engine from InDesign, giving you full typographic control directly in Photoshop. For picky type users, this is a big improvement over having to make type in Illustrator or InDesign, and then import it into Photoshop.
Most of the additions to Photoshop CS6 are not "everyday" tools. When you need it, Content Aware Move, or Wide Angle Lens Correction are real lifesavers, but these aren't the kinds of edits you make every day. That makes the choice to upgrade a little confusing. Unfortunately, one of the things you DO do every day - manage your image editing workflow - sees no help or boost from Bridge CS6.
If you count on video editing for your livelihood, then you probably already have an editing workflow, so Photoshop's video features may or may not be something you need. If you're frustrated with your current editing solution, then Photoshop CS6 might be a good alternative, especially if your editing needs are simple, and need the type of adjustments that Photoshop excels at.
Retouchers who relies a lot on the Liquify tool, will find the boosted performance to be worth the upgrade price, while web designers will find the new type features to be a great convenience.
If you're a raw shooter, the latest Camera Raw is a definite boon. The improved conversion engine and better controls are worth the upgrade for the serious shooter. What's more, if you have a new camera, you may not have any choice to upgrade, as the raw converter for your camera may only be available in the latest Camera Raw.
Overall, this is a solid update, packed with well-engineered technology. Whether it's technology you need will depend on the type of work you perform regularly.
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